UN, Rediscovered

March 1, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: SuperpowerIraq War

UN, Rediscovered

Mini Teaser: The UN is flawed, but the United States can learn to use it better—as long as we hold reasonable expectations.

by Author(s): Derek Chollet

AFTER SIX years of tempestuous U.S.-UN relations, the next few months could prove a turning point. The proximate cause is the unusual confluence of four events: the ascension of a new UN secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon; the end of John Bolton's stormy ambassadorship and the nomination of his skilled replacement, Zalmay Khalilzad; and the Democratic takeover in Congress. In many ways personnel is destiny, and the new faces could move the relationship from an era of bitterness, suspicion and isolation to one of sustained, positive engagement and realistic expectations.

But a larger, more impersonal reason also contributes. In Washington, there is a greater sense of sobriety about the limits of America's power and influence to act alone-and more appreciation for strong, effective international institutions.

This moment occurs against a backdrop of dashed expectations. The end of the Cold War boosted hopes that a new system of global governance would rise. These aspirations rested not on new institutions but an old one-despite the fact that, through 45 years of dueling superpower vetoes, the UN had never effectively stewarded global security. Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait presented the first critical test, and President George H. W. Bush later reflected, "I was not yet sure what to expect from the UN." But in less than six months the UN Security Council endorsed Kuwait's liberation, and U.S.-led forces steered a broad coalition to a stunning military victory. Finally, it seemed, the UN could work as intended. President Bush, a proud former UN ambassador and genuine believer in the institution, talked of a "new world order."

That concept, never well-defined and deeply controversial in the right wing of Bush's Republican Party, was soon shelved. As post-Cold War realities set in, the world scaled back grand ambitions for the UN. Though meant to solve the world's problems, the organization proved feckless with urgent challenges like the Bosnian war, the chaos in Somalia, the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Twelve years after triumph in the Persian Gulf, the UN went from its moment of greatest hope to its worst nightmare. Again the issue was Iraq and the American president's name was George Bush. But this time the UN did not support the United States and (far fewer) coalition forces when they invaded-without proper legal authorization, many believed. Given the thick stack of Security Council resolutions Iraq defied, the latter is debatable. The results are not: a crisis that ruptured America's relationship with the United Nations and the perception of the war as an "illegitimate" use of force.

The Iraq War has of course had ramifications far beyond the Middle East. It sparked an intense debate about American power and legitimacy. This debate will be a centerpiece of the 2008 election and the first post-9/11, post-Bush national security agenda. There is wide concern about the sharp decline of U.S. authority-even those Iraq hawks who showed the most confidence about American purpose and the greatest disdain for global consensus now admit that legitimacy is important.

At a minimum, this means more emphasis on diplomacy. But it also means greater focus on the architecture of global governance and the role and effectiveness of the United Nations-subjects much discussed during the Clinton years but then pushed aside. This debate could not come at a better time. The UN plays a larger role than ever before in addressing the world's problems, but it remains deeply dysfunctional and at odds with its most important member, the United States.

The U.S.-UN relationship has never been an easy one. Its history is one of struggles, political grandstanding and genuine crises, from the first Soviet veto to the "non-aligned" anti-Americanism of the 1970s to the fights over peacekeeping and reform in the 1990s. Though an American creation, the UN has never been well understood, or even respected, in Washington circles. Dean Acheson once called the position of UN ambassador a "ridiculous job", and one of its most effective occupants, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, famously referred to the UN as a "dangerous place." To many American policymakers, the maneuverings in New York often seem bizarre-the intensity of UN debates is inversely proportional to its real-world importance. Like Washington's beltway, UN life on First Avenue exists in its own bubble. Writing more than forty years ago, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., captured this disconnect best: "To outsiders the UN often seemed a vast and picturesque form of make-believe, whose excitement bore little connection with serious issues; but to those who lived every day in the all-enveloping UN environment, it became the ultimate reality."

During the past few years this "ultimate reality" has been harder to dismiss. Historians will likely look back at the period between the Iraq wars as a decisive one for the institution and the U.S. approach toward it. This was an era when the greatest hopes and criticisms about the UN reached a fever pitch. For many, one man embodied these dreams and nightmares: Kofi Annan.

Essay Types: Essay