Can the UN be Saved?

On September 12th, President Bush asked, “will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?”

In the wake of World War II we created the United Nations primarily to ensure that weapons of mass destruction would never be used. We established this organization after having learned a hard lesson in two successive world wars – that national ambitions must be contained and responded to by a collective will, or men, women, and children everywhere will suffer the consequences.

Although the United Nations is a flawed organization – confined by its charter, subject to the whims of its Member States, and chronically under-funded – it has so far fulfilled its most basic mandate of preventing World War III. Its member-states have preferred mutual survival to mutual self-destruction. Today however, two evils threaten to destroy this thin shield of self-interest.

In Iraq we face a brutal dictator with a proven record of using chemical weapons who has flouted on numerous occasions the collective will of the Security Council. Madman Hussein could ignite the Middle East tinderbox — engulfing the region, perhaps the entire world, in a horrific war.

In the United States we face a President, eager to take on the threat posed by Iraq and willing to unilaterally attack it, even if it destroys the very institution that our parents and grandparents created to contain such ambitions. This should not be allowed to happen.

To be clear, the evils of George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein are not in the same league. Bush threatens to act unilaterally if the United Nations won’t enforce its own resolutions. Hussein invades Kuwait. Bush, in his new National Security Strategy purports to seek a “balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty.” Hussein gasses Kurds.

But what makes the two leaders equally problematic is that they both rely on national interest and national sovereignty to legitimize their use of military might and coercive force to achieve their aims. Both threaten to act outside of international law, thereby decreasing human security while increasing the potential of global warfare. This is where the United States and Iraq should part company. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration’s new preemptive policy of acting against “emerging threats before they are fully formed” undermines the basic principles of the United Nations and collective security.

Although President Bush should be commended for his recent push to pay U.S. arrears to the U.N. and rejoin UNESCO, the majority of his foreign policy decisions have been completely unilateral. Under his leadership, the U.S. has not complied with Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, withdrawn from the ABM treaty, scuttled efforts to create verification protocols for the Biological Weapons Convention and Torture Convention, imposed limits on the Chemical Weapons Convention, walked away from the Kyoto Climate Change treaty, and unsigned the International Criminal Court treaty. His administration’s underlying distrust of treaties and multilateral organizations like the U.N. has soured relations with the European Union and other allies.

However, this downhill course could easily be corrected by a “Nixon goes to China” change of heart. If one ignores the reactionary isolationist paranoia of some core Republican Party activists, there are legitimate reasons to distrust the current international system. Too often, the Security Council proffers toothless resolutions weakened by competing national interests. Too many nations only comply with their treaty obligations when convenient or when forced to. International action is applied unevenly, too often driven by the media rather than by principles.

Unfortunately the U.S. reaction to these problems is to walk away from negotiations, weaken enforcement regimes, or attempt to carve out exemptions. A more constructive approach would be for a leader like President Bush to shed the light of day on systemic problems and resolve to establish an international system that works.

The United State’s push for assertive United Nations inspections in Iraq is useful. But consider the positive impact U.S. efforts would have if President Bush simultaneously supported a robust U.N. role in Kashmir, Sudan, Columbia, Israel/Palestine, and other hot spots. What if he declared that violence is not a legitimate means of settling political disputes and backed it up with resources? Many would call it an unrealistic dream, but imagine a well-funded United Nations, with U.N. police backing up weapons inspectors. What about a universally accepted International Criminal Court and a Security Council with a reformed veto that did not water down most of its resolutions?

These and other reforms could be instituted if the United States made a conscious decision to: 1) Actuate U.S. rhetoric and work to establish genuine democratic governments in every nation. This is a prerequisite for an empowered international governance system to have a legitimate mandate. 2) Advocate a system of enforceable international laws, with appropriate checks and balances, which work for everyone – with no U.S. exemptions. 3) Put our money where our mouth is and invest the hundreds of billions of dollars we are willing to spend on military campaigns on international development.

Is this a dream? There once was a wise old woman who knew the answer to everything. Seeking to fool her, a young man approached her holding a tiny bird cupped in his hands and asked, “Is this bird alive or dead?” The old woman knew that if she said “alive”, the young man would crush the bird and kill it, and if she said “dead” then the bird would be released to fly away. She pondered for a moment and then simply said, “The answer in is your hands.”

President Bush, will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant? The answer is in your hands.

DON KRAUS is executive director of the Campaign for UN Reform–Dedicated to Building a More Effective United Nations System. He can be reached at: dkraus@cunr.org


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