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United Nations Anniversary

22 June 2005

United Nations Anniversary

By Gwynne Dyer

“The great force on which we must rely is the hatred of the cruelty
and waste of war which now exists. As soon as the war is over the process
of oblivion sets in…,” Lord Robert Cecil wrote as the war drew to an end.
“It is only, therefore, while the recollection of all we have been through
is burning fresh that we can hope to overcome the inevitable opposition and
establish…a new and better organisation of the nations of the world.”

Cecil, a member of Britain’s Imperial War Cabinet, wrote that at
the end of the First World War, and the organisation he hoped could prevent
another such war was the League of Nations. It failed, of course, and so we
got the Second World War, which killed five times as many people. By the
end of that one, nuclear weapons were being dropped on cities — so the
victors had no choice but to clone the League, making some significant
improvements, and try again. Sixty years ago this Sunday (26 June), the
Charter of the United Nations was signed by fifty nations in San Francisco.

There was not a single idealist among the men and women who signed
the Charter. They were badly frightened people who had lived through the
worst war in human history and who feared that an even worse one lay in
wait for their children. They were so frightened that they were even
willing to give up the most important aspect of national sovereignty: the
right to wage war against other countries. Six decades later, how is their
organisation doing?

Two things cannot be denied: the UN has already survived three
times longer than its ill-starred predecessor, and the great war it was
meant to prevent has not happened. In the various crises that might have
ended with the superpowers sliding into a nuclear war — the Cuban crisis
of 1962, the Middle East war of 1973, and so on — the United Nations
Security Council was an essential forum for negotiations, and the Charter
provided a new kind of international law that the rivals could defer to
without losing face when they wanted to back away from the crisis.

So why is the United Nations so widely disdained today? One reason
is that Lord Robert Cecil was right: “the process of oblivion sets in”
quickly, and later generations cannot remember why it was so supremely
important to create an organisation to prevent further great-power wars.
Besides, the UN isn’t really all that widely disdained.

It gets a bad press in the United States, but that is mainly
because it acts as a brake on the untrammelled exercise of American
military power. It’s still quite popular in most of the world, although it
continues to annoys nationalists in all the great powers — and at the
other extreme, it frustrates and infuriates all the idealists who want it
to be about justice and democracy and maybe even brotherly love.

It’s not. As Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican senator and ambassador
to the United Nations, said in 1955: “This organisation is created to keep
you from going to Hell. It isn’t created to take you to Heaven.” For all
the fine words of the Charter, the UN is still mainly about preventing
another major war between the great powers (and as many other wars as

Does the United Nations need to be “reformed”? Certainly. It has
acquired some bad habits, and its structures have not kept up with the
realities of a rapidly changing world. The current main focus of reformers
is on the Security Council, whose permanent, veto-wielding members are
still the five victorious great powers of 1945. Three-quarters of the
countries that now comprise the UN were not even independent then, so
clearly some adjustment is overdue.

However, the only imaginable solution is an expansion of the number
of permanent members, because demoting any of the existing permanent
members is unthinkable (and would simply be vetoed). But then come the
questions — how many new members, and which ones, and do they get vetoes
too? — so reform may not happen soon.

Is the UN still more or less functional the way it is? Yes. Its
various specialised agencies, from the World Health Organisation to UNESCO,
do much good work, and its core, the Security Council, is there for when
it’s needed. Most of the time it is not — but when a crisis hits, it
still usually manages to rise to the occasion. It has done particularly
well in the last few years, bending its own rules to support a decisive US
response to terrorism in Afghanistan, but then withstanding enormous
pressure to do the same over the Bush administration’s misbegotten invasion
of Iraq.

The United Nations is an attempt to change the way that
international politics works, because the only alternative was to accept
perpetual war, and by 1945 that was no longer an acceptable option. But
not even the optimists imagined that it could succeed in less than a
century or so.

Sixty years on, it may not yet be even halfway to its goal. No
need to despair. As its most influential secretary-general, Dag
Hammarskjold, used to say: “None of us are ever going to see the world
order we dream of appear in our lifetime. Nevertheless, the effort to
build that order is the difference between anarchy and a tolerable degree
of chaos.”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“However…Iraq”)
Gwynne Dyer is an independent London-based journalist whose
articles are published in 45 countries.

