Int. Perspective Archive

In Defense of the United Nations

By Eugene B. Kogan

Washington, D.C., December 8, 2004 — In the kerfuffle created by the calls in the U.S. Congress for Kofi Annan to step down as the United Nations Secretary General, it is easy to lose sight of a momentous opportunity to strengthen the U.S.-U.N. relationship.

The run-up to the U.S.-led preventive war against Iraq in March 2003 has severely strained, but not broken the ties that bind the U.N., the world’s preeminent international organization, and the United States, the sole superpower and the U.N.’s founding and most important member. President Bush’s reelection last month presents a unique, if unexpected, opportunity to put the U.S.-U.N. relationship back on a sound footing.

As the President has said, the victory on November 2 gave him “political capital” that he intended to “spend.” In addition to spending political capital, Bush must also think about how to invest it for the future. Where foreign relations are concerned, one of the more strategically important investment opportunities is the revitalization of the U.S.-U.N. relationship.

There is no getting around the fact that the United States needs an effective United Nations. The U.S. needed the U.N. framework after September 11, 2001 to galvanize the international community in the fight against international terrorism. Congress acted wisely by promptly releasing the U.S. arrears to the U.N. The U.S. came to the U.N. Security Council earlier this year to pass a resolution, which outlawed proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

After an unnecessary period of hesitation, the U.S. also asked the U.N. for help with reconstructing Iraq. The U.N. team, led by Carina Perelli, Director of the U.N. Electoral Assistance Division, is doing the critical work of preparing that country for elections in January 2005. At a press conference on November 19, Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaidaie, the Iraqi Ambassador to the U.N., urged the U.N. to do more and welcomed Secretary General Kofi Annan’s recent decision to increase the number of U.N. electoral assistance staff on the ground.

As it starts its second term in office, the Bush Administration faces unprecedented challenges all around the world. In Northeast Asia, North Korea flaunts its arsenal of nuclear weapons and refuses to return to the six-party negotiating table. In the Middle East, large parts of Iraq are in chaos, and the January elections are in danger. And in Africa, a humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan is getting worse by day. The broader international threats of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction also loom large.

Despite the enormous challenges, Bush’s new term offers unique opportunities, which are not to be missed. During his visit to Canada last week, the President committed himself to fostering a “wide international consensus among three great goals”: spreading freedom through multilateral action,fighting global terrorism, and bringing democracy to the Middle East. The most effective way for Bush to achieve such consensus is to engage the world community through the United Nations, in starting a dialogue about the common approaches to the major issues of world peace and security, such as terrorism and WMD proliferation. With purposeful guidance from the White House, the U.S. is also well-positioned to lead the process of U.N. reform.

It is time for President Bush to appoint a Coordinator for UN Reform. The Coordinator would work with the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and the U.N. Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which released its report, “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility,” last week. In November 2003, Kofi Annan charged the Panel with recommending “clear and practical measures for ensuring effective collective action” to confront post-9/11 global threats. If it is really serious about making the U.N. more effective, the Bush Administration must put someone in charge of monitoring the implementation of the 101 recommendations contained in the Panel’s important report. One candidate for the position of UN Reform Coordinator would be Brent Scowcroft, a member of the Panel who served as a National Security Advisor to President Bush’s father.

A constructive approach to the U.N. is in order. The U.N. is (and has always been) a flawed institution, and the Oil-for-Food scandal is just one indication of that. Yet, almost 60 years after its founding, in an age when global cooperation against transnational threats is a necessity rather than luxury, the United Nations plays an indispensable role in addressing the foremost challenges to world security. One of the reasons is that by virtue of its universal membership, the UN is a unique legitimating mechanism. Its actions and proclamations carry weight all around the world.

Building a strong base of international legitimacy has always been and remains the critical step that the United States has to make to ensure that its actions are effective in achieving their goals. One of the more important and tragic lessons of the Iraq War is that the lack of legitimacy results in tactical and strategic costs that are unaffordable in the long term even for a country as powerful as the United States.


The author, Eugene Kogan, is Senior Political Analyst, Americans for Informed Democracy.