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America, the United Nations, and the world: a triple challenge

About the author
Kofi Annan, born in Ghana, is the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations. His first term began on 1 January 1997, and he was appointed for a second term in 2001, which will run until 31 December 2006.

The United Nations matters: it offers the best hope of a stable world and a broadly equitable global order, based on generally accepted rules.

This assertion has been greatly questioned over the past year. But recent events have reaffirmed, and even strengthened, its validity. A rule-based system is in the interest of all countries – especially today. Globalisation has shrunk the world. The very openness that is such an important feature of today’s most successful societies also makes deadly weapons relatively easy to obtain, and terrorists relatively difficult to restrain. Today, the strong feel almost as vulnerable to the weak as the weak feel vulnerable to the strong.

Also in openDemocracy, David Held’s ambitious mapping of what is wrong with the current world order and how it should be reformed; see “Globalisation: the dangers and the answers” (May 2004)

It is in the interest of every country, therefore, to have international rules – and to observe them in practice. But such a system can only work if, in devising and applying the rules, the legitimate interests of all countries are accommodated, and decisions are reached collectively.

That is the essence of multilateralism: the founding principle of the United Nations. All great American leaders have understood this. That is one of the things that make the United States a unique world power. America feels the need to frame its policies, and exercise its leadership, not just in the light of its own particular interests, but also with an eye to international interests and universal principles.

Among the finest examples of this was the plan for reconstructing Europe after the second world war, which General George Marshall announced at Harvard in 1947. That was one part of a larger-scale and truly statesmanlike effort, in which Americans joined with others to build a new international system – one that largely worked, and survives in its essentials nearly sixty years later.

During these sixty years, the United States and its partners oversaw historic achievements: developing the United Nations; building an open world economy; promoting human rights and decolonisation; and supporting the transformation of Europe into a democratic, cooperative community of states, such that war between them has become unthinkable.

The United States played a vital role in all these processes. It is, inextricably and indispensably, a part of the successful international system based on the primacy of the rule of law that America itself helped foster.

American power was and is an essential ingredient in the international order. But what makes that power effective, as an instrument of progressive change, is the legitimacy it gains from being deployed within a framework of international law and multilateral institutions, and in pursuit of the common interest. This has been demonstrated once again in recent weeks, in the way that the United States found that it needed the unique legitimacy of the United Nations to bring into being a credible interim government in Iraq.

American leaders have generally recognised that other states, big and small, prefer to cooperate on the great issues of peace and security through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, thus giving such cooperation legitimacy.

These leaders have accepted that others with a different view on a specific issue may on occasion be right. They have understood that true leadership is ultimately based on common values and a shared view of the future. Over six decades, whenever this approach has been applied consistently, it has proved a winning formula.

But today this rule-based international system is threatened by a triple crisis – one that challenges both the United Nations as a system and the United States as a global leader.

A triple crisis

This crisis is, first, one of collective security; second, one of global solidarity; and third, one of cultural division and distrust.


openDemocracy writers explore the troubled recent involvement of the United Nations in Iraq:

To people in the global north, the security crisis often looks the most visible and therefore dangerous. The fear of international terrorism and of the spread of weapons of mass destruction – and of their combination – raise severe worry that existing rules governing the use of force might not supply adequate protection to citizens of many states.

This crisis came to a head in 2003 in the argument over Iraq. On one side, it was argued that force should be used only in the most compelling circumstances of self-defence – when you are already being attacked or clearly just about to be - or otherwise by a decision of the Security Council.

On the other side it was argued, in essence, that in the post-9/11 world preventive use of force has become necessary in some cases, because you can’t afford to wait till you are sure that someone has weapons of mass destruction and is going to attack you: by then it may be too late.

Indeed, the combination of global terrorism, possible proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the existence of rogue or dysfunctional states does face us with a new challenge. The United Nations was never meant to be a suicide pact. But what kind of world would it be, and who would want to live in it, if every country was allowed to use force, without collective agreement, simply because it thought there might be a threat?

Multilateralism or preventive war? Among the contestants on openDemocracy over Iraq were Frank Vibert, “The new cosmopolitanism” (March 2003) and Edward Mortimer, “Is the UN obsolete? A reply to Frank Vibert” (April 2003)

I believe the way forward is clear, though far from easy. We cannot abandon our system of rules, but we do need to adapt it to new realities, and find answers to some difficult questions. When is use of force by the international community, acting collectively to deal with these new threats, justified? Who decides? And how should the decision be taken in time for it to be effective?

