United Nations v. United States

This is a moment of several overlapping transitions at the United Nations. A new secretary-general will take over when Kofi Annan’s 10 years are up at the end of December. New countries will join the Security Council as temporary members. And UN agencies are choosing new leadership.

The stakes are high, as the UN remains the key to governments challenging U.S. wars and invasions. But the longstanding battle between U.S. domination and UN independence remains, and so far, it is off to a less than optimistic start. In the big game to this point, it’s 2 ½ points for U.S. domination versus just 1½ for UN independence.

First was the election of U.S.-backed Ban Ki-Moon, the South Korean foreign minister, as new secretary-general of the global organization. While his government had cautiously contested Washington’s hard-line policy on North Korea with its own “sunshine policy” focused on stability and ultimately reunification between North and South, Pyongyang’s recent nuclear tests have brought Seoul’s hard-liners to the fore, undermining adherents of the earlier policy including the foreign minister. It is very unlikely that Ban, known personally for a quiet, confrontation-averse diplomatic style will risk burning his fingers a second time in any high-visibility challenge to the U.S. on issues such as UN sanctions or extending the mandate of Washington’s “multilateral forces” occupying Iraq. And with the possibility remaining that President Bush could still appoint the take-no-quarter John Bolton to the UN on another non-ratified basis, it is doubtful we will see Ban stepping up to use the secretary-general’s global bully pulpit to mobilize opposition to Washington’s next unilateral war. Score one for the U.S.

Then came the composition of the new Security Council, in which five new “non-permanent” members are selected each year to join five other similarly second-class members in the Council alongside the “perm five”–the veto-wielding powers with permanent tenure: the U.S., France, Russia, China and Britain. Most of the time, the regional groups at the UN operate collaboratively, sending to the General Assembly for ratification the same number of candidates as their group’s vacant Council seats. That worked this time around for the Asian (Indonesia), African (South Africa) and European (Belgium and Italy) seats. But Latin America, which has emerged as the central front of the new challenges to U.S. economic and political policy, was different.

The region had one open seat (Peru will remain on the Council for another year). Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had months earlier staked out a high-profile international candidacy, using his oil wealth and undoubted–if sometimes private–popularity for standing up to Washington, to win support for a Council seat. Only after Chavez’s world-wide campaign (all members of the General Assembly vote to select the new regional members of the Council) was well underway did Washington enter the fray. The Bush administration was careful, to a point. Not wanting to acknowledge that they were carrying out their usual business of meddling in Latin American affairs, they didn’t publicly oppose Venezuela, but instead encouraged Guatemala’s sudden candidacy. The result was a high-profile battle of the bribes–though hardly an equal fight, since Washington’s diplomatic arsenal contains a far wider array of tools, including threats, punishments and other blandishments.

Quite quickly paralysis set in. After the Asian, African and European candidates had been ratified, weeks of campaigning and 46 separate votes were held in the General Assembly to choose between Guatemala (a hapless candidate indeed, discredited for being Washington’s pawn and facing opposition from more than 100 civil society organizations inside Guatemala, who urged the world body to deny their own government a role on the Council because of its continuing human rights violations) and Venezuela.

At the end of the day, both Guatemala and Venezuela agreed to step down in favor of a third candidate–giving the victory to Panama. In the broader U.S.-UN power struggle, this one would have to be called a draw: Venezuela wasn’t able to win majority support, and some diplomats attributed the failure to Chavez’s speech at the September 2006 General Assembly, when he famously referred to Bush as “the devil.” The remark brought not only laughter from the bored-with-diplomatic-oratory diplomats filling the Assembly Hall, but a huge ovation as well–leading embarrassed UN protocol officers to rush into the seats urging decorum. But even among some governments eager for greater challenges to U.S. unilateralism, there were fears that Chavez’s rhetorical excesses might undermine the potential for building strategic alliances against Washington’s power.

