Much to the frustration of the Bush Administration, France, Russia, China and the other members of the United Nations Security Council opposing the British-US resolution on Iraq have not bought into Washington’s argument that the failure to act would render the UN irrelevant. And rightly so, since the UN’s relevance depends not on what Washington demands but on its viability as a forum that reconciles the national interests of its constituent members with the international legal framework provided by the UN Charter, which the United States has ratified and pledged to uphold. While at times the UN has been ignored or thwarted–the war in Kosovo comes to mind, as well as the routine use of the veto by the Soviet Union and the United States during the cold war–the fact is that it still matters a great deal to most of the world. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan writes in the Wall Street Journal, if the United States goes to war without UN authorization, “the legitimacy of that action will be widely questioned, and it will not gain the political support needed to ensure its long-term success” in postwar reconstruction. Certainly embattled British Prime Minister Tony Blair believes the UN is relevant; otherwise, he would not have worked so desperately for a second Security Council resolution that could provide him with a justification for taking his nation to war alongside the United States.
At this writing, it is unclear whether Blair and the Bush Administration will succeed. But whether they do or not, and whatever happens in Iraq, the UN will continue to be needed–to help put Iraq back together if there is a war, and to deal with many other issues. As Shashi Tharoor, UN Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information, writes in the London Independent: “When this crisis has passed, the world will still be facing…problems of weapons of mass destruction, of the degradation of our common environment, of contagious disease and chronic starvation, of human rights and human wrongs, of mass illiteracy and massive displacement. These are problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve on its own, and which are yet the shared responsibility of humankind.” As just two examples, in Iran and North Korea, both of which may now be developing nuclear weapons capabilities, the military option is unrealistic–Iran because it is not susceptible to easy defeat and North Korea because it can rain death on Seoul and US troops along the 38th parallel. The only feasible alternative is a UN inspection regime.
The argument in the United States about whether the UN is relevant is a reflection of just how large the gap is between the United States and the rest of the world. Much of the world, including the other great powers, has entered a postnational understanding of global governance on questions of world order. France, Germany, Russia, China and other world powers are now committed to international rules forbidding the unilateral use of force and to a form of consensual global governance. This is a remarkable achievement–the vision of the founders of the UN.
The United States, however, is still fighting this notion, and only wants the UN and other international institutions to exist on its own terms. Thus, the question is not the relevance of the UN but the extent to which the United States is willing to accept a world that it has helped create.