Bush Update: Incoherence at the UN

Mark Malloch Brown, the United Nation's Deputy Secretary-General, stirred up some controversy on Tuesday June 6th when, in a luncheon speech in New York to a conference on global leadership cosponsored by the Center For American Progress and the Century Foundation, he criticized the United States for "failing to stand up for" the UN "against its domestic critics." American's envoy to the UN, John Bolton, an antiUN hardliner, quickly reacted by labeling Brown's statement a "very, very grave" matter and then demanding an apology from Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General, calling it "the worst mistake by a senior UN official" since he first met Annan in 1989. Annan replied that he stood by Brown's remarks.

But Brown spoke the truth. All he was doing was calling on the United States, for the first time in a long time, to take the United Nations on as a public partner in its foreign policy. His address constitutes a rare instance when a top UN official has thrown diplomatic politesse to one side to remind the world's only superpower that it depends heavily on cooperation with the UN, whether it admits it or not -- so why not begin treating the organization with the seriousness and respect it deserves, especially if it wants the UN to survive.

One can see how the frustration among UN officials has grown after reviewing the curious on-again, off-again relationship the UN has had with the Bush Administration in its almost six years in power. When George Bush first arrived at the White House, he and his key global aides denounced most international treaties and scorned the UN as ineffective. But then Bush, in order to rally the world against the Ben Ladin terrorists, got the backing of the UN for an assault on the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Just as suddenly, in 2003, he derided the UN for not backing his invasion of Iraq. Then, in yet another abrupt shift of gears, after finding himself isolated in Iraq, he asked for a UN resolution legitimizing America's occupation of Iraq, for UN supervision of three elections, and for the UN's assistance in writing Iraq's constitution. In 2005, he turned around again and appointed a well-known extreme critic of the UN as Washington's new envoy to the UN, John Bolton. Bolton promptly slowed down the reform movement, opposed the creation of the Human Rights Council, thwarted US monies for a new UN building, and is currently threatening to cut off US dues on June 30th if management reforms are not enacted. Yet the US at the same time asked the UN to handle the Asian tsunami relief effort and the Pakistani earthquake recovery, help resolve the Darfur dispute, oversee 18 peacekeeping mission, negotiate the Iranian nuclear situation, expel Syrian troops from Lebanon and pursue Washington's reform agenda.

Admittedly all American presidents have at times exhibited ambivalent feelings about the UN in the past, despite the fact that both Republicans and Democrats together invented the body at the 1945 San Francisco Conference. President Harry Truman warned Americans in his speech to the closing session of that conference that "we all have to recognize that, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please." The tension he cited between the desire for complete freedom to act in international affairs versus one's need for allies has never gone away in US life. Even a sympathetic internationalist like Bill Clinton never took the time to barnstorm the country on behalf of the UN. But most leaders in the White House soon have come to realize that the UN helps advance, not diminish, US national security interests -- even, as noted earlier, a unilateralist like George W. Bush.

But working with the UN in secrecy and displaying irregular commitment to the body, as the Bushites have done, represent the real problems. Both approaches feed the suspicions of UN-haters -- especially those in Congress -- who believe that the organization is a useless, corrupt, bloated organ that fundamentally weakens America. Mark Malloch Brown is rightly pleading with the US to return to its first ideals as a nation -- those very values that impelled the nation to propose a UN in the first place and which convinced the American Senate to ratify the treaty 89-2 in July 1945. Ours was a country then that, after all, even at the zenith of its planetary authority, preferred to share the benefits of global stability with all nations rather than to hoard all the power to itself. It was one of the finest hours of our nationhood. Mr. Brown is to be commended now for asking us to once again show pride in -- as well as reassert our strong stewardship in -- the assembly that was "made in America."