On the other hand, despite its huge investment of high-profile diplomatic capital, the U.S. couldn’t get its way either. Perhaps it failed because the General Assembly votes were taken by secret ballots, so U.S. threats had less resonance. Perhaps it failed because in 2006 Latin America is the center of a rising bloc of progressive governments ready to challenge U.S. economic and political strategies, and with the political and economic clout to do so safely. But whatever the reason, the U.S. defeat was a far cry from the most famous example of U.S. pressure at the UN, the so-called “Yemen precedent,” still spoken of in whispers throughout UN headquarters. In that instance, during the November 1990 U.S. effort to win unanimous Security Council support for its resolution endorsing war against Iraq, U.S. bribes and threats had won a large majority of support in the Council. (Even China, which had long threatened to veto the resolution, was bribed into abstaining rather than using a veto.) But two countries voted no–Cuba, which opposed the war on principle, and Yemen, the sole Arab country on the Council. No sooner had the Yemeni ambassador put down his hand after voting against the resolution, the U.S. ambassador was at his side saying “that will be the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.” The remark was picked up on an open UN radio microphone, and broadcast throughout the building and ultimately around the world. So three days later, when the U.S. cut its entire aid budget to Yemen, the world took notice.

So far the score was 1½, for the U.S. domination, only ½ a point for UN independence.

Next came the moment to appoint a new head of the World Food Program, one of the most vital of the UN’s emergency assistance agencies. The WFP director is, by tradition, an American. (The same tradition holds true for UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency.) The appointment would be made by out-going Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but with consultation and approval of his successor, Ban Ki-Moon. It was a moment to express at least a hint of independence. But instead, the U.S. preference carried the day, and the selection went to Josette Shiner, the nominee of the Bush administration. Shiner is a former editor of the right-wing Washington Times, owned by Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon, and was a long-time member of the church itself. Perhaps more relevant, Shiner is currently the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs. What she knows about global hunger and feeding starving people appears to be nothing; the slick pamphlet produced by the State Department to push her candidacy focuses on her management skills. U.S. business interests as well as ideology appear to be the key bases for the nomination. Shiner’s appointment was not unlike that of Ann Venemen, the current director of UNICEF, who came to the position directly from her post as Secretary of Agriculture in the Bush administration. In both instances, supporting U.S. agricultural interests (just where will WFP and UNICEF be most likely to buy sorghum and wheat for high-protein emergency rations?) trumped the knowledge of how to feed hungry children.

Score one for Washington.

Perhaps looking to catch up, Secretary-General Annan moved to reassert UN power in his leading role at the international global warming conference last week in Nairobi. He berated world leaders, singling out most major industrialized countries for special scorn. Political leaders who continue to resist the massive changes that will be required, Annan went on, are “out of step, out of arguments and out of time.” Score one for the United Nations.

It is still possible for the UN to reclaim its independence, and with it, the global support of the world’s people, something now endangered by the perception of the UN giving in to Washington’s pressure. It is still possible for the incoming Secretary-general Ban Ki Moon to claim the global role of defender of the UN Charter, international law and multilateralism, and to speak out against U.S. domination. It is still possible for the General Assembly to answer Washington’s most recent Security Council veto, once again of a resolution designed to hold Israel accountable for its illegal actions in the Gaza artillery attack that left 19 people dead, including 7 children and 6 women, by passing its own resolution condemning the assault and calling for international protection for Palestinians in Gaza.

It is still possible. But with the score at 2 ½ to 1½, time is running out for the UN–especially the secretary-general and the General Assembly–to return to the role of a global challenger to U.S. unilateralism and militarism. The last time the UN played its Charter-mandated role of working to stop “the scourge of war” was in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq, when the Security Council refused to endorse the invasion, the General Assembly condemned it, and eventually the secretary general called it illegal. The UN then was part of the massive mobilization in which “the world said no to war.”

It wasn’t enough, ultimately, to prevent the invasion, but it did deny the Bush administration what it so desperately sought: international legitimacy. It’s not too late for the United Nations to reclaim that role.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her most recent book is Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power.