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On June 26, 1945, in San Francisco, the United Nations was born, and former Secretary of State Cordell Hull won the Nobel Prize for his efforts in creating the institution. He called the U.N. Charter "one of the great milestones in man's upward climb toward a truly civilized existence." Almost six decades later, George W. Bush has done more to reverse this upward climb than anyone in the postwar period. The audacity of Bush's Iraq war maneuvers and his crude bullying threatens not only the United Nations but the dream of world governance and world peace. This dream animated Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt and hundreds of millions of people across the globe who saw the world torn asunder by the hideous wars of the twentieth century. Roosevelt called the United Nations a "world organization for permanent peace." Now in the early hours of the twenty-first century, Bush returns international relations to the raw power politics of the nineteenth century and abandons international law for the law of the jungle.
The sign was clear back on September 12, 2002, when Bush first addressed the United Nations on the subject of Iraq. So relieved were member nations that the President deigned to appear before the international body that they seemed deaf to the insulting words he was hurling at them. "Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?" Bush asked.
At the time, even the French were praising Bush. He has resisted "the temptation of unilateral action," said France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin. Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League, said "the turn President Bush has taken in asking the United Nations to take up its responsibility is a good one." They apparently did not realize that Bush was engaging in a mere charade and that he was fully prepared to render the United Nations irrelevant himself.
Bush tarred the Security Council with the brush of irrelevance for not enforcing previous resolutions Iraq had flouted. He repeated the charge at his March 6 press conference: "The fundamental question facing the Security Council is, will its words mean anything? When the Security Council speaks, will the words have merit and weight?"
But Bush's insistence that the Security Council back up its resolutions is selective in the extreme. Iraq is not the only country to violate Security Council resolutions. In fact, it is not the country that violates the most resolutions. That distinction belongs to Israel, which has violated thirty-two Security Council resolutions. Turkey has violated twenty-four, and Morocco sixteen, according to Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and chair of its peace and justice studies program. By comparison, Iraq has violated seventeen resolutions.
Since Israel, Turkey, and Morocco are U.S. allies, Bush has not been browbeating the Security Council to make good on its word by threatening force against these countries. And you don't hear Bush talking about gathering a "coalition of the willing" to impose regime change in Jerusalem, Ankara, and Rabat. To see how outrageous Bush's action is, consider how Washington would have felt if Russia had told the U.N. Security Council that it was going to gather a "coalition of the willing" to impose regime change on those three countries. Bush, Congress, and the pundits would be condemning Russia as a reckless and renegade country. Today, the United States is that reckless and renegade country.
Bush's essential message is, the United Nations is irrelevant if it doesn't do exactly what Washington demands. And Bush has chided the United Nations not to become another failure like the League of Nations, though the League of Nations collapsed, in part, because the U.S. Senate never ratified U.S. entry into the organization.
"Bush has made it abundantly clear that he feels the United Nations is just a nuisance," says John Anderson, head of the World Federalist Association, who ran for President as an independent in 1980. "It's a very specious and hypocritical attitude to sigh and wonder whether the U.N. is going the way of the League of Nations when Bush himself has done everything in his power to see that this happens."
A mere glance back at the U.N. Charter reveals how far from its letter and spirit Bush has now traveled. Article 2, Section 3, states that "all members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means." And Article 2, Section 4, says, "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state." Bush's entire discussion of "regime change," his mobilizing of more than 200,000 troops, and his constant threats of force since September are in clear violation of this article.
And if he goes on and wages aggressive war, which is "the ultimate crime" in international law, according to Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, he could be tried in an international court. (In any event, Bush has been shirking his constitutional duty to enforce the laws, since treaties signed and ratified by the United States are supposed to be inviolable.)
"If the U.N. Security Council had been behaving in the way it ought to, it should have been saying all along that the United States was carrying out illegal acts by threatening force," says Stephen Shalom, professor of political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey. "The U.S. was in violation of the charter, and the council should have said so."
Bush's contempt for the United Nations may have many victims, especially those Iraqi civilians who would lose their lives in any U.S. assault. But one other victim is the entire edifice of the United Nations, which cannot long stand while Goliath keeps stomping his feet on its foundation.
"We're seeing the end of the international system as we've known it since the Second World War," says Ratner.
"This is the most dangerous and depressing moment in my life," says Richard Falk, a professor of international law and practice at Princeton. "The United States is undeterred and undeterrable in the current situation. It repudiates any willingness to allow the United Nations to act independently, and it refuses to accept a set of restraints derived from international law. This is a free-fall situation."
In late February and early March, Bush put the United Nations in an impossible bind. "He clearly has confronted the U.N. with an untenable dilemma of either being a rubber stamp for U.S. geopolitics or finding itself bypassed on a major threat to peace and security by the most important member of the institution," says Falk.
