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Is Washington taking
advantage of the UN?




November 21, 2001

LONDON - Gung-ho about the fall of Kabul, but wary about the political morass that now confronts it, the U.S. has thrown the ball to the United Nations, an organisation not normally held in high regard in Washington but, as on past occasions, a useful refuge in times of grave crisis. Yet if history is any guide, a wave of amnesia about the value of the UN will fall over Washington as soon as the matter in hand has been dealt with.

It has long been so. In 1954 there was the incident of the capture of seventeen U.S. airmen over China. Just as in the later Iranian hostage taking-taking, American opinion became extremely agitated. There was even some wild talk about the use of nuclear weapons. The UN was asked to intervene and Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold went to Beijing to talk to Premier Chou En-lai. It took six months of negotiating but the men were released. The U.S. president at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, has a whole chapter in his book on the incident but the central role of the UN secretary-general is almost ignored.

It is the same in Robert Kennedy's book of the Cuban missile crisis. There is only a passing mention of Secretary-General U Thant's letter to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, written in the face of the strong protest of the Soviet ambassador to the UN. Yet it was this letter that elicited a crucial response from Khrushchev indicating there was room for compromise.

In Suez in 1956, in Lebanon in 1958, in the Congo in 1969, and in the 1973 Middle East war it was the United Nations that provided an escape hatch for the big powers that had put themselves on a collision course.

In the wake of the Yom Kippur war, although both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had agreed in principle to a cease-fire, there seemed no way of implementing it. The situation looked exceedingly dangerous. Egypt was calling for Soviet help; President Richard Nixon put the U.S. armed forces on a nuclear alert. It was fast footwork at the UN, principally by a group of Third World countries that helped break the impasse. They pushed for a UN force to go in- and it was on the ground the next day (A rapidity of movement that in the modern age the UN bureaucracy says is impossible- an example of an organisation coming to believe the worst that its critics says about it.)

One wishes, however, that the UN were more than the sum of its parts, that its secretary-general, Kofi Annan, could take more initiatives and be more daring. Brian Urquhart in his biography of Dag Hammarskjold tells of how it was that a man elected as a steady bureaucrat matured into a leader with a mystical feeling of mission.

He attempted to steer the UN into Laos in 1959 to pre-empt military aid from the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He hoped that once he got the principle of a UN presence established, it could be applied in the rest of Indochina. But the superpowers resisted his efforts with ferocity.

He managed to get the UN into the Congo because both the U.S. and the Soviet Union feared the developing anarchy and worried about the political cost of preempting each other. But when the Congolese government split, with the West and the East taking different sides, the UN effort nearly disintegrated. Hammarskjold was considering resignation, when, in a final effort to resolve the secession of mineral-rich Katanga, his plane crashed and he was killed.

Despite the failures- and the Congo was in the end a hard-won success- Hammarskjold's spirit still hovers over the East River building. When he died he had more detractors than friends. Today with the passage of time he is the icon against whom successors are measured.

It was always Hammarskjold's ambition to widen the scope of the UN. By the time of his second term he had become convinced that the world would only find more stability if the nations of the world voluntarily denied a portion of their sovereignty and allowed the UN a more independent role as an active peace organisation. Bits and pieces of Hammarskjold's vision still remain. It was during his tenure that the technique of peacekeeping was developed and lately in East Timor it has shown how effective it can be, if done properly and not confused with the heavy application force as it was in Somalia and Bosnia.

Afghanistan is going to be the fire that tests Kofi Annan. The U.S. has run to his doorstep and asked for help- the opposite of what happened with the genocide of Rwanda when as head of UN peacekeeping Mr Annan appeared (rightly or wrongly) to be part of a Washingtonian conspiracy to avert all eyes. Over the last two months Washington has played fast and loose with the UN- wanting its votes to condemn the works of Osama bin Laden but avoiding any legal commitment, by refusing to subject its decisions on the bombing to a UN mandate.

For sure, the UN and its secretary-general should now say yes to Washington's request to try and establish an interim government of unity in Kabul and even to help in the policing of a peace if one arrives. But a tough secretary-general who truly measured up to Hammarskjold would demand a quid pro quo - that Washington play by all the UN rules, not just the ones that suit it for the moment.

I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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