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Grimm rewards

United States

The UN is like the speck of sand in the oyster, the irritant seed of a growing pearl. One of the reasons it irritates the American Right so much is that simply by existing it acts as a catalyst. The threat is not what it does, but what it stands for.

Apart from the isolationists, the general American attitude to the UN is ambivalent – wanting to be loved by the rest of the world but still reserving the right to take unilateral action when deemed necessary. So, during the presidential election debates, Bush claimed that the invasion of Iraq was in support of the UN, even as he was dismissive of it. Kerry sent equally ambivalent messages.

Inside the UN, during protracted negotiations over issues such as the Law of the Sea, the Kyoto Protocol or the International Criminal Court, the rest of the world made every effort to meet any rational American objection – and to cope with many irrational ones. US negotiators often ended up playing a good-cop/bad-cop routine, exacting concessions ostensibly intended to stem objections from the less rational people back in Washington. In far too many cases, after they had done their best to eviscerate a proposal, the US then backed off or ‘unsigned’ treaties.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell followed a similar pattern in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, persuading everyone to work with him so he had something with which to counter the know-nothings in the Pentagon and the White House. The rest of the world went as far as it could – and arguably farther than it should – to accommodate him. It did not work.

No takers

From one point of view, the failure to stop the invasion of Iraq was a major defeat for the UN. In the face of ferocious American diplomatic pressure, not one state – not even those who blustered at length in an open meeting of the Security Council – had the temerity to move a resolution condemning the invasion. Kofi Annan at least went on the record – one year after the fact – saying that it was ‘not in conformity with the UN Charter’ and ‘illegal’. But when the President of the General Assembly, Jan Kavan, went to the Non Aligned countries and told them he would convene an emergency meeting if they asked for it, he found no takers.

A more realistic view is that the refusal by a majority of members of the Security Council to support the attack was in its own way an important victory. Most UN member states sat down and refused to do what the bullying hyperpower told them to do. Indeed, while people may grumble that the US got away unpunished, the Grimm fairy tales remind us that getting what you wish is often punishment enough. Over 1,200 dead Americans, $200 billion spent and no end in sight for a bloody entanglement; all this vindicates the warnings from home and abroad that the US Administration ignored.

Reality also bit back at the millennarians in and around the Administration in other ways. Just after the invasion, Richard Perle crowed: ‘The UN is dead. Thank God!’ Within weeks the White House discovered no-one would buy Iraqi oil that did not have a clear ownership title from the Security Council. Even before then, the Bush Administration found that countries would not come forward to help in Iraq because of the absence of a UN resolution.

Has the US learned its lesson – or is it a recidivist scofflaw? In the stage version of Peter Pan children are exhorted to declare their belief in fairies in order to revive the dying Tinkerbell. We could almost say that the rest of the world’s collective belief in international law revived the moribund willingness of the evil Captain Hook to abide by it. Without admitting that it had broken the rules, the US at least signalled its acceptance that the rules exist.

This may not be a just response. But reality is constraining the US, too – it will not rush to repeat the error. A year ago there was a real chance that the ‘neo-conservatives’ in the Pentagon would bring about an invasion of Syria at least, and possibly of Iran, with North Korea another target. In June 2004 the Administration that had marched into Iraq waving the Stars and Stripes was essentially trying to negotiate a withdrawal under the shade of the UN’s blue flag.

Feather in the cap

Many at the UN would now prefer to forget about Iraq and carry on as if it had not happened. But the experience has intensified debate about reform. Superficially, there is an attraction in trying to cobble together an alliance of Russia, China, Europe and Japan to oppose the grosser manifestations of American arrogance. While it may be true that the US is the biggest rogue state, it is far from being the only one. Moscow and Beijing opposed intervention in Iraq – but they are also opposing intervention in Sudan, just as they did in the Balkans, and would have done in Rwanda if anyone had bothered to intervene there in the first place. Such an alliance would vindicate the American Right that always said the UN was an anti-American plot anyway.

In the long run, wider representation would indeed enhance the moral standing of the Council. Yet if the US veto is a major problem, adding five more vetoes is hardly an answer. Similarly, it has to be doubted that increasing its size by ten members – five permanent, five temporary – would enhance its effectiveness. The Economic and Social Council has trebled in size since it was set up – its impact has been in inverse proportion to its increasing size.

There are no quick fixes. Insofar as the UN is a reflection of the realities of world power, the key to reform is to change those realities. This demands much more than mechanistic redrafting of the Charter or bean-counting on the Security Council. The road to UN reform actually begins in the political institutions of the US. An apocryphal dictionary definition of ‘War’ is ‘God’s way of teaching Americans geography’. The Iraqi débâcle has certainly put foreign policy on the agenda in the US – and, more particularly, the failures of unilateralism.

However, while we are waiting, there are some interim responses available. Many of them begin in the General Assembly, which has let itself be overshadowed by the Security Council. In recent years Council members elected from the Assembly – such as Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Jamaica and Ireland – have played a principled and effective role in ensuring that the Permanent Five do not always get their own way. Electing more members like that would go a long way towards reforming the Council. At present the members are chosen on complicated rotations that, for example, put Rwanda on the Council during the genocide, Morocco while occupying Western Sahara, Indonesia after its annexation of East Timor.


The General Assembly could insist that prospective members of the Security Council must prove that they deserve their seats. No candidacy for the Council – whether for permanent seats in the future, or for elected seats currently – should be considered unless the country has a genuine, stable democracy that guarantees civil and political liberties for its citizens and has a record of adherence to UN decisions and international law.

It is true that while Council members can block initiatives by permanent members, they cannot overrule the veto. But even here there is a solution in the General Assembly. As soon as the Palestinian Authority rediscovered the US invention of referring issues vetoed in the Security Council to a Special Session of the General Assembly, the US expediently declared the procedure no longer valid. That view should be loudly and publicly challenged by other members. It behoves them to remember that – whether in Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo or Bosnia – this procedure offers a way to break the deadlock in the Security Council that otherwise allows genocide to continue untrammelled.

Americans often claim that the US was the first country based not on territory, ethnicity or language, but on an idea. The UN is actually most useful as an embodiment of the idea that global co-operation is essential for solving our common problems. More than fixing committees we have to fix that big idea so that it becomes self-evident and, where it is not self-evident, reluctant rogue states – of whatever size – are persuaded of its force.

Ian Williams writes about the UN for The Nation and is the author of The UN For Beginners, Writers and Readers, New York, 1995.

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