UN: Whither the UN?
William Fisher

When the Bush administration asks the United Nations for something, you know they must be pretty desperate.

And so it is that the Bush camp has made its way – belatedly, cap in hand, to ask the UN for help in breaking the election deadlock in Iraq – a mission the UN has reluctantly agreed to consider.

But while the UN has done some very effective work on similar issues in the past, its mission to Iraq has been made infinitely more difficult – perhaps impossible – by Washington’s arrogant delay in asking for assistance. And despite being in urgent need of that assistance, nothing could stop the superhawks associated with the Bush White House from continuing to pour their scorn on the UN.

The morning after the President’s State of the Union speech last month, Richard Perle and David Frum felt impelled to write: 

“The lamentable truth about the United Nations is that with a panzer-led blitzkrieg fresh in the minds of its founders, it was set up to organize a collective response to aggression across national borders. But that is not the threat we face six decades later. Today the threat is terrorism, possibly carried out with weapons that could kill hundreds of thousands in a single attack. The United Nations is more likely to restrain us than help us in our war against terrorism.”

Perle and Frum have a point – sort of. When the United Nations was formed, the world was faced by the threat posed by conventional armies, facing one another across the barrels of conventional weapons, lined up along conventional borders. International terrorism had not yet been invented, ergo the UN was never organized to combat it.

However, defying both logic and the UN’s track record, the neocon solution is to throw the baby out with the bath water. Forget that in an era of globalization, every country lives in every other country’s pocket. Forget how effective the UN has been in so many situations in so many places at so many times. Forget allies. Forget the value of consensus building. Don’t worry about what the rest of the world thinks. Opt for unilateralism and preemptive strikes. Bring it on!

Why does it never occur to the neocons that the most urgent long-term mission the world faces is not in Iraq or North Korea or Iran or Israel? It is in New York. That mission is to reorient and reorganize the United Nations, not to dissolve it.

Transforming any giant bureaucracy is a truly monumental undertaking, and no one should underestimate how difficult it will be, or how long it will take. But a basis for this transformation already exists. Many nations are already cooperating with one another to combat terrorism, and they are doing so for the best of all reasons – their own security.  As more and more nations are violated by terrorism, the more prepared they will be to work together to defeat it. The ability of the world community to act in concert is why the UN was founded in the first place.

But the United Nations of the twenty-first century will need to look and act very differently than its prototype. It will require the will, the mandate, the strategy, the people, the resources, and the organizational and legal structures to confront and deal with stateless miscreants – terrorists.

Sustainable change at the UN must begin with the Security Council. But the United States doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, even if politically it was – once – the best-placed member to lead such an effort. At the moment, it is not. Thanks to the pre-Iraq hype, US intelligence is viewed with suspicion. But more importantly, the US has lost its credibility at the UN because it rushed past its partner nations to recruit a ‘coalition of the willing’ to launch a near-unilateral military campaign. In the process, America trashed the central tenet of the UN: multilateral agreement and action. Its recent return to the UN to ask for help was an act of last-resort desperation.

Here is an opportunity for the nations of ‘old Europe’ to show real leadership. Instead of simply saying ‘Non’ to the United States, countries like France – and Germany – should be proposing new initiatives to revitalize the UN. They should be working with other countries and regional groupings – the Arab League would be a good start – to suggest ways in which the UN should be reformed as a more agile, twenty-first century institution, better able to enforce its resolutions.

The UN will never be perfect, nor will it ever be a panacea to the world’s problems.  But just consider the alternative: a world without it.

William Fisher lived in Egypt for a number of years, managing donor projects for USAID in the Middle East and North Africa