Another Carrot

20 June 2005

Another Carrot

By Gwynne Dyer

Something curious happened in Tokyo last week. On 16 June, US
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns gave a speech
there saying that the United States backed a limited expansion of the
United Nations Security Council from fifteen to twenty members. Only “two
or so” of the five new seats should be permanent members with full veto
rights, however — and Japan should be one of them.

Now, here’s the funny thing. How did it happen that they mulled all
this over at the State Department, and decided there must be only two new
permanent members, and agreed that Japan should be one of them — and then
dropped the subject? Maybe it was just too nice out, and they all decided
to go golfing? Call me cynical, if you must, but I think they know who
they want the other permanent member to be. They just want something in
return before they say so.

Who could it be? Not Germany: there are already two members of the
European Union with permanent seats. Not Brazil, certainly — that
president of theirs, Lula, is far too left-wing. Not Mexico, either, which
is all too likely to elect a left-wing president next time around.

There’s obviously no percentage in making an African country a
permanent member: you’ll just annoy South Africa if you back Nigeria, and
vice versa. And heaven knows we can’t have a Muslim country with a veto on
the Security Council. No, it’s got to be India.

India should have had a permanent seat on the Security Council from
the start, but unfortunately the United Nations was set up in 1945 and
India didn’t get its independence from Britain until 1947. So for 58 years
the second most populous country on the planet has been frozen out of the
world’s highest council. Of course it must be India — but in that case,
why not say so? Is it possible that the Bush administration wants something
from India?

Yes, it does. It wants India to become the South Asian anchor of
its strategy for “containing” China militarily. The neo-conservatives who
control defence and foreign policy under President Bush were demanding a
huge rise in US military spending even before 9/11 “to cope with the rise
of China to great-power status.” They haven’t changed their minds, and
they want to encircle China with a ring of American allies in a reprise of
the US containment strategy against the Soviet Union in the 50s and 60s.

In this strategy India is the main prize, and the Bush
administration is trying to woo New Delhi into a close military and
strategic relationship. It is offering India first-line F-16 fighters now,
and access to the next generation of US combat aircraft when it becomes
available. It is offering Patriot and Arrow missiles, access to American
civil nuclear technology, and high-tech cooperation in the domain of
satellites and launch vehicles. Above all, it is offering India the leading
role in its emerging Asian alliance structure.

In a State Department briefing in Washington on 25 March that is
now famous in India, the spokesman said that President Bush and Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice had “developed the outline for a decisively
broader strategic relationship,” and when Rice travelled to New Delhi a few
days later she told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Washington wanted to
“help India become a major world power in the 21st century.”

Singh’s government is clearly nervous about this, but also
flattered: it’s nice to be courted. As his media spokesman Sanjaya Baru
put it, “India is an ancient civilisation and has a mind of its own, but
our views are moving in parallel with the US and Anglo-Saxon world.” And
although no date has yet been officially confirmed, President Bush has
several times said in public that he hopes to visit India before the end of
this year.

There are two main obstacles to this strategic match. One is the
fact (which even bothers members of Manohan Singh’s cabinet) that this sort
of alliance would be a betrayal of everything India has stood for since
independence, and that it might be preferable not to spend the first half
of the 21st century mired in a military confrontation with India’s giant
neighbour across the Himalayas if at all possible. The other is the Indian

The Communists hold almost 70 seats in the Lok Sabha (parliament),
and their votes are crucial to the survival of Singh’s minority coalition
government. They are dead set against what would amount to a military
alliance with the United States (though it would never be called that), and
so Singh’s government wavers, unsure which way to jump. Meanwhile, China
has started making counter-offers on free trade, the settlement of old
border disputes and the like.

So the United States has produced another carrot: a permanent seat
for India on the Security Council. Except that Washington will only throw
its weight behind the idea publicly if and when India signs up for the
containment strategy. It is a dangerous and needless strategy that will
alarm China and lead to prolonged military confrontation in Asia, and
Indians should not be seduced by it. China is not their enemy. For that
matter, it is not America’s enemy, either.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and . (“Who…India”; and
“In a state…century”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.

