Can this marriage be saved?

An expert says the U.S. and the U.N. may be at each other's throats right now, but they need each other too much to break up.

Published April 4, 2003 11:03PM (EST)

The United Nations Security Council: Can't live with it, can't live without it.

Such is the quandary facing the Bush administration as it attempts to wrangle aid from the United Nations for reconstruction of post-invasion Iraq while ceding little control in the region. The United Nations, meanwhile, has its own dilemma: How does it respond to chaos and human suffering in Iraq after a war fiercely opposed by certain members of its Security Council, while maintaining some semblance of legitimacy and control?

U.N. analyst Bruce Jones, deputy director of the Center on International Cooperation, a research institute on multinational responses to world problems based at New York University, rejects the idea that the credibility of the United Nations is at stake; nor does he speculate that the United States could fail to rebuild Iraq without the help -- and endorsement -- of the United Nations. But the author of "Peacemaking in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure," and onetime chief of staff to the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, insists that neither the U.N. nor the U.S. can function well without the other.

"I think people concerned about the Iraqi people, about stability in the region, and the stability of world order can conclude that it's necessary for the U.N. to play some role in postwar Iraq," says Jones. And, he adds, "There are U.S. officials looking into the reconstruction of Iraq who realize that with all of its wealth, the United States doesn't actually have all of the resources or the capacities it would need to carry out the reconstruction of Iraq."

The world, says Jones, has had an epiphany in the lead up to the war: "My sense is that what we're witnessing is the first encounter with the reality of American hyper-power." It is a lesson, he adds, that the U.N. must take very seriously. "It's meaningless to talk about a credible world organization that doesn't have the active participation of the only world superpower," he says.

Indeed, even as Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Turkey and Brussels in an attempt to mend fences with U.N. member nations, and discuss postwar Iraq, it is still not clear how flexible the Bush administration will be in modifying its post-invasion plans to satisfy its European allies or the U.N. The administration's initial governance plans in Iraq reportedly involve an American civilian team, comprised of 23 ministries, to run the country. Members of the interim government, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper, already have begun arriving in Kuwait.

So far, the U.N.'s role has been limited to humanitarian aid. Last week the Security Council revived the organization's Oil for Food Program, which provides medicine and food to the Iraqi people but had been suspended the day before the invasion. Wording in the resolution reviving the aid was changed following Russia and Syria's contention that references to "relevant authorities" in Iraq could be interpreted as legitimizing future powers there and effectively condoning the Iraqi invasion.

Salon recently discussed the future of the United Nations and what role it should play in post-invasion Iraq with Bruce Jones, who believes that the war in Iraq was likely without or without the backing of the Security Council. Now, he says, begins the delicate process of finding common ground for all U.N. member states, perhaps a legitimate security issue, that would unify the body -- and, he hopes, might facilitate reform of the council, which he describes as "an outmoded instrument that has not ever truly been able to live up to the challenge of managing international security issues."

How devastating is the U.S. Iraqi invasion to the U.N.'s credibility?

Not nearly as devastating as commonly argued.

I think there's been a totally false debate going on about both the role of the U. N. and the damage to it. The defenders of the U.N. have been painting a picture of it as central to international security, and central to international politics, and the absolute arbiter of legitimacy. Quite frankly, anybody who works in or with the U.N. knows that it's none of those things. Even in the 1990s, which was an ambitious decade for the U.N., a very expansive decade, it was never central to international security in any real sense.

That idea, that image of the U.N., is a caricature. It's an important actor in international security, but I don't think any serious analyst would make the claim that the U.N. is the central element of international security. Never has been. That said, it's also the case that the lack of relevance, the appeasement of the U.N., its facile nature, its irresponsibility are also equally overstated. The death of the U.N. is too frequently told and always over-told. The U.N. was as threatened, if you listen to the rhetoric, by the fact that it was bypassed over Kosovo. It was as threatened by its failure in Rwanda, Somalia and other places. But it's the only collective international instrument we have.