Using Corleone-style tactics, Bush pulled out all the stops to gain support of the council. "What's unique is the scale and the audacity of the bribing," says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of the group's report "Coalition of the Willing or Coalition of the Coerced?" Almost every country faced "coercion, bullying, bribery, or the implied threat of U.S. action that would directly damage the interests of the country," the report says. Many nations may remember what the United States did to Yemen prior to the Gulf War in 1991. "When Yemen, the sole Arab country on the council, voted against the resolution authorizing war, a U.S. diplomat told the Yemeni ambassador, 'That will be the most expensive no vote you ever cast.' Three days later, the U.S. cut its entire aid budget to Yemen," the report notes.
Still, the resistance many countries put up was remarkable. From Turkey to Chile to Mexico, governments that Washington could usually rely on bucked the pressure, at least for a while. That was because of the astonishing, unprecedented global peace movement that demanded, in country after country, that leaders not give in to Washington.
"The 'coalition of the coerced' stands in direct conflict with democracy," the report adds. "In most nations, including those most closely allied to the United States, over 70 percent of the public opposes U.S. military action against Iraq."
Washington further sullied its image by spying on Security Council members, according to a story the London Observer broke. That paper obtained a copy of a National Security Agency memo outlining its snooping to obtain "the whole gamut of information that could give U.S. policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals to head off surprises."
At press time, the vote of the Security Council had not yet taken place, and the outcome was in doubt. If it succeeded at this strong-arming, Washington would demonstrate that the Security Council has no effective power to stand up to the bullyboy on the block. "If the United Nations caves to the point of authorizing this war, Bush will have undermined it, and the U.N. will have abandoned its role of keeping the peace," says Jan Knippers Black, professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
And if Bush failed to win Security Council approval (if a majority voted against Washington, or if one nation exercised its veto, or if the United States withdrew the resolution), and the United States launched a war anyway, it would show, in a different way, that the Security Council is powerless to restrain the mighty.
Bush was positively cocksure when asked at his March 6 press conference whether the United States had the right to attack Iraq without Security Council approval. "If we need to act, we will act, and we really don't need United Nations approval to do so," he said. "We really don't need anybody's permission." As a matter of fact, the U.N. Charter says the only time a country can act alone is "if an armed attack occurs against" it.
"Assuming Bush is going to war anyway, it's better to have the U.N. not give Bush the endorsement," says Shalom. "That will help galvanize opposition, and it will make it impossible for Bush to claim he's acting in conformity with international law or the will of the international community."
The Security Council was set up to reflect the global power arrangements at the end of World War II, and those arrangements no longer exist. Roosevelt "viewed the Security Council as a direct extension of the Big Three wartime alliance," Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley write in FDR and the Creation of the U.N. (Yale, 1997). "In his view, Big Power cooperation was imperative for settling or suppressing conflicts between and among the lesser nations. . . . At the same time, he understood that there was no mechanistic remedy for unresolved conflict between Big Powers."
But now the other "Big Powers" are not so big anymore. The Soviet Union has vanished. Britain and France are nowhere near as strong as they were at the time of the founding. China is not yet a full rival to the United States. And so Washington thinks it can have its way.
The old system was not perfect, by any means. The very establishment of these five permanent voting members on the Security Council was undemocratic. If the world body really wanted to be fair, it would have no permanent members and simply would rotate members through the council. But the establishment of the Security Council with the so-called Big Five each having veto power was a realistic bow to the powerful.
"The main lesson he [Roosevelt] drew from the League failure was that responsibility for world peace depended exclusively on the few nations that possessed real power and that they must 'run the world' for an indefinite transitional period," Hoopes and Brinkley write.
As the permanent members of the Security Council divided into Cold War blocs, they didn't run the world very well. Only by luck and icy nerves during the Cuban Missile Crisis did the two superpowers spare the world from nuclear annihilation. And many regional conflicts raged, most notably in the Middle East, Southern Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.
Nor is Bush by any means the first President to flout the United Nations. The United States was able to gain U.N. approval for the Korean War only by a fluke: The Soviet representative was boycotting the Security Council at the time. And Truman acknowledged that he was ready to bypass the United Nations if need be. "No doubt about it," he said years later when asked if he would have gone to war against Korea without U.N. approval, according to Hoopes and Brinkley.
The United States waged war against Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos without formal approval of the Security Council. It also attacked, among others, Panama, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, and Libya, and it destabilized many more countries without such approval.
"Bush's unilateralism has plenty of precedents," says Noam Chomsky. But it has taken "a long step beyond" where previous Administrations have gone. "Its forthright declaration that it intends to rule the world by force" amounts to a kind of "fanaticism," Chomsky says.
Even Presidents who were flouting the United Nations tried to bow to international norms, Falk says. No one up to George W. Bush has been so reckless in disregarding the institution. "What worries me most is the absence of limits on Washington," Falk says. "We live in a unipolar world, you have the United States intent on pursuing a global dominance project, and there is no countervailing power. The Cold War, at least, had the international benefit of a countervailing force. You were not as dependent on the law. There is a greater dependence on international law in a unipolar world." But Bush acts as though he is not bound by that law.
