On The Relevance Of
The United Nations

By Terrell E. Arnold

In the heat of debate to justify a war on Iraq, top US leaders have attempted to make UN acceptance of the US position a test of the validity of the United Nations system. President Bush did this at his ranch in Crawford, Texas last Saturday, and asserted again in a speech Wednesday that the United Nations had a last chance to prove its relevance by adopting a resolution the United States with British help will propose in a few days.
This week members of the Bush team have gone further by asserting that the UN will destroy its legitimacy by failing to back the US war plan. Like many of the throwaway lines Bush himself is fond of using, such as Ariel Sharon is "a man of peace", these comments are part of the in your face and personal style Bush and particularly his Secretary of Defense have adopted for putting down people who disagree with them.
Bush team members apparently are not willing to confront the real issue: whether a war on Iraq is either the necessary or the best way of disarming Saddam, or, more pointedly, whether disarming Saddam is even important at this time. Questioning the relevancy and the legitimacy of the UN is not only immature and impulsive, it is an underhanded and dangerous challenge to the only organization the world now has for dealing with a host of problems that neither the United States nor any other country can or should want to tackle alone. At the top of that list are AIDS, world hunger, human rights, failures and deficiencies in the nation state system, and the real war on terrorism.
Those problems cluster around the main global issues that gave rise to most if not all of the world,s terrorists: Hunger, poverty, disease, social, political and economic injustice, political exclusion, and matters of cultural, ethnic or religious diversity. If not addressed, those issues will continue to generate new terrorists faster than they can be cut down in any war on terrorism the United States can mount. That is simply because the present War on Terrorism is designed to capture, confine, kill or counter the existing terrorists, not to deal with the root causes of terrorism.
The US foreign assistance budget is neither large enough nor well-targeted enough to do much work on the global issues. With at least a third of that budget going to Israel and more than half going to Israel and Egypt together, the rest of the developing world receives very little. Meanwhile, as part of the bargaining around support for the war on Iraq, Israel is asking for $18 billion (to stay at home and fight its own battle) and Turkey is asking for and may get $30 billion (to support US war plans). Between them these two countries are asking for almost 6 times the entire US aid budget, more than the US trade deficit, to play their parts in the Iraq war.
Those war related expenditures and the de-facto bribes that may be paid to African or other members of the Security Council to get their votes on a new resolution are stark reminders that the US case for war with Iraq needs a great deal of work. Weaknesses in the case along with obvious signs of US desperation to get a favorable vote out of the UN have perverse effects for the US position: On the one hand, members of the Security Council and regional countries of importance to the US battle plan see plainly that the US can be had in the diplomatic bargaining. On the other hand, US eagerness to obtain a favorable UN decision belies the Bush team charge that the UN risks irrelevance or loss of legitimacy.
In fact, the United Nations has the only forum where the United States can legitimate its plans, assuming they should be legitimated. During the Cold War, NATO may have been a legitimating forum, but that no longer works. If the debate were properly focused by the Bush team, it would be about the legitimacy of the war, not about the standing of the UN. As shown in peace demonstrations in many countries last week, messengers from many parts of the world are saying the war is a poor idea. Killing the messengers or belittling them will not improve the plans. As the debate is being pursued, the UN is not standing in the way, it is serving in loco parentis for dealing with truculent and stubborn US posturing.
Several truths about the situation are obvious: The risks of terrorism cannot be greatly diminished without resolving the global issues. The real war on terrorism is not now being fought by the United States. War on Iraq will not do anything significant to diminish world terrorism. Whoever takes the lead in the war on terrorism must have global access. Only the UN has the standing needed to tackle the global issues. Only a serious and sustained attack by all nations on the global issues will assure any success in the war on terrorism. The outcome will never be perfect"the irrational element will always be there, and some protection against terrorism will always be necessary.
The United States on its best day cannot substitute for a detached international organization that is charged and funded to do this work. But the United States with its wealth and technology can fuel the process. The risk is that, on the courses being taken by the Bush team, with only about 4% of the world,s people, the United States will make itself irrelevant to managing the present conflict environment. Since 9-11 US leadership has done an incredible job of blowing its opportunity to really attack world terrorism by too narrowly defining the problem, too exclusively defining the victims who matter, and too assiduously protecting the Israelis whose actions against the Palestinians are the current most potent generators of terrorism.
Over the long haul, the roles and capabilities of the United Nations system must be enhanced and their funding must be markedly increased. Instead of an immature effort to undermine the UN, the United States should take the lead in assuring the UN has every tool it needs to be effective. Attacking the global issues with any hope of resolving them is a slow and patient process, even with adequate funding.
In moving to support the UN, the United States must stand for consistency and clarity on the most frightening aspect of the present and future threat of terrorism: The availability of weapons of mass destruction to nation states and potential leakage to terrorists. No one really quibbles with the effort to prevent additional countries from acquiring such weapons. But that outcome is not attainable in a world where the strong may have such weapons and the weak may not. There is no solution but to suppress them all. No one but the weapons owner will ever agree that he or she has any unique right to own such weapons. Their mere presence will generate that horrible fear, envy, or longing of the have nots that has led us where we are.
In the end, this problem can be managed only by detached leadership, and no nation state is capable of providing that. The four-tiered system that now exists cannot be sustained. That system consists of: (1) The pre-1967 members of the nuclear club who are in the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty; (2) the Indians and the Pakistanis who are admitted proliferaters outside the NPT; (3) the Israelis who have weapons and are not admitted proliferaters but are outside the NPT and protected by the United States; and (4) everybody else who is not allowed to have such weapons. The obvious inconsistency of this system is part of the problem of dealing with Iraq, North Korea, or others such as Iran.
Another part of the problem is the availability of various weapons technologies and precursors from many developed countries for which no effective single export control or monitoring authority exists. The present honor system obviously works quite well to make trouble for us. That is amply shown by the case of Iraq where whatever capability exists derived from inputs of the United States, Germany, Russia and others, while Israel,s weapons were made possible with French, US, British and other support.
Some version of the International Atomic Energy Agency with teeth is likely to be the only long-term solution to proliferation problems. The UN is the only organization with any developed potential for overseeing that role. But the most intractable problem will be to persuade existing nuclear powers to shed their weapons.
The proliferation problems facing the UN, if it is properly given the mission, grow daily more complex. Given modern electronics, electromagnetic pulse weapons, modern explosives, delivery systems, and related technologies, the modern military force is a weapon of mass destruction without benefit of WMDs as such. Viewed realistically, recent civil wars and insurgencies in West Africa have demonstrated that concentrated numbers and reckless uses of small arms amount to weapons of mass destruction. US and British uses of U-238 or depleted uranium in the first Gulf War as a tank killer charge introduced a low grade nuclear weapon onto the modern battlefield, and the tens of thousands of Iraqi and American casualties of exposure to those devices made clear they are long term weapons of mass destruction. Those devices remind us that the ultimate weapon of mass destruction is, as it always has been, human intemperance.
In short, for the UN, the future proliferation problem is not just technical weapons of mass destruction, but the sheer mayhem that is possible in modern warfare. The immediate UN challenge is to prevent that mayhem from being visited upon Iraq.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome your comments at



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