As a healthy response to the Bush Administration’s war policies, the number of people taking to the streets in protest is increasing with each step toward war. These protesters realize that they do not want the United States to initiate a pre-emptive and illegal war, but perhaps they do not yet realize that they are also fighting to retain an international order based on multilateralism, the rule of law and the United Nations itself.
To save the UN from the Administration’s destructive and radical unilateralism, other key nations will have to stand up to its bullying. France, Russia and China, because of their veto power in the Security Council, could withhold legal authority for America to proceed to war. Whether they will exercise this power, given the pressure they’re under from the Administration, remains to be seen. But if one or more of them does so, the Administration would be faced with acting in direct contravention of the Security Council, with a probable serious erosion of Congressional and public support. If it were to go ahead with war, it could deliver a death knell not only to Iraq but also to the UN itself. It is emblematic of US global waywardness that it is necessary to hope for a veto to uphold the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN as a force for peace but to also be concerned that Administration threats of unilateral military action could render the veto ineffective and thereby the role of the Security Council largely meaningless.
The United States was instrumental in forming the UN and was a strong supporter of the organization until the Reagan presidency, when that Administration’s hostility toward the UN became pronounced. Reagan’s indictment of it as dominated by Third World concerns was largely rhetorical and symbolic but included calls for budgetary downsizing and withdrawal from UNESCO because of its alleged corruption and anti-American bias. In the Bush I presidency this antipathy was connected with US global economic interests; the Administration used American muscle to close down the Center on Transnational Corporations as a favor to multinationals. This confrontational approach was briefly reversed by Bush Senior’s use of the UN to mandate war against Iraq in 1991 to oust it from Kuwait. At the time, Bush surprised the world by sounding briefly like a second coming of Woodrow Wilson with his call for “a new world order” centered upon reliance on the collective security mechanisms of the UN Security Council to meet the challenges of aggression. When the dust settled at the end of the Gulf War, however, the White House realized that it did not want such global responsibilities or to build such expectations about an enhanced UN role. The language of a new world order was deliberately, as one high-level official then expressed it, “put back on the shelf.”
Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign seemed to offer prospects for enhanced recourse to the UN to address humanitarian challenges of the sort that were arising in the Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa. But as President, Clinton contributed to the post-cold war decline of the UN by abruptly reversing course on Somalia in 1993 after eighteen Americans were killed in the Black Hawk Down incident. Rather than accept responsibility for that debacle, the Clinton Administration blamed the UN. That Administration also turned its back on UN pleas for a commitment to stop genocide in Rwanda a year later, when a small contingent of UN troops could have prevented the mass murders there. The Clinton security team further sabotaged a Rwanda intervention by threatening to halt US funding for UN peacekeeping operations if the UN took on new peacekeeping commitments.