Fundamental divisions over UN's role and effectiveness

Posted in UN | 23-Sep-03 | Author: Jeffrey Gedmin

Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin is Director of the Aspen Institute Berlin
The Americans, it turns out, want additional help in Iraq. The Germans and French want, it turns out, to be involved in the enterprise after all - if most of the authority is turned over to the Security Council. The United Nations is back, it seems. But fundamental divisions over its role remain. Some of these core differences should be obvious by now, even if they are obscured at times by high-flying arguments about international law and sanctimonious rhetoric about the "world community."

One of these differences is about influence and power. Smaller and medium-sized countries, like France and Germany, are apt to see the United Nations as a place that levels the playing field, a forum for checks and balances against America the Superpower. Pull America back; leverage yourself up. Fair enough. Just as it is reasonable that a Superpower like the United States may be at times wary of the motives of others who seek to use the UN to restrain its room for maneuver. In the run up to the Iraq war, many Americans thought France and Russia, for example, with their habit of appeasement and string of lucrative contracts with Baghdad were more interested in containing George W. Bush than they were Saddam Hussein. Lesson One: National interests do not disappear at the door of the Security Council in New York. On the contrary. It is important to recognize this fact.

Another fundamental difference between the two sides of the Atlantic over the role of the UN has to do with our differences in history and culture. The history of the United States has been one of winning and protecting American sovereignty. Americans have always distrusted, moreover, the concentration of power. We favor limited government and like to call it "Uncle Sam" - we're part of the same family, but happily and essentially independent, in fact. From this it flows: For most Americans, the idea of world government is a horror.

The German experience is a different one, of course. "Vater Staat" has had a more paternalistic set of responsibilities at home. Since the end of the Second World War, moreover, Germany has accepted that ceding and pooling sovereignty generally helps, rather than hinders, its foreign policy objectives. That's fair, too. Lesson Two: We in the transatlantic community may have common values, but our values have not been "cloned". Germans and Americans may well be different in attitude and outlook on a particular issue. The UN is surely a case in point. History and culture play an important role. It helps to recognize this fact, too.

Finally there is the question of confidence and credibility. I turned on German television recently to hear a commentator muse that while Germany was opposed to helping the U.S. in Iraq, "What if Kofi Annan asked?" Americans need to grasp that the United Nations has credibility among some of our European friends that U.S. leadership simply does not. Europeans might consider, on the other hand,that the UN's credibility with America has always been low in contrast.

During the Cold War the United Nations was often a bastion of anti-Americanism. When Ronald Reagan intervened to end a Soviet style dictatorship on the Caribbean island of Grenada, the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the action - and did so by a larger majority that that which condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This has not been the UN's only problematic "-ism".

Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has written about the UN's "anti-Semitic passions". A low point was the passage in 1975 of a resolution equating Zionism with racism. Problems have persisted. It took decades before Israelis were permitted to participate in UN peacekeeping missions. To this very day, Israel has never been permitted a rotating seat on the Security Council. Who could forget the grotesque bias of the UN when Palestinians claimed a "massacre" in Jenin? UN officials rushed to judgment, shamelessly accepting Yasar Arafat's propaganda and estimates of up to 1,500 killed by Israelis. In the end we discovered that the refugee camp Jenin was also a bomb making factory. Fifty-two Palestinians had been killed in the Israeli incursion: some 14 to 20 of them civilians.

The rest? The UN dithered, while Serb forces slaughtered 7,000 men and boys in Srbrencia. The UN deliberated again over Rwanda, while this time some 800,000 perished. In Iraq Saddam Hussein violated 17 resolutions over the past dozen years, while the Security Council sat passively, debating its next communiqué Americans wondered: International law without law enforcement?

Of course, none of this makes UN useless. The United Nations does endless good work in peacekeeping and other humanitarian assistance around the globe. Nor do Americans have any intention of abandoning the UN. In fact, we continue to contribute some $10 billion in support each year and U.S. public opinion actually favors more multilateralism. But there are limits to current arrangements. Kofi Annan knows this. That's why the UN Secretary General has called for "radical reform."

Lesson Three: Don't wait for UN reform. In Iraq there are serious challenges--and opportunities. According to one recent poll, seven out of ten Iraqis believe their lives will be better in five years from now after Saddam. Younger people are most optimistic. Surely, Americans and Germans have a common interest in helping this come true. That's why it is time put in perspective our debates over procedure and parochial national interests. There's real work to be done.


Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin is Director of the Aspen Institute Berlin

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