United Nations Reform

3 December 2004

United Nations Reform

By Gwynne Dyer

 United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for UN reform, unveiled on 2 December, was a brave attempt to square the circle, but it will not work. It acknowledged the Bush administration’s strident demands for changes at the UN, accommodated a few of them, and proposed a new UN structure that will appeal to those who are really fed up with the organisation:: the non-Western, non-great power majority of the members. But it will not appeal to Mr Bush, and he has the power to thwart it.

Mr Bush spends a lot of time criticising the UN, but he will not be satisfied by reforms that just make it a more effective or representative institution; what he wants is one that obediently supports US strategies and policies. Since the whole style of his administration is unilateralist, and the UN is multilateralist by definition, he is not going to get what he wants — so very few of the 101 reforms proposed by the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change are actually going to happen. He won’t mind: a genuinely committed and activist UN is not in his administration’s interest.

Mr Bush was at it again last Wednesday on his visit to Canada. “The objective of the UN and other institutions must be collective security, not endless debate,” he said, adding that it must be “more than a League of Nations.” The rhetoric echoed what he said last year before the US invasion of Iraq, and the implication was that the UN had failed by not supporting America’s attack on that country, but the UN didn’t fail. The United States wanted to invade a country that had not attacked it, and the UN Security Council refused to endorse that attack, which made it illegal under international law (as Kofi Annan admits when pressed very hard).

The Security Council could not condemn the United States because the US has a veto, and nobody could stop the invasion because the UN has never been able to coerce the great powers. But the UN did its job, which was to consider the legitimacy of the US case for an immediate attack and find it wanting. So poor Kofi Annan, who was originally Washington’s candidate for the job of Secretary-General, found himself trapped between his sponsor and the institution he served.

His response, a classic bureaucratic manoeuvre, was to appoint a panel that would report on how to reform the UN and make it more effective. To raise the odds on a favourable response by the Bush administration, he appointed Brent Scowcroft, a former National Security Adviser to President George H.W. Bush, to the panel. To get support from the rest of the planet, he proposed the expansion of the Security Council. Neither move will succeed.

Expanding the Security Council is a good way to placate large countries in the developing world who don’t see why the Security Council should be virtually a Western monopoly: four of the five veto-wielding “Permanent Members” that dominate the Security Council are Western countries who gained their special status at a time when most non-Western peoples lived in colonial servitude. Unfortunately, the idea of adding some new permanent members to the Security Council breaks down over the details.

Nobody can agree on which countries should become new permanent members. Should Portuguese-speaking Brazil be Latin America’s candidate, or is Spanish-speaking Mexico more representative? Should South Africa, the continent’s richest country, or Nigeria, its most populous, be Africa’s permanent member? Which Muslim country should get a permanent seat? Handing out vetoes to new permanent members would just paralyse the Security Council, but why should China have a veto if India doesn’t?

The expansion proposals open many cans of worms and do not win Kofi Annan much support from the intended beneficiaries — while the panel’s thoughts on making it easier to intervene in countries that abuse their own citizens are unlikely to win over the United States either. It is “pre-emptive” intervention in countries that allegedly pose some threat to the United States that interests the Bush administration, and UN approval for that would still have to come by means of a Security Council vote that the US would not necessarily win.

The disdain and outright hostility towards the UN that now threaten the institution will not be ended by the changes that Kofi Annan and his panel are recommending, though they would be useful enough in their own right. NOTHING will do much good so long as the Bush administration sees the United Nations and the whole structure of international law as irritating constraints on the exercise of US power; pandering to Washington’s wishes would just further alienate the key group of countries in the developing world that have already grown deeply impatient with Western domination of the Security Council.