In November 2003 I appointed a panel of eminent persons to examine these questions, and suggest ways of making our United Nations work better, in an age when humanity needs the organisation more than ever.

I expect their recommendations by the end of 2004, and I hope that they will lead to wise decisions by governments. But panels and governments cannot change the world by themselves. They need not just good ideas but also sustained pressure from internationalists in all countries – people who are both visionary and pragmatic.

The issues go beyond terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. We also need better criteria for identifying, and clearer rules for dealing with, genocide and crimes against humanity. The problem here is that the international community often reacts too late and too weakly.

As under-secretary-general for peacekeeping ten years ago I lived through the traumatic experiences of Bosnia and Rwanda, where UN peacekeeping forces had to witness appalling massacres but could do almost nothing to stop them, because there was no collective will to act.

And as secretary-general I have warned that the Security Council cannot expect to be taken seriously unless it fulfils its responsibility to protect the innocent. National sovereignty was never meant to be a shield behind which massacres are carried out with impunity.

Paul Rogers writes a column every week on openDemocracy tracking the crisis of global security in relation to Iraq, Afghanistan and the “war on terror”

As things stand today, we still face too many cases where governments tolerate, incite, or even themselves perpetrate massacres and other crimes against international humanitarian law. In the Darfur region in western Sudan, for example, thousands of villages have been burnt and more than a million people forced from their homes. In all, about 1.3 million people need immediate assistance.

The international community must insist that the Sudanese authorities immediately put their own house in order. They must neutralise and disarm the brutal Janjaweed militia; allow humanitarian supplies and equipment to reach the population without further delays; ensure that the displaced people can return home in safety; and pursue the political negotiations on Darfur with a renewed sense of urgency. Further delay could cost hundreds of thousands of lives.


The second crisis is one of solidarity.

The different views among the world community about the war in Iraq should never have diverted its attention and resources away from the goals for reducing extreme poverty articulated in 2000 at the UN’s millennium summit.

These Millennium Development Goals, whose target date for completion is 2015, include halving the proportion of people in the world without clean water to drink; making sure all girls, as well as boys, receive at least primary education; slashing infant and maternal mortality; and stopping the spread of HIV/Aids.

Governments and peoples in the poor countries themselves are responsible for achieving parts of this agenda. But richer countries, too, have a vital part to play. They must meet agreed targets on aid, trade and debt relief. American leadership is essential here too; and this is an issue that I’d like to hear Americans ask their presidential candidates about, in this election year.

Unless we make the millennium goals a priority now, we shall soon run out of time to achieve them by 2015 – which means that millions of people will die, prematurely and unnecessarily, because we failed to act in time.

And we know, from bitter experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere, that our world will not be secure while citizens of entire countries are trapped in oppression and misery.


The third crisis can be described as one of division, but more broadly as one of prejudice and intolerance. It is rooted in attitudes of fear or anger which lead to the treatment of those whose faith or culture differs from one’s own as enemies.

We must not allow, for example, “Islam” to be blamed or all Muslims to be suspected, because a small number of Muslims commit acts of violence and terror. Neither must we allow anti-Semitism to disguise itself as a reaction to Israeli government policies – anymore than we should allow questioning of these policies to be silenced by accusations of anti-Semitism. And we must not allow Christians in the Muslim world to be treated as if their religion somehow made them a secret vanguard of western imperialism.

How can Islam and the west find accommodation? openDemocracy writers offer fresh, thoughtful perspectives on a vital theme:

It is in times of fear and anger, even more than in times of peace and tranquillity, that universal human rights, and a spirit of mutual respect, are most needed. This, in short, is a time when we must adhere to our global rulebook: a time when we must respect each other – as individuals, yes; but individuals who each have the right to define their own identity, and belong to the faith or culture of their choice.

These, then, are the three great tests that our system faces, in the first years of the new century. They might be described as:

  • the test of collective security
  • the test of solidarity between rich and poor
  • the test of mutual respect between faiths and cultures.

These are tests – for the United Nations, the United States, and the entire international community of which we are part. We can pass them, but only if we live up to our best ideals and our best traditions.

This text is an extract from the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s commencement address at Harvard University on 10 June 2004, entitled “Three crises, and the need for American leadership”.

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