Franklin Roosevelt warned: "We shall have to take the responsibility for world collaboration, or we shall have to bear the responsibility for another world conflict." But Bush has disdained, and dispensed with, "world collaboration," and so world conflict is on the horizon.
What are the consequences of Bush's trashing the United Nations? "The unilateral path is horribly destructive, and almost certain to be self-destructive," says Falk. "As a precedent, it's horrible: An endless number of countries could invoke this kind of preemptive logic. China could use it against Taiwan, and it could lead to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan."
William Hartung of the World Policy Institute shares this fear. "Every regional tyrant will feel free to do to its enemies--internal and external--what Bush and his clique are doing to Iraq," he says.
It also gives other nations a clear indication that their own self-interest lies not in taking issues to the United Nations but in establishing facts on the ground. North Korea's game of nuclear chicken may not be the aberrant action of a crazy ruler but a rational response to Washington's aggressiveness. Such actions may increasingly be the norm in a lawless future.
Even for U.S. security, the approach is counterproductive. "It will cause an international backlash, generate more suicide bombings, lead to more religious and political extremism, and possibly cause a fundamentalist takeover in Pakistan or Egypt," says Falk. "It could be a geopolitical disaster."
Such a disaster is what impelled the career foreign service officer John Brady Kiesling, who was serving in the U.S. embassy in Greece, to resign from the State Department on January 27. "The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests," he wrote in his resignation letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell. "Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."
The flexing of sheer brute force that so typifies the Bush policy gives terrorists and other nonstate actors the message that the superpower cannot be restrained by traditional, legal channels but only by "asymmetrical" and extralegal means. Ratner at the Center for Constitutional Rights says the Bush approach, "in terms of our security and safety, is fatal." He worries the United States will alienate its allies in the war on terrorism, and that "by not using international law and peaceful methods, it will bring about a huge radicalization in parts of the world that are going to terrorize us further."
Ratner says the United Nations may never be the same again. "Like F. Scott Fitzgerald after his nervous breakdown, who said he was like a plate that was glued back together and was no good for serving dinner on but useful only for snacks, the U.N. will be used for noncontroversial issues, but when it comes to the use of force, it will be a cracked plate," Ratner says.
The final cost of this policy is internal. "It could destroy democracy at home," Falk argues. "The rising tide of opposition here and abroad will play into fearmongering and an expansion of government control over citizen rights. There is a kind of proto-fascist dimension to the current set of circumstances." Falk says he usually is loath to throw the term "fascism" around. "But you have this crackdown, coupled with a consolidation of military power and a messianic view that the United States is the bearer of a benevolent future that justifies exterminating those who stand in the way," he explains. "You have the convergence of religious evangelicals in the White House with geopolitical fundamentalists like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. We have never had this mixture of religious and secular extremists so close to the core of governmental power."
Given the U.S. manipulation of the United Nations, there may be some progressive people who wonder why we should even bother with it. But not bothering would be a mistake.
"We should support the U.N. and international law for the same reasons we support democracy and other values," says Chomsky. "The fact that they are trampled to dust and treated with contempt by power centers does not mean that these values and institutions should be tossed into the ashcan of history."
Chomsky and other observers take note of the one hopeful sign in recent months: the rise of the massive international peace movement. "We should never rest hopes in institutions," says Chomsky. "I have to admit that the basic truth of the matter appeared in the lead paragraphs of a front-page story in my favorite newspaper, The New York Times, a couple of days after the demos: The Times reported that there are now two superpowers on the planet, the U.S. and world opinion. Our hopes should rest in the second superpower."
Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies says this second superpower can find a home at the United Nations. "People throughout the world are looking at the U.N. as part of this global anti-war movement." More hopeful than most, she believes Bush already may ironically be pushing the United Nations to assume a new, more powerful role. "He's trying to do enormous damage," she says. "But the ferocity of his attack has had exactly the opposite result. Right now, the United Nations is not only more relevant but is gaining more backbone because of Bush's blatant actions. The United Nations has a somewhat new identity as the centerpiece of the global movement against the U.S. empire. It's exactly where the U.N. belongs: organizing the defiance of the world against the superpower."
There will come a day when the United States is no longer king of the hill, when other powers arise to challenge Washington for dominance. The Roman Empire lasted 500 years. The British Empire lasted almost 400 years. The Soviet Empire vanished within seventy-five years. The 1,000 Year Reich lasted barely more than a single decade. The American Empire will fade, as well. At such a time, it would be in the interest of the United States to have still standing an institution that can act as a buffer against war.
But Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld can't imagine that day, and so they can't imagine that need. They foresee, explicitly in their new strategic doctrine, indefinite U.S. military preeminence, and they are eager to go to war "preemptively" whenever another nation attempts to vie for power against the United States.
The founders of the United Nations, in the words of the charter, created an institution to save succeeding generations from "the scourge of war." But Bush does not consider war a "scourge." He uses it as a favorite tool to ensure the predominance of the United States, and thus he denies the basic purpose of the United Nations.
-Matthew Rothschild is Editor of The Progressive.