Globalist : As world leaders meet, UN is at a crossroadsNEW YORK Perhaps Chris Patten, the European Union's external affairs commissioner, put it best: "If you want to get a cheap cheer from certain quarters in America, it seems that all you have to do is bash the United Nations." Patten's comment this month to the European Parliament is worth recalling as world leaders gather here this week for the United Nations General Assembly. There is much to discuss: The UN is not in good shape and the world is in worse shape. But the atmosphere will be cool because relations are strained between the Bush administration and the organization meant to symbolize the world's shared commitment to agreed codes of conduct.
That strain has been evident of late. At another recent gathering in New York, that of Republicans at their national convention, taking a potshot at the UN was a favorite sport. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor-turned-governor, declared to resounding cheers: "If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope for democracy in the world, then you are a Republican!"
Speaker after speaker suggested that John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, would submit use of American military power to United Nations approval - a suggestion with no basis in fact - and Vice President Dick Cheney provoked deafening applause by saying that "George W. Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the American people." Everyone knew he was referring to a slip from the UN.
This is election season, a time for scoring cheap political points through gross caricature. Bush knows that he needs to get the Republican base out en masse to vote. He also knows that base gets mobilized by portrayals of an unbowed America ready to act, whatever hand-wringing international bureaucrats may think.
Still, political calculus cannot entirely excuse attacks on the UN that have been damaging and disingenuous. The fact is that Bush knows that, in a tight corner, he needs the UN. It was to a UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, that the president turned earlier this year to extricate the United States from direct rule of Iraq.
It is also to the UN that he has turned to organize Iraqi elections to be held by the end of January, although the absence of security has kept the UN presence to an ineffectual level. A painful lesson of Iraq has been that the more isolated America is, the more costly its wars are in financial, political and moral terms. All the rhetoric notwithstanding, Republicans know that. But they also know that their chosen target is vulnerable. As Philip Gordon, an expert on international affairs at the Brookings Institution, put it, "The UN is useful, but it is also a terribly flawed and defective organization."
The General Assembly is convening at a time when there is broad agreement that the United Nations Charter, a product of a cold war and still colonial world, is outdated in significant respects. A 16-member panel of experts is looking at the changed threats to peace today and examining the critical question of whether and how the Security Council should be ready to move fast to sanction preventive military action in specific circumstances. In other words, if there is evidence a terrorist group has its hands on a nuclear device, there may be little time for debate on the East River. The panel's conclusions are expected by year's end.
Germany, India, Japan and Brazil are pushing to become permanent members of the Security Council, arguing that the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France may have constituted adequate representation of the world of yesterday but not that of today. Investigations of widespread corruption in the UN-directed Oil-for-Food program in Iraq continue. All of this is unsettling.
Just how unsettling was revealed last week by the startling declaration from the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, that the war in Iraq was "illegal." This infuriated the Bush administration; Secretary of State Colin Powell said the war was "entirely legal" and called Annan's remark "not useful." The UN sought to play down the remark's significance - Annan has long said the war was not in conformity with the UN Charter - but the fact is it may provide the basis for a battery of lawsuits against the United States from Iraqis demanding reparations and from every sharp lawyer with a dislike of America's role on the planet.
I am not enough of an expert on international law to know if the war was legal, but believe a strong case can be made that it was. Good lawyers in good faith have disagreed. But I do know that if the Iraq war was illegal, so too, and probably more so, was the 1999 war in Kosovo, another fight not specifically authorized by a UN resolution. It is thanks to that war that Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia was stopped and sits where he belongs: in court in The Hague. Chapter VII of the UN Charter endorses collective military action to counter "threats to international peace and security," and Resolutions 678, 687 and 1441 on Iraqi disarmament were all adopted under this chapter. On this basis, the British attorney general, among other legal experts, determined that the war was legal to force a compliance that Saddam Hussein had been unwilling to demonstrate.
Complex issues, yes, but with a brutally simple bottom line: unless the UN can work its way toward a system that is more streamlined and efficacious, and less open to legal dispute, it will not be adapted to the realities of today's world. Annan knows this. Armies no longer gather on the Somme or even in the deserts of southern Iraq. Rather, the real fear is that lone infiltrators may advance with suitcases that can blow up medium-sized cities. The attacks of Republican hawks may be grotesque. Patten had every justification in lamenting that "multilateralists, we are told, want to outsource American foreign and security policy to a bunch of garlic-chewing, cheese-eating wimps." But it is also true that the cheese eaters need to set aside their Château Montrose and get real.
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