The United Nations vs the United States

Fred Halliday
13 January 2006

The fluttering flags along First Avenue alone suggest that the United Nations remains the institution of (at least) last resort in difficult times. The gathering may not (yet?) include Kosovo or Kurdistan, the Vatican and the Palestine Liberation Organisation may only have observer status, and Burma remains obdurately outside – but the affiliation of 191 member-states testifies to an enduring attraction.

Behind the façade, however, the UN is a troubled organisation as it nears its sixty-first birthday and (at the end of 2006) the prospect of appointing a new secretary-general to lead the UN through most of its seventh decade. Kofi Annan’s prestige is not in good shape as he is battered from two directions: Washington for the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal and for criticising the invasion of Iraq as not just “outside the charter” but “illegal”, and the United States’s critics for conceding too much to the Americans.

openDemocracy writers debate the past, present and future identity of the United Nations:

Kofi Annan, “America, the United Nations and the world: a triple challenge” (June 2004)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, “In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan’s challenge”
(March 2005)

Shashi Tharoor, “A United Nations for a fairer, safer world” (September 2005)

Dan Plesch, “The United Nations in Bush’s firing-line”
(September 2005)

Ian Williams, “It’s the nations, stupid! ” (September 2005)

Julie Mertus, “The United Nations reform drive: a response to Ian Williams”
(September 2005)

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In particular, Annan is seen as in recent years permitting the ejection of a number of senior UN officials disfavoured by Washington: among them Iqbal Riza (a former Pakistani diplomat with over twenty years of experience working on the middle east), Mary Robinson (former high commissioner for human rights), and José Bustani (the Brazilian diplomat who headed the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ).

Annan is also charged with toeing the US line on the middle east, refusing to visit Iran, and – in an unprecedented move seen by many as a violation of the conditions of the international civil service itself – travelling to Washington to brief the US Congress. “What are we to say if the parliament of Burma, or Uruguay, also now ask to be briefed?”, one exasperated adviser to the secretary-general asked me.

The search for Annan’s successor opens a new area of conflict between the majority in the general assembly (who wish to continue the precedent of regional rotation by appointing an Asian – possibly Surakiart Sathirathai, Thai deputy prime minister) and the Americans (who want someone who will do their bidding – perhaps Alexander Kwasniewski, former Polish president).

Whoever he (or she?) may be, the problems faced by the next secretary-general allow of no simple solutions. Kofi Annan himself remarked that while he had more time than God to sort out the problems of the world, God did not have to deal with the general assembly and the Security Council (he might have added: “and a virulent hostility to the UN in parts of the US press and Congress”).

A lost decade

This conflict will be one of the dominant themes of 2006. It follows an anniversary year when the issue of United Nations reform commanded the headlines – as it did indeed in 1995. The contrast is sobering: several of the aspirations of the mid-1990s (for a permanent peacekeeping force, a global environmental council to match the Security Council, a democratised general assembly) have failed to be realised. The challenge of humanitarian intervention, so much discussed in the wake of conflict and genocide in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia, has been deeply prejudiced by United States action in Iraq.

To prepare for the sixtieth anniversary, Kofi Annan appointed a High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, Peace and Security, which reported in December 2004; Annan himself then issued his own recommendations, In Larger Freedom, in March 2005. But there was no consensus on two of the core international-security issues of the day: the definition of terrorism, and the right of states to “pre-emptive” (or, more accurately, “preventive”) action.

As for Security Council reform, it foundered on the indifference, polite but resolute, of the five permanent members and on the divisions which the candidature of one state evoked from others: the German bid was opposed by its European Union partners (vocally by Italy, more subtly by Spain, and silently by Britain and France); Latin Americans objected to the aspirations of Brazil; the Africans could not agree on who should represent them; more ominously, the Chinese reacted to the Japanese bid by orchestrating mass nationalist demonstrations and raising the tone of hostility between the two countries to their highest pitch in many years.

American friends

The issue of United States pressure on the United Nations hangs over all these issues. George W Bush talked early in his first presidency of a commitment to multilateralism, and spoke positively about the UN in a speech to the general assembly in 2002; but his actions have been very different. The “recess appointment” as US ambassador of John Bolton, ideological hardliner and vehement critic of the organisation, is symptomatic.

The US has a right to call for change in the UN. It pays by far the largest share of the UN budget (ahead of Japan) and it is not alone in identifying organisational flaws – problems of staffing and budgets, obstruction of change, manipulation of procedures and debates – is hardly a monopoly of Washington.

But the administration’s posture is also laced with hypocrisy – of both a “passive” and an “active” kind.

First, it evades the fact that the UN does not claim or possess any monopoly on global governance and international institutional authority. The responsibility for security and diplomacy in Europe, for example, is shared between several bodies (including Nato, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe); on a global scale, the World Trade Organisation is not even formally part of the UN system, and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are de facto independent. Yet the US does not pour anathema on these organisations; it reserves its scorn for the United Nations.

Second, the US bears a particular and long-term responsibility for the damage inflicted on the UN:

  • it was Washington that blocked the Security Council from reacting to the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 and so laid the grounds for the UN’s failure to engage thereafter with the Islamic Republic

  • it was the US that immediately tore up the April 1988 Geneva accords on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, prolonged the war in that country for another decade, and sustained Osama bin Laden and his followers

  • it was George W Bush and his associates who for months brownbeat, vilified, and lied to the UN in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, refusing to accept the authority of the UN weapons inspectors and sending the secretary of state to hector the Security Council, in February 2003, with a pack of lies about Iraqi weapons programmes (Colin Powell’s equivalent of the “Adlai Stevenson” moment – a reference to the presentation by the US delegate of photographs of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 – turned out to be theatrical fraud).

Fred Halliday’s “global politics” column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:

“Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects”
(March 2005)

“Iran’s revolutionary spasm” (July 2005)

“Political killing in the cold war” (August 2005)

“Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a ‘marginal man’”
(September 2005)

“A transnational umma: myth or reality? ”(October 2005)

“The ‘Barcelona process’: ten years on” (November 2005)

The Baghdad trauma

The impact of Iraq on the UN reinforces the difficulties the institution has faced in renewing itself for 21st-century challenges. The most deadly form of this impact took place on 19 August 2003, when a devastating bomb in the temporary UN headquarters in Baghdad killed the senior and respected diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello and twenty-one diplomats, officials, and visitors.

The UN had been reluctant to give blessing to the US invasion of Iraq, but courageously and properly decided that it must play a role in the post-conflict political process. The protection afforded to UN staff was inadequate; Osama bin Laden and his acolytes denounced the UN as an accomplice of the US; the result was the largest killing of UN staff in the organisation’s history.

This was also – notwithstanding the deaths of UN observers and soldiers in a range of conflicts, from Korea and the Congo to Lebanon – the first time that, a UN political mission had become a target of a systematic armed assault. A senior UN official told me: “19 August 2003 was our 9/11”. The UN has continued to pay its 200 or so staff living in Iraq, and sent observers to the December 2005 parliamentary elections there, but its operations in the country – and arguably across the world – have not recovered from that traumatic event.

All politics involves some combination, at its best a reinforcing one, of idealism and realism. The United Nations has since 1945 seen much of both. It will not be served by another raft of reform proposals that bounce off it like bubbles of soap. It needs a form of realism – of organisation, goals and leadership – that serves its more attainable ideals. At present, when its member-states of every size consistently mistreat it – and its largest and most powerful affiliate disdains and undermines it at every turn – such realism is sorely lacking.

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