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Prospects for the United Nations After the Iraq War

The Ada Benson Memorial Lecture, delivered at Oxford High School, Wednesday 3 December 2003.

It is now around seven months since the official end of conventional hostilities in Iraq. Not unexpectedly a guerrilla war has followed. This is just one of the unfortunate effects of a war that was bad for multilateralism, bad for global governance and bad for the United Nations.

Some doubted whether the United Nations, as the embodiment of global governance, could bounce back from obvious US indifference. But of course it could. The United Nations has proved surprisingly robust over the last fifty years. It has survived extraordinary changes in international relationships, and adapted itself pretty well in the process.

I was the witness of five main changes, or groups of changes during my time as British Permanent Representative between May 1987 and September 1990. First and most obvious were the changes in attitude caused by the ending of the cold war. The process was astonishingly rapid. Suddenly Permanent Representatives were able to talk to each other with a measure of common understanding and purpose.

This was particularly so within the Security Council, and among the Five Permanent Members who found themselves at last able to fulfil most of the role given them under the Charter. New combinations developed among them: on some issues I found myself closer to our former adversaries than our friends. I was the informal chairman of the Five for almost two years. Some of our first essays in the management of crises took place in my apartment looking over the East River.

I was also the witness of the general replacement of confrontation by co-operation among the vast majority of United Nations members. This was despite the North-South polarity created by the break-up of the old colonial empires and a vast increase in its membership. Many of the new members had seen the United Nations less as a guardian of the status quo than as an agent of change to put right inequities between states. The arguments between rich and poor, between so-called developed and so-called developing countries, over such notions as new world economic orders or new world information orders had long proved sterile. Those who sang hymns to development were rarely clear about what they thought development meant. Many of the underlying problems remain unresolved (and indeed have got worse since then). A new approach to them was - and is - clearly required.

At the same time I was the witness of a new willingness to contemplate the use of force in the name of the international community. A real test came in the reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the creation of the coalition under United Nations auspices to expel the Iraqis. This coalition was a classic example of the United Nations exerting the powers given it under the Charter. There had been a clear invasion of one sovereign state by another. Since then, for example in the Balkans, the United Nations has struggled to define its role in the face of far messier civil wars. But despite all failures and shortcomings, the Security Council remains the only global institution responsible for managing international peace and security.

I was also the witness of the development of new attitudes towards national sovereignty, a political concept first given legal force by the United Nations Charter. So far respect for sovereignty has been a foundation stone of the United Nations and its various institutions. Those who have the least sovereignty are always keenest to protect it. But over the years recognition of the constraints on it has become general, and erosion of the practice if not of the concept of sovereignty is widespread. Generally states are no longer watertight - if they ever were - from international law and practice, the behaviour of the global economy, transnational business and financial activity, and, with the development of information technology, communications on a global scale.

Last, and most important, I was the witness of - and a participant in - the process of drawing up a new agenda of points of global concern. Most now realize the dangers our little animal species has created for the good health of the planet, in particular the vertiginous increase in our numbers, pollution of land, water and air, consumption of resources in industrial countries, pressure on resources elsewhere, and destruction of other forms of life.

I was a member of the ginger group which began the preparations for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development which eventually took place at Rio in 1992. The first meetings of the group were in the British Mission. Other obvious points were new threats to human health, in particular AIDS and then SARS, a vast increase in the numbers of refugees, and resurgence of ethnic and religious strife, the more assertive role of non-governmental organizations, and not least an increasing polarization of the world's rich and the world's poor.

In some respects we seem to have reached a watershed. So far I have described the gradual, sometimes hesitant movement of the world community towards international codes of conduct and law, and willingness to cooperate in coping with global issues, whether of peace and war, or of sustainability in all its aspects.

But now we have to face up to what, I suppose, was a natural consequence of the ending of the cold war in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the emergence of a single superpower - the United States - which is increasingly setting its own agenda, and rules of conduct. There is a parallel with a similar situation after the Second World War. The reason that the United Nations was established in New York was to discourage the United States from pulling out of the United Nations as it had pulled out of the League of Nations after the First World War.

The process goes back a long way. I saw some of it for myself during the years I was at the United Nations in New York. Over the 1980s the United States was an ever more grumpy and reluctant partner in international affairs. For many Americans the rest of the world seemed a long way away, and the US interest in international management was in sharp decline. More than ever the criterion for any action was national interest rather than global interest.

