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March 18, 2003

A Dramatic Week in the History of the United Nations

Ronald Dore (Professor, University of London)

(This article was originally written on Sunday, March 16, 2003)

It has been a dramatic week at the United Nations, a week which will figure prominently when its history comes to be written.

Last autumn, the two most forceful shapers of American foreign and defense policy, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney believed themselves to have been given the green light for an attack on Iraq. But at that point, President Bush was persuaded by his Secretary of State, Colin Powell and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to change course, delay unilateral action and take the matter to the UN to seek a Security Council resolution which would legitimate military action. At the time, the hawks did not conceal their disappointment. They must now be feeling satisfied.

And vindicated, for the dominant mood in Washington at the end of this week can be summed up as: "We've wasted our time. All that we achieved by going to the UN was to give our adversaries, the French, the Germans, the Russians, and the Chinese an opportunity to criticise us. We gave them a platform on which they could claim, not our legitimacy but our illegitimacy. It was a great mistake."

It was Britain which struggled desperately to the last minute to secure a UN resolution which would give sanction to military action. Opposition to Britain's involvement in the war was growing in British public opinion. In Parliament, the situation was tense; as many as 120 members of Blair's own party had voted against his policy. For Blair himself, eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was a great humanitarian endeavour. For his critics in his own party it was a mere excuse for the American hegemon to assert its unilateral and self-interested will. But among those critics a majority took the view that if there was a so-called Second Security Council Resolution a resolution explicitly authorising military action, they would reluctantly agree. But if it were merely a matter of the US and Britain acting alone they would oppose it. Blair's answer remained confident: "No problem. We shall undoubtedly obtain that Second Resolution. However, should the resolution fail as a result of an "unreasonable" veto [he meant a veto by the French] we should be entitled to ignore that veto.*1

However, as it turned out, the French veto was neither here nor there. After the report of the UNMOVIC Chief Inspector on 7 March, the United States and Britain moved to present a draft resolution to the Security Council which amounted to an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. But the majority wanted not war, but a continuation of the inspections. There seemed little hope of getting the 9 vote majority which would confer some kind of moral legitimacy on military action even if a veto caused the resolution formally to fail. Then, over the next two or three days, there began a fierce battle of the persuasions and of aid-promising bribes conducted on the one hand by Britain and the US, on the contrary hand by France -- by telephone at foreign minister level, prime ministerial level, presidential level. Foreign Minister Kawaguchi was mobilised to telephone the foreign ministers of Guinea and Cameroon, though she said at her press conference that the question of Japanese aid to those countries was not discussed.

By Tuesday, 11 March, a rift began to appear between a Blair desperate to get that Second Resolution and a United States which had ceased very much to care whether there was such a resolution or not. The British in their anxiety to achieve the "legitimating" nine votes, proposed watering down their "full cooperation from Saddam Hussein by 17 March or war" ultimatum resolution. They proposed allowing extra time and actually specifying concretely what "full cooperation" might mean. This irritated the Americans, and Donald Rumsfeld really set alarm bells ringing by telling a press conference: "Of course we would be grateful for British cooperation on the battlefield, but it is not essential. We can do without it." After a brief moment of perplexed bewilderment, Blair finally made up his mind: Britain would take part in the war, irrespective of whether or not there was a legitimating resolution. His political future would rest on the hope that the war could be successful and quick.

That war, likely to begin this week, can be assessed in various dimensions. The first, obviously, is that of its immediate consequences. There are some who talk of effecting a democratic reconstruction of the Iraqi state. A far more certain likelihood is mass destruction, massive loss of life, fierce conflict over the claims of the Kurds and other minorities, conflict over control of the oil, accelerated recruitment to terrorist networks, added strength to Islamic fundamentalist movements threatening the neighbouring countries of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The second dimension is the pattern of international friendships and alliances. How far will the intense hatred expressed in the United States towards Germany and France leave permanent scars on NATO, or the deep rift which has opened between France and Britain on the European Union?

The third dimension is the long-term effect of these events on mankind's long-term project of building a global order based on the rule of law, a project of which, over the last half century, the United Nations has been the concrete embodiment. Will the UN come to be seen, not as a body which requires United States leadership to be effective, but as the only available instrument capable of setting limits to the power of the American hegemon?

And finally there is the effect on America itself. Will its present mood continue? Will it continue to consider that overwhelming power makes "legitimacy" a purely subjective concept, that "world opinion" and support from international organisations can readily be dispensed with? Or will it come to its senses?

*1) A following sentence had to be deleted for lack of space. "Blair was asked by one of his critics whether he considered that the action of the United States in vetoing Security Council resolutions critical of Israel on 18 separate occasions was "unreasonable".

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