This year the Nobel Peace Prize committee got it stunningly right when it honored the United Nations and Secretary General Kofi Annan. For all its bureaucratic and political timidity, the UN has kept alive and vital the idea of collective action for peace by the nations of the world that was central to its founding–an idea of particular importance right now as the world struggles to find a way to deal with terrorism. Despite being handicapped by US indifference, if not hostility, it has made a major contribution in places like East Timor and Cambodia and has galvanized international action on problems like small arms and AIDS.
Central to the UN’s renewed credibility on the world stage has been the leadership of Kofi Annan, which has elevated morale within the organization and won the trust of its 189 fractious members. Annan has exhibited a talent for soothing the tender egos of potentates and chieftains jealous of their sovereignty–including the US Congress, whose members he charmed into paying up a portion of America’s back dues.
Of course, much of what the UN has accomplished in recent years has been in spite of the United States, which has used it to advance parochial interests or dumped it whenever it wanted to act unilaterally. This do-it-our-way-or-we’re-picking-up-our-marbles relationship is unworthy of the UN’s importance. It is also contrary to America’s national interest.
US foreign policy would be better served if Washington let the UN be a moral as well as a practical guide to American diplomacy. As Washington has discovered, the battle against terrorism is also a battle for the political soul of millions in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Conferences like the recent one in Durban, on racism, tell us just how out of touch America is with the sentiments of many people around the globe.
Now with the bombing in Afghanistan sparking upheavals in the Muslim world and threatening to create a humanitarian crisis, the need for Washington to work with and through the UN has never been more compelling. The allies need a large blue UN umbrella to counter Muslim charges of a US holy war against Islam. Significantly, Iran, a theocracy at odds with America, endorsed the concept of a UN-led fight against terrorism and offered assistance in rescuing downed US fliers. UN participation is essential to preserving a broad coalition against terrorism, and even George W. Bush admits that the UN has a role to play in planning for reconstruction in Afghanistan. Washington should throw full support behind Annan’s seasoned special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi. But the real test of Washington’s newfound appreciation of the UN is whether America will provide the resources the UN needs to carry out its mission.
Even more urgent is action on the humanitarian front, as Afghans flee their homes and food supplies dwindle. Here the call by UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson for a pause in the bombing to permit a massive international relief effort before the imminent arrival of winter makes great sense. The US should heed Robinson’s call, simultaneously advancing a political vision for Afghanistan in which the UN plays the leading role. Preventing widespread starvation should be a major concern of the United States and its allies. If it is not, all the claimed moral and legal justifications for military action vanish.