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America's love/hate relationship
with the United Nations



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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September 27, 2008

LONDON - Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords that ended the war in ex-Yugoslavia and President Bill Clinton's former ambassador to the United Nations, is now going around preaching the virtues of the International Criminal Court, although it was the Clinton administration that did not have the guts to push ratification of U.S. membership through Congress. He is also criticizing the UN Security Council for not following up on its vote in 2005 to refer the conflict in the Sudan to the ICC, arguing that it was only the threat of a war crimes court that brought the protagonists of the Yugoslavia wars to the negotiating table and that the same stick is necessary over Sudan.

The announced prosecution by the ICC of the Sudanese leader, Omar al-Bashir, has coincided with a major shift in American elite opinion about the usefulness of the ICC. Democrat foreign policy experts are talking as if the U.S. were already a signed up, ratified, member. But more interesting is the stance of the Bush Administration. In the first days of his presidency George W. Bush 'unsigned' the U.S. membership. Yet now it is pushing hard in the Security Council for the ICC to act faster over the Sudan prosecution.

The turn round suggests it may not be too long before the U.S. formally endorses the Court.

This is not the whole story. Quietly and out of view of the limelight, the Bush Administration has become an active and positive contributor to UN activities, as Stephen Schlesinger makes clear in his lengthy article in the new issue of World Policy Journal. "For good or ill, Bush has attained more victories [in the UN] than in any other forum or country....The Administration has pursued a conservative but pragmatic mission at the UN under a stealth cover that has seen it carefully selecting its causes and focusing its energies, whether as a routine participant in the demarches at the Security Council; as a sponsor of numerous resolutions, sanctions and other initiatives; as a regular contributor to the UN's upkeep; or as an overseer of policies and appointments within the departments of the UN. This has been especially true with respect to American policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and I ran."

It is in the work of the Security Council that has shown the U.S. at its best - and most serious. It has only vetoed resolutions 10 times. Ronald Reagan vetoed 41 and Gerald Ford, in his short tenure, 13 times. In turn Bush's resolutions have only been vetoed three times. This is remarkable. But even more remarkable is to note that a fourth of all Security Council resolutions in UN history occurred on Bush's watch. It is a broad achievement, ranging from the legitimizing of the U.S. mission to Afghanistan, fashioning a common program against terrorism, recognizing the US. occupation in Iraq, stabilizing Haiti, upholding the peace in Lebanon, imposing sanctions on North Korea and Iran, and, not least, backing and helping fund 17 ongoing UN peacekeeping operations.

Thank 9/11 for much of this. Before that catastrophe the U.S. gunned down every UN initiative it could lay its hands on - the ICC , the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming, besides delaying payment of $826 million in dues.

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If this potted history sounds too good to be true it is. The Administration, having agreed to the appointment of Hans Blix to lead the weapons of mass destruction inspection team in Iraq, ignored his conclusions and then attacked Iraq without authorization, justifying it in terms of preventive war, an act considered unlawful under the UN Charter. The Administration tried to get its own back on the UN by exaggerating and distorting the Oil-for-Food scandal and blaming it on Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Only the growing disaster in Iraq forced it back to seeking UN help in Iraq and blocking Congressional attempts to kill further financing of the UN. These days the U.S pays a quarter of the UN budget and a seventh of its fast expanding peacekeeping budget, although it has returned to being in arrears.

Much of this has been kept as quiet as possible. Indeed the public perception, which the Administration is content to contribute to, is that UN is a minor player and an essentially negative institution.

Both presidential candidates appear to have promised to 'out' America's role in upholding international law. Whilst John McCain does not talk directly about the UN, Barack Obama has said that one of his first acts, if elected, would be to address the UN and declare that "America is back." Hopefully, after the election the U.S. will decide to tell America exactly the worth of the UN, that the world's only superpower many times has to bend to it, and which is a force for good, even for America.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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