THE UNITED NATIONS:
More relevant now than ever
THE UNITED NATIONS:
More relevant now than ever
Ramesh Thakur and Andrew Mack
March 23, 2003
A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens, set in revolutionary France,
begins with the observation that it was the best of times and the worst
of times. So might it be said, thanks in no small measure to France, of
the tale of two cities of contemporary times, namely Washington and New
York, the political capitals of the United States and the world,
It was not supposed to be so.
Back in September, having apparently decided to make war on Iraq to
force out Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, dead or alive, Washington
sought the United Nations' blessing for its military action. The message
was clear and blunt: We will wage war, with or without your approval; if
you are not with us, you will become irrelevant.
Then a funny thing happened on the road to Baghdad. The people of the
world defected from the U.S. and converted to the U.N. Instead of being
a pro forma test of U.N. relevance, the agenda shifted to become a
litmus test of U.S. legitimacy. The issue transcends the insignificance
of Hussein. It has morphed into the question of what sort of world we
wish to live in, who we wish to be ruled by, and if we wish to live by
rules and laws or by the force of arms.
The U.N. has been front and center in the debate, the focus of hopes,
fears and the media's most pressing attention. The U.S. signaled that it
would play by the rules of the world body it helped create if, and only
if, that institution bent to America's will. This, coming after years of
U.S. exceptionalism, united the rest of the world against U.S.
unilateralism. The more the Americans protested about U.N. irrelevance,
the more the rest stubbornly dug in their heels to demonstrate its
The Bush administration and the increasingly isolated government of
British Prime Minister Tony Blair went to great lengths to cajole, bribe
and coerce the six "swing votes" on the U.N. Security Council to support
the war option. They would not have done so, though, if they had truly
believed the U.N. to be irrelevant. Deeply convinced of the moral
righteousness of their cause, Bush and Blair craved the U.N.'s
imprimatur to give their war the stamp of political and legal authority.
Their determined rush to war ignited a worldwide debate on the
legitimacy of war, the likes of which we have not seen before. The
Security Council played precisely the role envisaged for it by the
founders of the U.N.; it did so for six long months. It was more of a
central player in this crisis than at any other time in its history.
From being an optional add-on in September, the Security Council became
the forum of choice for making the case for the use of military force --
for debating openly, publicly and globally the merits, wisdom, legality
and legitimacy of war. This was a critical and historic dialogue that
the world had to have, and we owe a deep debt of thanks to the Bush
administration for it.
A globalized public opinion mobilized in opposition to the war before it
even began. That global public opinion is broadly opposed to any war
with Iraq that is not authorized by the Council. Moreover, for all the
hard-nosed indifference to the U.N. feigned by tough-minded journalists,
the crisis also brought the Council's deliberations unparalleled
attention around the world. The U.N. as a global forum provided a
platform for voicing domestic dissent within the U.S. For the first time
ever in human history, the international community united to wage peace
before a war started. Call it the people's preemption.
Except in cases of self-defense, only the U.N. Security Council can
decide whether it is lawful to go to war -- not the U.S., not Britain,
not any other state.
As the influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has noted,
if Iraq was a war of necessity (self-defense), the U.S. could go it
alone. But because it is a war of choice (regime change, which Friedman
supports for humanitarian and democratic reasons), it needs the U.N.'s
blessing. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan commands no more divisions
and tanks than the pope. But both command enormous respect and
authority. Annan's recent statement in a press conference at The Hague
-- that war without U.N authorization would be illegal -- has attracted
His presence at The Hague was a reminder too that the U.N. remains
engaged on a wide range of fronts around the world, from reducing
poverty and promoting good governance and universal literacy to
protecting the environment, combating disease, undertaking peace
operations and creating a permanent international criminal court. These
issues, and the U.N.'s engagement with them, will remain long after the
Iraq crisis blows over.
Despite its manifest failings, the U.N. remains an extraordinarily
resilient institution. Those who argue that the current war, waged
without U.N. authorization, has rendered the U.N. irrelevant are either
disingenuous or have very short memories. During the Cold War,
superpower rivalry prevented the U.N. from playing any effective global
security role. Only in rare cases, like the Korean War -- when the
Russians were foolishly boycotting the Council -- was it possible for
the use of force to receive U.N. authorization. Yet the U.N. survived
this sorry period, as well as the disasters of Srebrenica, Somalia and
-- worst of all -- Rwanda (which was more a failure of nerve and civic
courage on the part of the U.S. than the U.N.). It will survive the
current crisis as well.
After the war ends, the U.N. will again be called on to play a crucial
role. This is precisely what happened in Kosovo when a "coalition of the
willing" last went to war without U.N. authority. America and its allies
fought the war; the U.N. led the arduous but critical task of
postconflict reconstruction. Far from being "irrelevant," the U.N.'s
role will be just as pivotal in the Iraqi case.
What of the veto? Many argue that it is an outmoded relic of the Cold
War. They have a point. But the U.S. is in no position to criticize
others. France has exercised its veto relatively rarely and usually only
in concert with its allies. Russia, which had the dubious distinction of
casting most vetoes during the Cold War, has been similarly restrained
over the past decade. Since the end of the Cold War it is the U.S. that
has wielded the veto most frequently -- and almost always to block
broadly supported resolutions critical of Israeli policies toward the
The most rigorous and systematic examination of the subject of
international intervention was undertaken by the independent
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, or
ICISS. It set out to identify those conscience-shocking situations where
the case for international intervention was compelling, and to enhance
the prospects of such interventions. The circumstances for intervention
must be narrow, the bar high, and the procedural and operational
safeguards tight because the probability of international consensus is
higher under conditions of due process, due authority and due diligence.
ICISS in the end came down unmistakably on the side of the central role
of the U.N. as the indispensable font of international authority and the
irreplaceable forum for authorizing international military enforcement.
The people of the world, having examined the U.S. case for war against
Iraq, have put their faith in the U.N and vindicated the ICISS
The claim that the U.N. has become "irrelevant" by refusing to go along
with a war to depose Hussein should be seen for what it is -- patently
false and wholly self-serving. Irrelevant? They should be so lucky. What
began as a dispiriting challenge to all of us who believe in the
irreducible symbolism and ideal of the U.N. has turned into an
exhilarating affirmation of the centrality and relevance of the world
Andrew Mack, director of the strategic planning unit in the Executive
Office of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1998 to 2001, is now
director of the Human Security Center at the Liu Institute for Global
Issues at the University of British Columbia. Ramesh Thakur, vice rector
of the United Nations University in Tokyo, was an ICISS commissioner.
These are their personal views.