The story is the same in other fields. The United States withdrew unilaterally from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty; it failed to ratify the Biodiversity Convention or to accept the Biosafety Protocol; it refused to join the International Criminal Court (maintaining somehow that Americans were different from everyone else); it failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; and it refused to accept a new protocol to the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. It has detained suspects in defiance of international law and human rights in Guantanamo Bay. Now it is even making trouble about respect for the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion.

The attitude of the Administration towards climate change aroused particular resentment elsewhere. The science is scarcely now in question. Nor are the potential hazards for the world as a whole, including the United States. There is a marked contrast.

There are of course many inconsistencies in US policies. For example most Americans have an almost religious belief in free trade and market economics, but the Administration, egged on by vested interests in the Senate, indulges in a wide range of subsidies and protectionist measures. It is not of course alone in doing so. But it has the utmost difficulty in accepting the judgements of the World Trade Organization, and is far from putting into effect what was agreed at the Doha meeting last year.

Recent tariffs on steel, subsidies to US agriculture, and now restrictions on Chinese textile imports, have outraged the international community. The WTO has ruled against the United States, and now the European Union, Japan and Korea have been authorized to impose sanctions. A formidable list of such sanctions has been drawn up. Let us hope that in the end a trade war can be avoided.

For the rest of the world the most conspicuous feature of US foreign policy is the exertion of military power, unencumbered by much diplomacy or respect for the corpus of law and custom built up in the twentieth century. It seems strange that capitalist America should so endorse Mao Tse-tung's saying that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun". Yet the United States spends more on defence and military technology than most other countries put together.

Increasingly it looks like the world policeman operating under its own book of rules. The world has known superpowers before, whether they be Persia, Greece, Rome, China, Spain, France, or Britain in their day, but the power of each has always been based to some extent on bluff, and they have pushed others into redressing the balance. Imperial overstretch was a regular feature. I expect it will be so in the future as in the past.

What of the future? What are the prospects for resuming progress towards a world community with international codes of conduct and law? There are good signs as well as bad ones. The superpower that defied the rules over Iraq, soon found, as predicted, that it needed the international community after all. Great efforts were made to create an alleged coalition of forces to share the financial as well as military burdens, and to give the United States retrospective legitimacy.

Even the reasons for invading Iraq were manipulated, to some extent in Britain but even more in the United States. Finding no weapons of mass destruction (as the UN Inspectors had foreseen), and no real connection with Al Qaeda type terrorism, the emphasis now went on the incontestable nastiness of Saddam Hussein and the role of the invaders as "liberators". The doctrine of the right of states to take pre-emptive action against future threats was brought out. Both President Bush and Mr Blair started talking about "the vital role" of the United Nations, although neither has explained what the vital role really is.

We have at the moment a real mess, bigger than I can ever remember in my diplomatic experience, bigger even than the mess over Suez in 1956. It turns out that the United States had given no serious thought about how to run Iraq after its alleged liberation had taken place. As predicted, guerrilla warfare began, tensions between Iraqi religious and ethnic groups increased, and the security of the occupiers was dangerously threatened.

Unfortunately the international organizations which wanted to help, ranging from the United Nations to the Red Cross, were tarred with the brush of the invaders and became the targets of guerrilla attacks. In these unhappy circumstances the United States seems suddenly to have realized that perhaps its critics, notably the French, has been right after all, and that the sooner the United States, itself riven by disputes between the State Department and the Pentagon, could set up a proper Iraqi authority and withdraw its troops, the better for all it would be. That is how things stand today. The guerrilla war continues, and the interim Iraqi authority is already having disputes with the occupiers. The United Nations remains on the sidelines.

We must all fervently hope that ways will be found out of the mess. Security will have to be restored before the United Nations can go back, and can assume real responsibilities. In the meantime it would be as well for it to take its distance from the United States and the other occupying powers, and focus on the kind of mandate it could discharge effectively. The argument should return to New York. Members of the Security Council have a lot to think about, not least such difficult long term issues as reform. Al I can say in passing is that any changes in the system are always fraught with problems.

If we are at a watershed, some, including a few in this country, have been inclined to blame the United Nations for what has happened, or not happened. This is not only unjust but simply wrong. In my view the United Nations and its institutions suffer from four main handicaps.

There is a curious and unbridged gap between the often repeated wish of governments, expressed in the Security Council, the General Assembly and elsewhere, for the United Nations to defend international order, fulfil its obligations under the Charter, and take on new responsibilities; and the means - political, financial and administrative - by which it could do so. Governments often blame the United Nations for failures. More legitimately the United Nations blames governments.

