Retail Diplomacy at the United Nations

March 5, 2003

Retail Diplomacy at the United Nations

The Bush Administration is making frantic rounds of retail diplomacy, going country-by-country among the fourteen UN Security Council members, imploring those who are with us to hold firm, the undecided to vote our way, and opponents to abstain on a


The Bush Administration is making frantic rounds of retail diplomacy, going country-by-country among the fourteen UN Security Council members, imploring those who are with us to hold firm, the undecided to vote our way, and opponents to abstain on a new Iraq resolution.  Some in the administration seem finally to grasped that to get its way at the UN the United States cannot proffer "take it or leave it" positions, but must delve into vigorous give-and-take, listening, crafting appeals that heed other's concerns, and offering concessions in return for support.

But it may well be too late.  While President Bush has insisted for weeks that Saddam's time is running out, in fact time is running out for the administration.  To complete an attack before warm spring weather arrives, war must begin in the next few weeks.  Yet winning nine votes in favor of a momentous resolution is no speedy task.


As anyone who has ever served at the UN knows, the organization is hardly nimble.  Aware that its decisions are for posterity, UN delegations expound their views in lengthy public discourses.  Yet formal debates are not where issues are decided.  Only once the session breaks off can back room huddles, phone calls, offers and arm-twisting begin.

Decision-making responsibilities are split between ambassadors in New York and their bosses back in capitals around the globe.  On even the pettiest issues, written records of instructions are required, necessitating multiple cables back-and-forth over the minutiae of every resolution.  On matters of war and peace, foreign ministers, national security advisers and heads of state all have their separate say.   The same is true for the United States.  When a country such as Angola seeks promises in return for its vote, various arms of the U.S. bureaucracy - the State Department, the Pentagon, and various trade bureaus - will need to weigh in on what to offer.   

This is not to say the UN cannot hustle when warranted.  A resolution condemning the September 11 attacks passed on September 12.   A resolution in support of U.S. action in Afghanistan likewise breezed through.  

But these are rare cases involving no serious divisions in world opinion.  Iraq is just the opposite.  The administration should have known from the start that military action would be controversial and that winning support would take time.  One of the U.S.'s most recent full court presses at the UN - the push to lower U.S. dues and settle America's debts to the organization led by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke - took over a year of relentless lobbying - and that was by no means a matter of life and death.   

In the waning days of the Clinton Administration U.S. diplomats at the UN expected that the next President would go after Iraq.  But they expected a steady, methodical offensive to marshal Security Council support, renew inspections, document Saddam's evasions and gradually hone a consensus to back words with force.  The Russians and French were guaranteed to oppose military action initially, and giving them a face-saving way to shift positions would take delicate maneuvering, careful arguments and - above all - time.  A conservative estimate would have put the timetable at no less than a year.

But President Bush initially dismissed the UN, fatefully waiting until September, 2002 - - 20 months into his administration and a full year after some top aides began lobbying actively for an Iraq invasion - -  to approach the world body.  Though a proclaimed administration triumph, the Security Council's unanimity on last fall's Resolution 1441 hid deep differences - it reflected consensus behind inspections, but left open whether the Council's demands were backed by a willingness to wage war.  

The administration failed to realize that Resolution 1441 should have marked only the start of its UN diplomacy.  Trips to capitals of security council members, White House visits, calls, cables and letters are taking place now, but should have been kept up unceasingly since the fall.   The administration missed the boat in lobbying for support among key UN blocs like the African Union and Non-Aligned Movement, and now faces the tougher task of now trying to pry away Security Council Members from the firm stances taken by their allies.

America's opponents at the UN are driven by their fair share of cynical motives, but their reticence is more than stubborn obstructionism.  To Germany, "war" is not simply the high-tech Gulf, Kosovo, Afghanistan-style, virtually casualty-free assault to which the U.S. public has grown accustomed.  To them, war means lost homes, lost families, permanent disruptions.   This genuine fear and hesitation that needs to be addressed before it will go away.

The Bush Administration still has enough time to get the nine votes it needs, and maybe even a consensus.  More evidence like Secretary of State Colin Powell's January performance, coupled with wheedling, bargaining and Saddam's continued defiance, will certainly bring the world around.  At bottom, Germany, France and other powers know that Saddam is thumbing his nose in their face and that the Council's credibility hinges on backing words with action.

But the Bush Administration should acknowledge that this may take more than a matter of weeks, and should consider postponing invasion until the fall.  No one has shown that, particularly under the inspectors' watch, Iraq will attack anyone in the next six months.  Come September, the desert sun will be dim and the weather cold enough not to threaten our troops.  French, German and Russian demands that the inspections run their course for another few months can be met.  

Two reasons are given against waiting. One is the cost. But just as dovish cries that we shouldn't go to war because of the expense are short-sighted, so too are hawkish calls to start hostilities now in order to save money place green-eyeshade considerations above the larger imperative of conducting a war with legitimacy and broad support.

The second reason given for acting now is that September 2003 is too close to the start of presidential primary season next year. Waiting would leave hundreds of thousands of reservists cooling their heels, would keep the economy in punishing limbo, and is generally deemed politically unwise. But it is not hard to understand why the rest of the world is reluctant to plan its wars to fit America's domestic political calendar. Deferring would allow heads of state around the world to make the case to their own populations, convincing doves that the utmost restraint and patience had been shown.   The administration often points out that Saddam's defiance has been going on for 12 years.  Given that, it seems fair for the world to ask what would be lost by waiting another six months.


Suzanne Nossel was Deputy to the Ambassador for UN Management and Reform at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.  Her article, "Retail Diplomacy: The Edifying Story of UN Dues Reform", appeared in the Winter 2001/02 issue of The National Interest.  (An excerpt can be read at