But isn't the U.N.'s image -- deserved or not -- important in maintaining a collective sense of world stability?

It is important. But you have to ask yourself where the damage is done. Is it being done broadly at the international level or is it done in Washington? One of the interesting things is that if you look at the image of the U.N. internationally, the perception is that it stood up to the United States against a war that was broadly perceived internationally as illegitimate. The damage is in terms of the domestic debate within the United States, within this administration, over what should be the relationship between U.S. power and the United Nations.

My own personal view is that those in the international community who see this as some kind of moral victory for the U.N. in the sense of resisting U.S. power are hopelessly romantic and naive if they think that the institution can survive without working in concert with American power. The experience of the 1990s shows that the U.N. works effectively when it works in concert with American power -- not subcontracted to it, not subservient to it, nor resisting it: in concert with it.

When in the 1990s did the U.N. and U.S. work together effectively?

If you look at the difference between the U.N.'s performance in Rwanda, for example, and its performance in East Timor. There are similarities -- a rapidly breaking, yet foretold, crisis, a prior U.N. presence. In the one case, Rwanda, there was no real response from the Security Council -- only a very late and very partial response that colossally failed to save hundreds of thousands of lives. In the case of East Timor, a very rapid response saved probably tens of thousands of lives.

I think there were two factors there: One was an important learning of lessons inside the U.N. from what happened in Rwanda, and moral leadership from Kofi Annan and his chief lieutenants. But surely the more important one was the fact that American influence was brought decisively to bear on Indonesians at the critical moment that enabled the U.N. to do what it needed to do.

What role should the U.N. play in Iraq?

My answer, which will no doubt be unsatisfying, is it's too early to tell. Much depends on how the course of the war develops, and the still unknown question of whether the bulk of the Iraqi people will respond to a defeat of the Hussein regime -- if that's what occurs -- as a liberating fact, even if they aren't necessarily keen about an American presence. We simply don't know yet, what will be the balance of the Iraqi population's perception. That will hugely shape what options are available to the U.N.

The benefits that the United Nations brings to bear in that context are twofold. It has a certain technical capacity in terms of civil administration and post-conflict governance, rule of law and reconstruction in all sorts of sectors. It has lots of problems with that technical capacity, but it has some capacity. What it should also bring to bear is legitimacy. If it isn't seen in the eyes of the Iraqi people as a legitimate actor, then its technical capacity can't really be brought to bear. It becomes just a subcontractor of the American government. That's not of any use either to the Iraqi people, or actually to the United States.

If the United States wants the U.N. to help it do something in postwar Iraq it has to accept that the United Nations' technical capacity can't be subtracted from the question of its legitimacy. If the U.N. isn't perceived as a legitimate actor there, it won't be able to do anything constructive. The question of how a potential U.N. role will be perceived by the Iraqi people, and by the international community at large, cannot be divorced from what technical function it should take on. And we simply don't know yet what the contours of that will look like.

Nor do we know what role the U.S. is willing to allow the U.N. to take.

That's right. We don't know that yet. My sense is that there is a significant debate inside the administration on that issue. And, obviously, various European governments are making initial statements about what they think the U.N.'s role should be. I expect that will be an issue that will be negotiated in the coming weeks and possibly even months. My sense is that it's slightly too early to start into a real debate about what the U.N. should do. We need to know a little more about the lay of the land in postwar Iraq.

I think people concerned about the Iraqi people, about stability in the region, and the stability of world order can conclude that it's necessary for the U.N. to play some role in postwar Iraq. I think if an appropriate and legitimate role can be identified and implemented, it will help ensure that what happens in postwar Iraq will be something that is in the interest of the Iraqi people and of the region. It will also help restore a certain sense of order in world politics.