Even though many governments say they want or expect more of the United Nations, and say they accept the substance of a new global agenda, most also want to hold on to their sovereignty - and money - as long as possible, and in some cases keep the United Nations from interfering in their affairs. In short governments lack the political will to tackle the issues themselves and are even less willing to let the United Nations take a lead for them. Nor are governments willing to consider reform in ways that might abridge their authority.

This all sounds very gloomy. But perhaps current circumstances may oblige governments to do what they were reluctant even to think about before. The attack on the UN compound in Baghdad did not deter the last UN resolution of 16 October 2003 which increased the mandate for UN action and stressed the temporary nature of the coalition presence in Iraq. In the meantime we have to struggle on, and manage as best we can. Referring to relations between United Nations and the United States over Iraq, Kofi Annan recently summed things up by saying:

"This is a unique situation. It's the first time we are working on the ground with an occupying power to help the population of the territory."

Perhaps the United States has realized that it has pushed the bounds of unilateralism too far. The decision of President Bush to visit Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, Botswana and South Africa, all leading countries in the New Partnership for Africa's Development, has offered encouragement. There are signs of progress on the US brokered roadmap for peace in the Middle East. Bush has also discussed with Kofi Annan the possible deployment of US troops on peace-keeping operations in Liberia, suggesting that even the memory of the 1993 debacle in Somalia may be retreating.

Tonight I have spoken mostly about Iraq, but of course security, in a the sense defined by the Security Council, is only one of the multifarious activities of the United Nations. The agenda of points of global concern is of far greater significance for humanity as a whole. Let me quote from a remarkably clear statement published after a meeting of scientists in the four international global change research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. There it stated squarely that:

  • "Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth's System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life… the Earth's System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth's system, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented. The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state".
  • "The accelerating human transformation of the Earth's environment is not sustainable. Therefore the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth's System is not an option. It has to be replaced - as soon as possible - by deliberate strategies of management that sustain the Earth's environment while meeting social and economic development objectives".

Concern about the environment and our use of the Earth's resources is one of the two major global themes that have emerged in the last twenty years. The other relates to how humanity divides these resources and the increasing globalisation of world trade. At present about 20% of the world's people consume between 70% and 80% of its resources. The dividing line between rich and poor is not only between countries but also within them. Even in India and China, the rift is between globalized rich and the localized poor. There has been debate whether globalization has exacerbated this divide. Successive UNDP Human Development Reports, especially that of 1999, suggest that it has. As the UN Secretary General well said in assessing progress on the Millennium Development Goals last July:

"There is no autopilot, there is no magic of the market place, no rising tide of the global economy that will lift all boats, guaranteeing that all goals will be reached by 2015."

Clearly we are talking about global problems that require global solutions, and here the United Nations and its agencies is key. Multilateral approaches to sustainability have a long history which can be split into three phases.

What of Johannesburg? Did global governance attain a new level of maturity? The encompassing theme should have been how to exercise human responsibility for the state of the planet in our own interest as well as that of other creatures in the global ecosystem. The result was well described by Geoffrey Lean, the doyen of British environmental journalists, as, "disaster averted: opportunity lost". The political declaration said little new, and was a triumph of repackaging.

As for the Plan of Implementation, only time will tell its true worth. Of course there were good points, but in my view the best comment on the plan as a whole was: "many trees but little wood". At Johannesburg global problems were sold short and the United States was not alone in contributing to the result.

As for the role of the United Nations and its agencies in coping with these enormous problems, there is simply no other place or institution capable of organizing and promoting planetary action. Here the multilateral approach is the only approach. In a world with - at present - only one super power, the United Nations must be more than an international body that names and shames. Wars must not be allowed to crowd out, even temporarily, the need to think about the big issues and work together in trying to resolve them. A huge amount needs to be done and all states need to have their say in setting the agenda and judging the results. If the United Nations did not exist, we would have to invent it.

But it is more than an institution; it is an ideal. We need to hold on to the uplifting idea of the United Nations as the magic world in which humankind is one. Here symbols are vital. Seen from space as a passenger in the solar system, the earth is a tiny bright dot, or from closer to it, the blue water world. No matter that the myth does not always correspond with the reality, nor that its principles and standards are not always observed. The truth behind any set of myths, principles and standards is acceptance of aspirations held in common. That is the goal of multilateralism and the ultimate strength of the United Nations. We damage it at our peril.

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