Staying inside the tent: in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq members of the US Administration made various disparaging remarks about the United Nations, some went as far as to predict the organisation's demise. But as Ian Williams, author of The UN for Beginners observes, the relationship between the two has frequently been a rocky one.

Author:Williams, Ian
Position:Current Affairs

Across the political spectrum in the United States, the United Nations excites strong feelings, but these are usually based on preconceptions and misconceptions rather than on an objective look at the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation. No rational person who has observed the UN at work could ever suspect that it had either the ambition or the ability to dominate the US, let alone rule the world. But that does not stop American conservatives from insisting that it is trying to do the former. Nor does it stop liberals from complaining that it is not successfully doing the latter.

Some on the left denounced the Americans and British for attacking Iraq without a UN mandate, but many of those same people would have been as quick to denounce the organisation as a cover for US imperialism if it had actually voted to support the attack (as it did and they did during the 1992 Gulf War). It is perhaps typical that when representatives of the Iraqi Governing Council addressed the UN Security Council on 21 July, members of "Iraq Occupation Watch" disrupted proceedings from the public gallery, accusing the UN of "collusion" with the US.

At the other extreme, when the White House decided to give up on gaining Security Council support for an Iraqi invasion, the usual suspects hit the opinion and editorial pages heralding the end of the organisation. Certainly the epitaph from Richard Perle was somewhat premature. He announced in March that when Saddam Hussein went, he would "take the UN down with him."

It is a typically solipsistic American world view that measures the UN's value by its usefulness to US foreign policy. UN resolutions are something the US preaches about and enforces upon others (because they are often useful), but is not bound by itself (whenever they are not useful). There is one use both political parties have agreed on: The organisation is a useful scapegoat for American policy setbacks.

Still, most people on the centre and left consider the UN and the growing body of international law to be, overall, a good thing. We think that war should only be a last resort, and that the international community acting in concert is vastly preferable to lawless military action. Indeed, some go further and regard even the last resort as unjustifiable: The UN is a peacekeeping organisation. But that is a falsely, idealistic conception of the U N. It is indeed, as some pacifists say, dedicated to peace, but it was set up to fight for peace if necessary. Similarly, some see the organisation's main purpose as resisting the US. This may be an occasional role thrust upon it by member states; it is no more the organisation's purpose than enforcing American wishes.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has struggled, in tandem with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, to keep links open between the White House and the rest of the world, the UN and international institutions. It often looks like pandering, and in some measure it is. But placating a restless giant is a more sensible strategy than grandstanding...

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