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Kofi Annan and George Bush — Finally United?

Is the UN Secretary General adopting a view of freedom similar to President Bush’s?

April 11, 2005

Is the UN Secretary General adopting a view of freedom similar to President Bush's?

The Bush Administration and the UN have been at loggerheads for quite some time. So the fact that the UN Secretary General’s new plan for UN reform, called "In Larger Freedom," echoes President Bush’s emphasis on freedom is welcome news.

There is a unique opportunity here. But to realize it, Bush and Annan will have to build a consensus for action based on the Secretary General’s reform agenda.

Along the way, there will need to be many compromises — for example, as happened with the UN Security Council resolution in late March 2005 to put pressure on the Sudanese over the Darfur crisis.

When Mr. Annan called his plan “In Larger Freedom,” he was surely looking for common ground with the Bush team. But, freedom is not a new idea at the United Nations.

In fact, the Secretary General is careful to point out that this particular phrase is drawn from the 1945 United Nations Charter.

While diplomatic maneuvering is the day-to-day norm at the United Nations, it is important to remember the organization’s true responsibility to this and other ideals. What’s more, different people have different notions of freedom.

As the report’s title indicates, Mr. Annan is calling for a broader conception of freedom — and that gets him a bit out of sync with President Bush.

The President’s emphasis is on the liberation of oppressed peoples from tyrannical regimes, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Secretary General points out that the ability to choose one’s own leaders is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of liberty: “Larger freedom implies that men and women everywhere have the right to be governed by their own consent.
"They must also be free from want — so that the death sentences of extreme poverty and infectious disease are lifted from their lives. And they must be free from fear — so that their lives and livelihoods are not ripped apart by violence and war.”

The difference here is one of emphasis. It is not that the Bush Administration is indifferent to poverty or humanitarian crisis, but that Mr. Bush’s foreign policy is heavily skewed toward confrontation with so-called “rogue” governments.
And for much of the rest of the world, the narrower concept of freedom carries an echo of Mr. Bush’s first-term drive for regime change.

In contrast to the go-it-alone approach of his first term, President Bush now has promised to work with multilateral institutions like the United Nations to make them stronger.

In a speech in December 2004, he said one of the “three great goals” for his second term is to work with other nations to make such institutions “more relevant and more effective in meeting the unique threats of our time.”
Mr. Bush’s December 2004 speech coincided in timing and message with a report of the so-called High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.

Kofi Annan had commissioned the panel to recommend reforms for the UN system using this report — and he largely based his own report on it as well.

After the international schism over the Iraq war, the Secretary General spoke of a crisis in the international system.

Regardless of one’s position on Iraq, the increasing disunity among world leaders — and the disconnect between their rhetoric and real problems — highlighted the need for going beyond diplomacy as usual.

With all the recent focus on the Oil for Food program, we must not forget that the United Nations is not merely — or even primarily — an administrator of programs. It is also the world's principle political forum, where leaders can jointly confront threats.

What is most striking about the recent UN reports is that they are specific and practical about what needs to be done. For every contemporary threat — from terrorism and infectious diseases to weapons of mass destruction and extreme poverty — proposed actions are on the table.
In other words, a challenge has been issued to world leaders: “If you want safer, healthier, more productive lives for your people, here is what you must do.”

The “can do” tone of each of these reports and Mr. Annan’s full embrace of an active approach matches well with President Bush’s essential optimism.
That said, things still have the potential to go awry. In the coming weeks and months, there will be arguments over many of Kofi Annan’s proposals.

Fair enough. There is always room for fine-tuning. But this is the time for world leaders to focus on shared goals — increased security, development and human rights — and not a time to press individual national ambitions (including those of the United States) to the hilt.

President Bush made a significant gesture toward compromise when he agreed to let any trials of genocide perpetrators in Sudan be tried by the International Criminal Court — a new institution vehemently opposed by hard-line conservatives (including his nominee to be UN ambassador, John Bolton).
Kofi Annan has offered his report as an agenda for reform and has invited heads of state to a summit meet in New York in September. Expectations are high for meaningful action this year.

Will the United States play a leading and constructive role in renewing the United Nations? Rhetorically, the President is on board. And Kofi Annan has put forward important ideas that both acknowledge the lead role of the United States and also benefit all the nations that make up the UN.
Anyone who cares about the state of international cooperation should watch closely to see whether Mr. Bush and other leaders will take advantage of this historic opportunity to build a more secure world.