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Does the United States Need the UN?

What will be the role of the United Nations in future U.S. foreign policy?

April 10, 2003

What will be the role of the United Nations in future U.S. foreign policy?

The war in Iraq triggered uncertainty — not only for the region, but also for the future of key geopolitical relationships. In particular, the role of the United Nations in U.S. foreign policy was been called into question. Timothy Wirth, former U.S. Senator and now the President of the United Nations Foundation, outlines the importance of the UN for U.S. relations with the rest of the world.

President Bush's plan to remake the Middle East is an extraordinary political endeavor. It ranks with the most ambitious strategies, if not gambles, in all of U.S. history.

It is ambitious not only in its objectives, but also in its implementation — because it transforms the traditional U.S. role in global policy.

The new doctrine of preemption represents a stark departure from long-standing U.S. policy. So, too, is the willingness of the Bush Administration to attack the foundation of the collective security that Americans helped build in the aftermath of World War II.

That framework not only includes the United Nations and NATO, but also long-standing bilateral and regional alliances that have been critical to our own nation’s path as far back as the war of independence.

At this juncture, it is important to think carefully about the aftermath of war — and the steps we need to pursue to ensure that the United States and the world emerge from this chapter of history without irreparable scars of hatred and tattered institutions for peace.

That is quite a big challenge. After all, what patriotic American is not wounded by the idea that European — and even Canadian — opinion polls project the United States as among the world's greatest threats to peace?

What are we to make of the fact that 80% or 90% of the citizens in countries with whom we have shed blood — and with whom we have toiled to create the institutions of freedom and prosperity — are resolute in their opposition to our policy on Iraq?

Clearly, there will be a tremendous amount to do in the aftermath of the war. We will need to mend relations with much of the world.

But the United States will also have to stop declaring the United Nations irrelevant. Otherwise, it is incoherent to subsequently call on the organization's institutional capabilities to help with post-conflict relief, reconstruction and governance in Iraq.

The United Nations faces potential destabilization at this moment as a result of unrelenting U.S. pressure. There is a widespread perception that at least some in the Bush Administration consider the UN a nuisance to be ignored — or an entity to be manipulated.

These pressures are not alleviated when the U.S. President belittles the majority will of the Security Council and the UN itself.

The incongruence in the U.S. position towards the United Nations becomes further evident when President Bush extols the vital work of the UN High Commission for Refugees, the World Food Program, UNICEF — and others in the current and post-conflict environment Iraq.

As an American, I firmly believe that it is the United States that has the most to lose from destroying the credibility of the UN.

The United Nations has served the United States well for more than 50 years. It is the United States, after all, that recoils from requests that it act as the world's police force — a kind of unilateralist troubleshooter.

Indeed, the record in such lonely endeavors as Vietnam, Somalia and Afghanistan suggests that even our great material and military might are not sufficient to resolve intractable disputes — or misguided entanglements.

Truth be told, we Americans badly need the UN to help provide a buffer between our interest in peace and the chaos that exists in a disparate, messy outside world.

We also need the UN to do all kinds of dirty work — not least the peacekeeping in post-conflict situations we have no interest in, or will for, policing.

That involvement is also embraced by the Bush Administration, which usually — witness Afghanistan — calls on the UN and the world community to assist in the post-military conflict stage of global hotspots.

Yet, far from nuancing its rhetoric, the Bush Administration keeps ratcheting up statements that act to undermine the institution that America needs most.

In the past, the United States has succeeded most effectively because it has consistently combined its military superiority with moral, political and diplomatic leadership.

Americans today should not abandon this tradition. We may be tempted to act as if military superiority allows the United States to ignore the importance of engagement, traditional relationships and leadership that stems from our commitment to unassailable, universal values. But the real victim of this strategy, in all likelihood, is going to be the United States of America.

We Americans need to realize that power in the world is defined not merely by military strength. Power exists in the content of our convictions and through international cooperation. No nation has shown that more clearly than the United States — whose morality, economy, culture, history and political leadership have been essential components of its strength.

As President Bush said in February 2003, this is a "crucial period in the history of our nation and of the civilized world." We will do well to remember these historic realities and institutional responsibilities in the coming weeks and months — as we move through this anxious time and into the post-conflict era.

It is imperative that we navigate this course thoughtfully — taking great care not to topple a tyrant at the cost of our ideals, key alliances and the international architecture that is so important to future peace and prosperity.

This Globalist Document is adapted from a speech that Mr. With gave in Denver Colorado on March 5, 2003. For the full text of Mr. Wirth’s speech, click here.