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Resisting a Vendetta Against the UN

Does the United States share the blame in the UN failures?

December 9, 2004

Does the United States share the blame in the UN failures?

The current campaign by a handful of Congressional Republicans to oust UN Secretary General Kofi Annan — led by Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) — is just the latest round in an undistinguished history of U.S. politicians scoring cheap political points at the expense of the world body.

The slams from such critics are never constructive. Indeed, the UN they describe is usually a straw man bearing little resemblance to how the organization actually works.

Unfortunately, Senator Coleman's hyping of the troubled oil-for-food program comes just as a blue-ribbon commission has issued an ambitious set of proposals to modernize the United Nations to meet the peace and security challenges of today's world.

We can only hope that cooler, wiser Republican heads will carry the day — and that the United States will join the international push for a revamped system to guarantee international security.

Portraying the UN staff as having somehow run amok is a regular feature of UN-bashing. To listen to some U.S. politicians, the organization's staff is the UN. But this miscasts the essential nature of the United Nations — the UN is whatever its national government members make of it.

The oil-for-food program is no exception. The program was set up and monitored by the countries on the Security Council, who before Saddam's removal were concerned about the impact of economic sanctions on the people of Iraq.

One key fact missing from much of the recent media coverage is that representatives of the U.S. and UK governments reviewed every oil-for-food contract.

Senator Coleman's rush to judgment will only undermine the credibility of his Senate subcommittee's investigation.

If any UN staff are found to have profited from the oil-for-food program, clearly they should be punished. But Mr. Coleman seems more interested in enhancing his own stature by bringing down the Secretary General — it seems to be as much about Norm Coleman as it is about Kofi Annan.

The last time I checked, the Secretary General of the United Nations reports to the UN Security Council and General Assembly and the countries represented there, not to the junior Senator from Minnesota. And many of those UN member governments have already rejected the call for Mr. Annan's resignation.

Nor has the Bush Administration jumped on this bandwagon. In fact, President Bush delivered a major address on multilateralism last week in Halifax and focused, properly, on bigger international questions.

Outlining his major foreign policy goals for a second term, the president said the first is "to defend our security and spread freedom by building effective multinational and multilateral institutions and supporting effective multilateral action. The tasks of the 21st century — from fighting proliferation to fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS, to fighting poverty and hunger — cannot be accomplished by a single nation alone.”

This new George Bush — remember, just a year ago he was talking about the UN potentially joining the League of Nations on the scrapheap of history — will no doubt be regarded skeptically by some.

Those qualms notwithstanding, it's easy to see how his experience with the Iraq war — and the resulting isolation — could awaken him to the virtues of international cooperation.

Indeed, President Bush's language in Halifax could have been lifted from a remarkable new report on the UN by a panel of 16 eminent persons appointed by Kofi Annan in December 2003.

The Secretary General asked the so-called "High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change" to recommend changes to the international system to deal more effectively with the security threats of today's world.

After the split in the Security Council over Iraq in 2003, Mr. Annan wanted to know how governments can work together on a shared agenda.

The panel calls on governments to build a more secure world — by protecting their people from civil and cross-border wars, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, transnational organized crime, poverty, disease and environmental degradation.

Of course, not all countries are equally concerned about each of these threats, but that is the point.

If world leaders commit themselves to each other's priorities, it would lead to more effective action on all threats and start to build a collective security system worthy of the name.

Multilateralism needs to be a something-for-everybody proposition. And as the High-Level panel demonstrates, it can be. Every member of the world community can find proposals among the panel's 101 recommendations that speak to their concerns.

While the panel declined to endorse Mr. Bush's doctrine of preventive war against gathering threats from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), they did take the threat of WMD very seriously. The panel called for new controls on fissile nuclear materials to make it harder for countries to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of their civilian programs — and they supported the administration's proliferation security initiative.

Should these measures fail to thwart a nuclear proliferator, the panel even held out the possibility that force might be warranted (though not unilateral force). Were the world community to unify in steadily applying such pressure, it might unite in supporting force if all else fails.

The panel also addressed the concerns of the developing world. The members highlighted the huge funding gap in the fight against HIV/AIDS — a $7 billion annual shortfall in what is needed to deal with this global emergency.

They also called for the successful conclusion of the Doha round of trade talks to lower the barriers that keep the third world from benefiting from globalization.

The report launches a diplomatic and negotiation process among governments over its recommendations. One subject bound to draw attention are possible changes to the membership of the Security Council, whose composition reflects formulas dating back 60 years.

We must, however, keep focused on the real issue of the Security Council — making it more effective. One fair criticism of UN resolutions is that diplomats sometimes vote on them and then consider problem addressed, regardless of the actual impact.

Many of the high-level panel's recommendations are designed to strengthen the enforcement of UN resolutions.

Each government must now decide whether it truly wants a more effective international system. Those who do will need to move beyond the political posturing that so often dominates UN debate.

Washington is no exception. As Senator Coleman's scandal-mongering reminds us, many Republicans especially have an impulse to demagogue against the world body.

If President Bush's bold call for muscular multilateralism is to be more than just rhetoric, he will have to resist his Congressional colleagues and roll up his sleeves for the diplomatic toil of building international consensus.

This is work, we recall, for which his administration showed little appetite or talent during their first term.

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