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.

The position of UN secretary-general (the "SG", in UN parlance) is arguably the most important and high-profile job in the world in which the occupant has so few tools of actual power. The SG has no army, has to beg for airplanes to conduct diplomatic missions and can hardly hire or fire people in his own institution. Demanding outcomes from sovereign states is out of the question. All the SG has is persuasion: agendas, speeches, inspiration, shame. Some have utterly failed, coming off as detached, imperial and haughty-like Kurt Waldheim or especially Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But others, like Dag Hammarskjöld and Annan, wielded their influence with a soft touch, being perceived as genuine statesmen for the world.

With elegance and a quiet but palpable magnetism, Annan skillfully focused international attention on issues like HIV/AIDS and human trafficking. He encouraged debate around bold concepts like corporate responsibility, humanitarian intervention and the "responsibility to protect." In this sense, he worked as what one of his top advisors, John Ruggie, describes as a "norm entrepreneur"-offering ideas that national leaders sometimes can't and often won't. Annan didn't always succeed. Despite his Nobel Prize, the world ignored or rejected plenty of his admonitions. But looking back, it's clear that his ideas inspired an important debate about the UN and 21st-century global governance.

Yet with the exalted heights Annan reached, he suffered in an impossibly difficult job. Annan has many fans, but he leaves the impression of a tragic figure: one who wanted to do great things but found himself broken by a gigantic bureaucracy and personal shortcomings.

This was especially the case when Annan tried to navigate the UN's crucial relationship with Washington. In many ways, his troubles were surprising: Annan was closer to the United States than any secretary-general had been. After college in Minnesota and many years in New York City, Annan knew the American people as few international civil servants ever have. The Clinton Administration engineered the ouster of his predecessor, Boutros-Ghali-a necessary but ugly episode James Traub describes as a bellwether for increasing American unilateralism in his book The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power-and promoted Annan as a successor. The administration credited Annan's leadership in getting the UN to agree to NATO's bombing against the Serbian army in Bosnia in 1995. And it believed he could build support for the UN where the organization needed it most-among America's ruling elites, especially on Capitol Hill.

Annan did elevate the UN's image in Washington. He actively courted its most powerful critic, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), and bargained with U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to ensure U.S. financial support at the end of the Clinton Administration. His willingness to take the UN's case outside the Boston-Washington corridor-to Helms' North Carolina or to the Midwest-may have made him, among Americans, the most well-known and respected secretary-general.

But some of Annan's actions reinforced his critics' harshest allegations of meddling and anti-U.S. bias. Topping the list were his last-minute negotiations with Saddam Hussein (he never lived down his 1998 declaration that Saddam was "a man I can do business with") and his leaking a letter to President Bush the week before the 2004 elections. The missive warned against the U.S. attack on insurgents in Fallujah, leaving the (no doubt accurate) impression that he and his staff were rooting for John Kerry. Combined with Oil for Food, sex abuse by UN peacekeepers and a Human Rights Commission with Sudan and Libya on it, the institution spiraled into crisis. As Annan limped to the end of his tenure, Traub tells that Annan's strongest American supporters privately warned that if he didn't act fast, "the institution is going down."

Annan and his confidantes certainly deserve much of the blame for the U.S.-UN predicament, even though a new team, under Mark Malloch Brown as Annan's deputy, brought refreshing leadership to the organization. Yet Washington itself cannot escape blame. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. approach toward the UN has veered from indifference to hostility to engagement. When global challenges grew more complex and global solutions more important, the United States could never figure out how to get what it wanted from the UN-or even exactly what it wanted in the first place.

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