The wise men have laboured long and thought deeply, and their 101 recommendations for change are mostly sensible and in some cases long overdue. Debating them will give the delegations at the UN something to do while they wait to hear their fate — but their fate is being decided elsewhere, above all in the United States, and it will probably be years before we know the outcome. If the world’s greatest power turns against the UN permanently, then it does not have a future.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The Security…succeed”)

The Least Bad United Nations

21 September 2003

The Least Bad United Nations

By Gwynne Dyer

Just as democracy is the least bad political system, given the alternatives, so is the United Nations the least bad international system. It’s a lot better than anarchy at one extreme, or an overbearing and unsustainable world government at the other — which is a thought to cling to as the UN proceeds to covers itself with something very far from glory at the annual General Assembly session that opens this week in New York.

The presidents and prime ministers will be there in their dozens, but nothing much will change. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will make his case for reforming the Security Council to reflect the distribution of power in the real world more closely, but everybody knows that isn’t going to happen. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, with Annan’s strong support, will make a pitch for a new UN mandate to go in and protect people from slaughter in failed states, but nothing will be done about that either.

The United States will get some sort of resolution through the Security Council offering lukewarm support for its efforts to stabilise Iraq, but it won’t give the UN the kind of authority there that might persuade other countries to send troops. Weasel words here, a deft side-step there, and everybody goes home with no new commitments. The cynics are having a field day — but if international politics were about peace, love and understanding, nobody would have bothered to invent the United Nations in the first place.

The reason they did invent it in 1945 was because fifty million people had just died in the worst war in history and the victors wanted to prevent another one, especially given the likelihood that it would be fought with nuclear weapons. So the five victorious great powers of World War Two gave themselves permanent seats and vetoes on the Security Council — and though the world has changed a lot in the subsequent two generations, it’s very hard to change that now.

Even powers that aren’t really great any more, like Britain and France, will fight to preserve a veto that is their main remaining claim to great-power status. Adding more veto-wielding powers could paralyse the Security Council entirely — and besides, who would they be? Do Germany and Japan get permanent seats because they are so powerful economically, thus increasing the dominance of the industrialised countries?

Does India get a permanent seat, much to the displeasure of many other Asian countries? Who will decide whether South Africa or Nigeria gets a permanent African seat? Security Council reform is vital for the long-term health of the UN, but at the moment nobody is willing to take on the mountain of difficulties that stands in the way. It just doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Well, then, how abut that Canadian idea of defining exactly when the United Nations has a right and duty to intervene in a sovereign country to stop massive human rights abuses like genocide. The UN has actually done that recently in places like Bosnia and Sierra Leone — but in other cases, like Rwanda and Kosovo, it either didn’t act at all or only ratified the actions of a ‘coalition of the willing’ after the fact. Writing clear guidelines for when it should act sounds pretty sensible.

Unfortunately, since the Canadian-sponsored commission began looking into this, the United States has attacked Iraq, variously claiming the danger from non-existent weapons of mass destruction and/or its deep concern for Iraqi human rights as a pretext for the invasion. The great majority of UN members see the US action as thinly disguised aggression, but they cannot figure out how to write a rule on humanitarian intervention that could not be exploited by the great powers to justify neo-colonial interventions, so it’s better not to write it at all.

On the other hand, nobody wants to defy American power openly, so some sort of resolution on Iraq will make it through the Security Council in the next month. It will make no reference to the legality or otherwise of the invasion — thus deepening the cynicism of those who think the UN is timid to the point of uselessness — but it won’t contain the kind of wording that would impel other countries to send their troops to Iraq and pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire either. So what earthly use is the talking-shop on the East River?

Not much at the moment, to be frank. The whole question of global governance has been put on hold while everybody waits and hopes that the biggest member of the system, the United States, can recover its balance after being blown severely off course by 9/11. But then the UN wasn’t a great deal of use during the Cold War either, when the entrenched hostility between its two largest members paralysed the Security Council most of the time.

During the decade in between, however — 1991-2001, say — the UN was shaping up to be quite useful. All the great powers were cooperating, and though some horrors were ignored others were successfully addressed. The UN seemed so relevant that people even wanted to update its rules on humanitarian intervention and to reform the Security Council. Nobody is willing to invest in that sort of effort right now, but it will be quite a while before we know whether the current lurch into unilateralism in Washington, potentially lethal to the UN, is a permanent factor in world affairs.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Even…effort”)