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More relevant now than ever
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, respectively. 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 increasing relevance. 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 great attention. 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 Palestinians. 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 conclusions. 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 body. 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.
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