It seems we've always seen a split between the richest nations and developing countries in U.N. debates. This time, we witnessed a division between America and some of its European allies. Is this a sign of a new emerging European Union force led by France and Germany that will complicate other issues before the United Nations?

That's not my sense of things. You often see divisions within the European Union; they're just kept under wraps. If you look into European Union politics on pretty much every major foreign policy issue, there are significant differences among France, Germany, Britain, Spain, depending on the issues, and also between the major Western European actors and the new European Union members like Poland. It's usually the case that the mechanisms of the E.U. are brought to bear to wrap those in some kind of common cloak. But the differences are pretty significant. I don't think it's the case yet that the European foreign policy mechanisms have actually generated common understanding of or common positions on foreign policy issues.

Why do U.S. officials want United Nations help -- at least with humanitarian aid -- in Iraq now? Do they merely want to share the financial burden? Are they still seeking the imprimatur of international legitimacy on the invasion? Or do officials recognize the value of helping to restore the U.N.'s standing by inviting its participation?

I can't speak to the motivations of American officials. But it's instructive to note that during this whole debacle over the Iraq issue at the U.N., at precisely that moment, the U.S. was pushing North Korea by virtue of the fact that it was going to bring the issue of the withdrawal of North Korea from the inspections regime to the U.N. Security Council. And who were its allies on the Security Council? Britain and France. That cooperation continues.

In other words, the U.N. Security Council was -- and still is -- being used by the U.S. for other reasons. What would seem to me a logical view coming out of the major superpower, is that absent an existing alternative, we need to continue to work with this institution to do certain kind of things, although we might start to think of a process of deep and serious reform of the United Nations Security Council.

I think what's interesting about that, virtually every major defender of the U.N. has in their own time in their own way also called for serious reform of the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. Security Council is an outmoded instrument that has not ever truly been able to live up to the challenge of managing international security issues. They don't have credible, effective regimes for managing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, for example. No one yet has come up with a proposal for reform. Nobody yet has come up with a clear definition of where that goes.

Why would the U.S. want the U.N. in Iraq? I can think of a number of reasons. If the U.S. overthrows the Iraqi regime it will, in strictly legal terms, be the occupying power under the Geneva Conventions. It will have responsibility for the protection of the Iraqi people. That's not necessarily a comfortable role over a very long time. I can see the U.S. wanting to shift that burden. There are U.S. officials looking into the reconstruction of Iraq who realize that with all of its wealth the United States doesn't actually have all of the resources or the capacities it would need to carry out the reconstruction of Iraq.

I think some also understand that in the Arab world to reconstruct an Iraqi regime without the participation of the U.N. is going to pose a serious legitimacy challenge to whatever emerges and make it much more difficult for neighboring governments or the broader Arab world to recognize it -- and that will pose major complications for any nascent regime.

You referred to the "debacle" of the Iraqi situation in the Security Council. How should it have been handled?

My sense is that the diplomacy in the U.N. was flawed. I think the U.S. administration as a whole too frequently shifted the basis of its rationale for a war with Iraq and undermined the credibility of its own initial case. I think that President Bush's diplomacy in the U.N. in November leading up to U.N. Resolution 1441 and Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte were, frankly, masterful in that stage of the game. But in the later stages, there was too frequently a shift in the rationale for war in Iraq that undermined the credibility of their own arguments. At the same time, a number of member states were rapidly committing themselves to somewhat inflexible positions. There was a growing inflexibility of both camps as the debates evolved, and that undermined any real chance of developing a consensus on the Security Council.

American officials clearly changed the definition of what it would take not to go to war against Saddam Hussein. But how were they masterful in the initial stages of the negotiations?

The early stages were masterful for two reasons. One, the decision of Bush to come to the U.N., to bring it to the U.N. personally, hit all of the right notes diplomatically in terms of suggesting the possibility of a kind of concert between U.S. power and the broader interests and legitimacy of the United Nations.

