After discord, UN's effectiveness called into question
By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 03/18/2003
UNITED NATIONS -- In September, President Bush challenged the UN Security Council to force Iraq to disarm or face becoming irrelevant. When the United States abandoned its effort for a new UN resolution yesterday, no one disputed that diplomacy had failed, only whether the blame lay with the United States or the United Nations itself.
The bruising six-month battle over how to disarm Saddam Hussein left relations within the 15-member Security Council at their worst since the end of the Cold War. Some analysts questioned whether the division would permanently damage the UN's ability to prevent armed conflict around the world.
Many UN diplomats said the future challenges posed after Hussein is toppled and threats from a nuclear-armed North Korea will demand the kind of collective response that only the United Nations can provide. In that view, the UN's ability to deliver humanitarian aid and reconstruction in Iraq will prove its relevance.
As the United States, Britain, and Spain withdrew their stalled resolution authorizing war against Iraq, the diplomatic disarray in the council was evident yesterday. Some countries -- including France, Germany, and Russia -- declared they were pursuing ways to make Baghdad disarm peacefully, even as the United States and others readied for war.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made clear yesterday that he expected the Security Council to continue to play a role in shaping Iraq's future.
"This does not mean an end to involvement of the UN in the Iraqi situation," Annan said, noting that if there is military action, he will call on the Security Council to "discuss what happens after that," such as relief work and postwar reconstruction.
The United Nations, with 191 member states and a global network of relief and development agencies, has weathered many stormy moments in its 58-year history. Most have played out within the UN's decision-making body, the 15-member UN Security Council.
With five permanent member nations holding veto power -- France, Great Britain, Russia, China, and the United States -- the Security Council was long held hostage to Cold War politics.
But it survived many challenges to its authority, from a Soviet boycott of the UN decision authorizing the Korean War to France and Britain's decision to invade Egypt without UN authorization in 1956. And its humanitarian work continued, even at the worst moments of Cold War gridlock.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was swift to say that the United States was not abandoning the UN entirely yesterday.
"The UN is an important institution, and it will survive," Powell said. "The United States will continue to be an important member of the United Nations and its various organizations."
Less clear, some analysts say, is whether the United States will be able to heal the rift with its allies caused by its stance on Iraq. It is also unclear how enthusiastic the administration will be in turning to the UN Security Council on issues it deems important.
President Bush last night clearly blamed the Security Council: "The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours."
Some say Washington, with its post-Sept. 11 doctrine of pre emptive strikes against potential foes, is headed for rough relations with all collective decision-making bodies, from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the United Nations.
"We could be entering a period of great tension with our allies that will take years to repair," said Nancy Soderberg, a deputy US ambassador to the UN under the Clinton administration and current vice president of the International Crisis Group.
Tensions will be greatest in the Security Council.
Bush turned to the council reluctantly. In a major speech Sept. 12, he challenged the panel to be relevant by forcing Iraq to disarm after defying 12 years of council resolutions.
Powell said the council failed that test by constantly seeking to give Hussein more time.
Nile Gardiner -- a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative institute -- said the Security Council's failure to reach a consensus doomed it to "total irrelevance."
"We are witnessing the slow death of the United Nations," said Gardiner. "It was a last shot of redemption for the UN, an organization which has passed 17 resolutions regarding Iraqi disarmament, but has not enforced any. But failing to do, the UN placed itself, on the same course that the League of Nations went down in the 1930s."
But Security Council diplomats said in turn that Washington had not convince council members that force was necessary and that the threat was so severe that continued inspections would be unjustifiable.
Bush and Powell showed increasing frustration with opposition encountered in the council.
"Washington may no longer have any stomach for further wrangling in the Security Council, particularly over Iraq," said David Malone, the former Canadian UN ambassador who heads the International Peace Academy.
Yet the administration may have little choice. Existing UN resolutions on Iraq require the Security Council's approval, such as the UN oil-for-food program, which has allowed Iraq to sell some oil despite UN sanctions in exchange for humanitarian aid. Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix is still required to report to the council on Iraq under existing UN resolutions, which he will do tomorrow, whether or not war begins.
"I don't think the United States has any choice but to return to the council when the next issue arrives, whether it be North Korea or post-war Iraq," said John Ruggie, former UN assistant secretary general and a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Even with war looming, some diplomats refused to give up.
Analysts say it is up to Washington and Paris to heal the deep breach.
"The world needs the US as much as the US needs the world," said Soderberg. "We cannot go it alone."