Home The Washington Diplomat October 2007 U.N. Experiences Resurgence As It Tackles Global Crises

U.N. Experiences Resurgence As It Tackles Global Crises


NEW YORK—In 2005, as the United Nations was gathering for its 60th anniversary General Assembly in New York, the United States capsized the celebration. Just before the United Nations was to vote on the biggest reform package in its history, the new U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, added 750 amendments.

It was the Bush administration’s way of forcing the United Nations to reshape its internal structure before the world body laid down deadlines on environmental and human rights reforms.

Bolton had been deliberately chosen for the mission because of his strong anti-U.N. rhetoric, once famously declaring that 10 floors of New York’s U.N. building could be removed without any detrimental effect.

In 2007, however, the United States is presenting a very different face to a newly emboldened and more robust United Nations. After it became readily clear that unilateralism was not working in Iraq, the United States has been asking the United Nations to intervene. The world body is also being heavily called upon to address the nuclear issue in Iran and the devastation in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Iraq’s chief Shiite spiritual leader and cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for example, refuses to talk directly to the United States but does talk to the United Nations—a reflection of the confidence shown in the world body on which the Bush administration is banking. The current U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, developed this strategy after a big-name U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was unable to get concrete commitments from Iraq’s neighbors to help stop the violence.

America’s urgency in trying to contain Iran’s involvement with Iraq’s Shiite majority was also seen in the scale of its formal diplomacy this year. In the last six months, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has held two formal talks with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, the first public contact between the two nations in 28 years. When this failed to produce results, U.S. pleadings in the United Nations increased dramatically.

This newfound U.S. support for a resurgent United Nations can be seen in a resolution that the Security Council unanimously passed in August that greatly expanded U.N. powers in Iraq, including strengthening the U.N.’s mediation between Iraq’s warring sectarian groups.

For their parts, the U.N.’s major European players have been taking on their new roles in Iraq enthusiastically. “Everybody knows the Americans will not be able to get this country out of difficulty alone,” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner bluntly.

Much of the warming U.N.-Washington relations can be attributed to Ambassador Khalilzad, according to George A. Lopez, who holds a chair in peace studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute and who has been published extensively on the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions.

“They [the Bush administration] have given their new guy a pretty free hand, and he has worked hard to rebuild some relationships and credibility,” Lopez said. “The permanent five Security Council members … recognize him as a substantial improvement over Bolton and thus they want some of his work to succeed. He and his positions have more support than any U.N. appointee under Bush yet.”

However, Lopez believes that Khalilzad may be getting ahead of himself in trying to secure U.N. assistance in Iraq. “The new U.S. ambassador looks great [on Iraq] as he has championed this, but he is, at one level, still a bit ahead of Washington.”

Chas W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said this newly strengthened United Nations has more to do with U.S. mishandling of Iraq than with the U.N.’s own actions. “I think it’s more a measure of how the U.S. has impaired its ability to do things directly. In such circumstances, it makes sense to call in a neutral party with contacts on all sides,” he said.

Freeman argues that the United States turned to the United Nations when the country’s other partners turned away. “Another approach could have been through NATO or through Japan, but we have alienated our allies and it became clear that that wasn’t going to work,” he said.

The U.N.’s new strength can also be seen in the Iranian nuclear issue, where Freeman believes the United States has effectively shipped out its responsibilities to the much more neutrally perceived European negotiators—France, Germany and Britain (collectively known as the EU3).

Just before December 2006, the Security Council unanimously approved a German-led resolution that barred Iran from trading any material used for reprocessing, uranium enrichment and ballistic missiles. In March, the Security Council imposed even tougher sanctions to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment. Russia topped the demands by telling Iran it would withhold nuclear fuel for Iran’s new Bushehr power plant unless Iran agreed to the U.N. resolution that prohibited the enrichment.

In August, the EU3 developed a “work plan” for negotiations that has been accepted by Iran after discussions with Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency. Although the EU3 and the United States believe that Iran has not gone far enough, according to Lopez, forcing Iran to the negotiating table through sanctions has been effective.

In an essay in this month’s edition of the Harvard International Review, Lopez argues that the United Nations has become more adept at implementing “smart sanctions” that curtail the offending government without hurting the civilian population.

So far, these sanctions against Iran have involved the Security Council, but what about the U.N.’s wider mandate? On its peacekeeping missions—which Freeman says is the most effective arm of the world body—the United Nations is making impressive gains in Darfur after the nightmare of genocide that has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people.

The United Nations, still battered by its slow and overly cautious approach to the Rwandan disaster, at first ceded power in Sudan to an African Union peacekeeping force. However, after it became clear that the African Union was unable to contain the violence in such a vast territory, the United Nations suffered the wrath of many international commentators and nongovernmental organizations and has since come back into the picture quite dramatically.

A new joint U.N.-AU peacekeeping force will patrol Darfur in a mission that has described as “unprecedented” by U.N. Assis-tant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jane Holl Lute, an American. The new 31,000-member force is expected to be headquartered in Al-Fasher in northern Darfur by October and will absorb the 7,000-strong AU force.

However, as Lute recognizes, the headquarters is far from the sea and is a difficult point to connect with the rest of the vast territory. The U.N. force will also have to deal with roaming bands of autonomous gangs still involved in rape and plunder.

For Lopez, a major challenge for the Darfur mission will be to cut down on unilateral action against the central Sudanese government by other countries, namely the United States. He argues that this approach only leads to confusion and opportunism, as evidenced by China, which has used the excuse of strong U.S. action and rhetoric against Sudan to lessen its own sanctions and opposition.

Freeman said he hoped the actions of peacekeeping and other individual UN agencies in Darfur would also help to raise awareness in the United States about the power of the world body. “Most people don’t understand the U.N. very well,” he said. “They think of the Security Council and maybe the General Assembly, but they don’t know about individual U.N. agencies, which are extraordinarily useful. I hope the public will finally see how effective the U.N. can be.”

About the Author

Sean O’Driscoll is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.