Most people in and around the U.N., if you speak to them one on one, accept and understand that the U.N. can't function as a serious institution without the backing of the United States. It's meaningless to talk about a credible world organization that doesn't have the active participation of the only world superpower. Bush's decision to bring the Iraqi issue to the Security Council in a very substantive way in November generated a willingness to engage the various member states on their core issues. In the details of the management of that discussion, Powell and Negroponte were extremely successful in getting a unanimous resolution -- one of the high points, I would say, of American diplomacy in recent history.

But that clearly fell apart afterwards when the perception among member states around the U.N. was that the Bush administration was too ready to find a material breach of 1441.

My own perception is slightly different. I believe that had there been a proper inspections process over time, backed by a full consensus of the council, we would still have ended up with a war in Iraq. I think it is unlikely that the inspections process, even if well-managed and robust, could have created the kinds of conditions that would have allowed the Hussein regime to take the kind of steps required by 1441 and ultimately would have ended up in a breach and a clash. That might have been a war backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution, but it would have been a better thing than a war not backed by the Security Council. But it would still have been a war.

Are you saying the inspections process wasn't proper?

Not at all. I'm saying that had the inspection process continued, I think at some stage some element of substantial weapons capacity would have been discovered. The requirements in 1441 are of such a deep and strategic nature that I think it's unlikely that the Hussein government would have taken the steps required to comply with 1441 and so would ultimately have found itself in material breach.

And an invasion would have been backed by the Security Council?

Yes. That's my sense. And there are critical differences in a war backed by the Security Council, not only in terms of its legal implications, but in terms of alliance building around the execution of the war itself.

One of the things I think we're seeing is that a number of Arab governments that would have not been unhappy to see Hussein fall have been forced into a position of active opposition to the war -- for two reasons. One is the absence of a Security Council resolution and two, because in terms of popular Arab politics, the idea that Arab governments should be less vociferous in their opposition to the war than France or Germany is completely untenable. So those Arab governments have to take stronger positions than the European powers. But many of those Arab governments very deeply dislike the Hussein regime and Hussein personally and would be quite happy to see him go. But the diplomacy around them forced them into a difference kind of stance.

What are the major factions vying for control of the U.N. and what parallel universes can you envision for the organization?

I think the question supposes more coherence to the system than actually exists. My sense is that what we're witnessing is the first encounter with the reality of American hyper-power. America was the single dominant power during the 1990s, but the nature of the challenges and the nature of the issues were such that by and large the collective interests of the U.N. were generally not in direct conflict with those of the United States.

This Iraq business is the first instance, in a very kind of rough way, in which the broader membership of the U.N. has come head-to-head with the fact of a substantial difference of view with the United States. I think everybody's left with this perception now that there's this very, very difficult challenge to manage between, on the one hand, a solo superpower, and a global organization whose function is supposed to mean cobbling together some kind of global legitimacy. Now global legitimacy doesn't have to mean every state agreeing on every issue, but it should mean a cumulation of collective will toward certain objectives and certain goals.

Most people looking realistically at the United Nations understand and recognize that the U.N. cannot function without U.S. power. By the same token, if the United Nations is simply seen as a tool of U.S. power and there's no shared sense of values and purposes and goals, then it loses its legitimacy and it has no particular function or purpose. It doesn't bring anything to the table.

It's a difficult balance. I think the challenge is to find issues which are seen universally, or at least widely, as legitimate security issues where U.S. interests and U.S. power could be seen in concert with a wider set of concerns -- and to try to build more effective and more credible institutions within the U.N. framework for dealing with those security challenges.

What kind of issues could unify the U.N.?

I think the place where you could probably do the best work at this stage of the game is probably regarding weapons of mass destruction. I don't see anybody on the international stage other than a very small number of actors as regarding widespread proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as being a good thing. I don't see any major state having an interest in that and virtually all states having an interest in quite the opposite.

By Mary Papenfuss

Mary Papenfuss is a writer and editor in Paris.

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