April 18, 2003

The United Nations: Much Ado About Nothing

Thomas Jefferson wisely warned in 1801: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” As the war with Iraq and the perilous regime of Saddam Hussein come to an end, the difficult task of rebuilding a free and stable Iraqi state begins, and sets the stage for the future of our “entangling alliance” with the United Nations. As the process of facilitating the creation of a free Iraq seeks to find its footing in Washington, London, Europe, the UN, the Arab world and – last but not least – Baghdad itself, the divergent visions for a new Iraq, and the means of achieving it, have only begun to emerge.

The prewar critics of regime change in Iraq – namely the UN and continental Europe – now insist on taking the lead role in the interim administration of Iraq and the formation of the new Iraqi government. (As a U.S. interim authority prepares to move into Baghdad, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed his own “special advisor” to Iraq.) “We must stabilize Iraq and the region,” concluded French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, one of President George Bush’s most ardent wartime critics. “The United Nations is the only international organization that can give legitimacy to this.” Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel echoed this sentiment, adding an implicit threat to hamper the rebuilding effort if “old Europe” doesn’t get its way: “I don’t see how we could contribute to the reconstruction without the United Nations playing a key role.”

In other words, while these nations vehemently protested regime change or even the UN-mandated disarmament of Iraq (not to mention denying that there existed anything to disarm in the first place) in favor of continuing the insipid series of Security Council resolutions, these same nations now want to control the restructuring process, via the UN. France, it seems, still seriously believes itself to have an effective voice in global politics. (The frog that roared, apparently, is still at it.)

And why, you may ask, does the frog so roar? There exist at least three reasons for this phenomenon:

First, the UN as it presently exists is old Europe’s only vehicle for furthering its own geopolitical relevance. This is especially the case with France (and to a degree, Russia), who holds one of the five permanent seats and the accompanying veto power on the UN Security Council. Other European nations vary in their (perceived) importance as they rotate on and off of the UNSC, and in and out of that body’s monthly chairmanship. Most recently, Germany and Belgium (among others) have succumbed to the temptation to exert themselves on the grounds of their temporary hold on UN power.

Second, the Frogs (…and Krauts …and Russkies) have roared given their economic interests in the rebuilding of Iraq. Again, the French, Germans and Russians are the ones with the most to gain, and the most to lose. They gain the most if they are allowed to participate in the bids for contracts to rebuild Iraq’s largely collapsed infrastructure. They also gain if they are allowed to bid for contracts to Iraqi oil. At least one French oil company had contracted for Iraqi oil under the Hussein regime; a contract prohibited by the very UN sanctions perpetuated by old Europe. These nations lose – and lose big – if a new Iraqi government refuses to honor the foreign debt incurred under the old regime. All told, France, Germany and Russia hold tens of billions of dollars in Iraqi IOUs. Russia, the smallest player in this petrophile triumvirate, is owed in excess of $6 billion from Saddam’s failed regime. If they play significant roles – via the UN – in the reformation of Iraq, continental Europe can hope to reclaim at least part of its losses.

And the third reason for Europe’s fervent protestations is suggested by the second: If the UN, under Europe’s tutelage, takes the lead in structuring a new Iraqi government, we may all rest assured that this new government will have a favorable economic impact, present and future, upon these nations. Old Europe’s foreign policy, with its traditional zeal for pragmatism and self-promotion, and its accompanying lack of any fixed values, is nothing but an extension of these nations’ economic policies. Nowhere are the real aims of European foreign policy more clearly seen than in the Middle East.

And yet the Continental pot persists in calling the Anglo-American kettle black. In contrast to old Europe’s insistence that it control the restructuring process through the UN, what is the message coming from the supposedly oil-thirsty, imperialistic and opportunistic United States? President Bush, oft derided for his cowboy diplomacy and go-it-aloneism, has done what the geopolitical mavens of Europe and the UN have not. He has spoken to – and advocated for – the Iraqi people: “We will end a brutal regime whose aggression and weapons of mass destruction make it a unique threat to the world. The government of Iraq – and the future of your country will soon belong to you.” The western imperialist went on to say in last week’s televised address to free Iraq, “Coalition forces will help maintain law and order so that Iraqis can live in security …[and] will help you build a peaceful and representative government that protects the rights of all citizens. And then our military forces will leave.” In a statement echoing the spirit of the president’s remarks, British PM Tony Blair said that coalition forces would not remain in Iraq “a day longer than is necessary.”

Furthermore, European hypocrisy may not be confined to its political shenanigans. The attitude of current UN weapons inspectors has been to “destroy in place” any weapons found in violation of Security Council resolutions. When the United States begins its own weapons inspections in Iraq, the policy may very well not only be to examine and destroy the weapons, but to determine their origin as well. Don’t be surprised if the fingerprints on those weapons come from countries who have been the chief obstructionists in the Security Council.

All of this aside, the Bush administration has conceded that there is “a vital role” – as yet undefined – for the UN in postwar Iraq.

But should there be a vital role for the UN in postwar Iraq? What does the past year and a half – since September 11, 2001 – tell us about the UN, and how the U.S. should relate to this body in the future? If the series of events from the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon to the second Gulf War tell us anything, it is that the UN has relegated itself to irrelevance by alienating the world’s only superpower, the United States. The UNSC’s irrelevance is highlighted by the reality that its resolutions are only enforceable upon law-abiding nations. Rather than working to present genuine and viable multilateral solutions to global problems, Europe’s UN alter ego has consciously become the inhibition to U.S. foreign policy, and a boon to lawless states like Saddam’s Iraq. (The fact that Iraq now heads the UN Commission on Disarmament, and Libya head the Human Rights Commission only underscores how seriously the UN takes its charter commitment “…to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…. to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights…. [and] to promote social progress … and freedom….”

The most effective (and possibly the most creative) strategy for the U.S.‘s future stance toward the UN originates with the political philosopher James Burnham, who first proposed the idea of parliamentary separation over thirty years ago (an idea recently revisited by the ever-astute William F. Buckley). Burnham suggests that the U.S. need not necessarily abdicate its UN membership and seat on the Security Council (though that wouldn’t be a bad idea, either). Rather, the U.S. ambassador to the UN should fully engage in the debates of the UNSC and continue to clearly and forcefully put forth the U.S. position on international issues. However, when it comes to voting on any given resolution, the U.S. … wouldn’t. Eventually, says Burnham, Security Council resolutions, as well as the vetoes of the council’s five permanent members, would become meaningless. This would allow the UN to avoid the fate of the League of Nations and continue to serve as a forum for international debate – but not as a body possessing the authority to create and enforce international legislation. That part of the UN which seeks to exert a parliamentary authority would cease to exist, while the UN as an international body could continue to do the good things it does (whatever those things might be). What better way to rout European ambitions and pretenses, and reinforce the notion of national sovereignty? Whatever the case, the attitude of old Europe and the UN toward a liberated Iraq will be – and must be – the litmus test for the United States’ further involvement in that body. Thus far, the roaring of frogs, as well as a host of other animals indigenous to the Continent, makes the situation appear far from promising.

Notwithstanding Burnham’s genius, it may already be too late to heed the advice of philosophers. If realism is permitted to see its proper place in U.S. policymaking, full separation from our “entangling alliance” with the UN – beyond Burnham’s call for parliamentary separation – may already be necessary. Ironically, Europe’s vehement advocacy for a UN designed to check U.S. predominance, may be their undoing.

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