Hamstrung and half-broke it may be, but we need the UN

We may loathe the way Washington behaves. But without the US, the UN has no credibility

THE UNITED Nations, I suppose, should be thankful for small mercies. The place may be hamstrung and half-broke, thanks to the scandalous failure of its richest and infinitely most powerful member to pay its dues. But after a hiatus of a year, America does at least have a functioning ambassador to the UN, in the redoubtable person of Richard Holbrooke. And if his arrival this month in New York is harbinger of an improvement in the organisation's fortunes, then it comes not a moment too soon. For these are critical times indeed for the closest thing we have to a global mechanism to contain the lawlessnesses and iniquities of this Earth.

The recent history of the UN has been the history of the fraying ties between itself and the United States. Just nine years ago, an American President forged the unprecedented coalition under the aegis of the UN to defeat Saddam Hussein, conjuring the hope that after the end of the Cold War, the great powers could act in concert to create a better and safer world. Thereafter, however, relations between Washington and the UN turned sour and the disasters followed - Somalia in 1993, the Rwanda genocide of 1994, and the unhappy UN peacekeeping operation in Bosnia. Different circumstances and different continents, but each with a common thread: disagreement on how to handle each crisis between the UN and its reluctant major shareholder. A scapegoat was required, and was duly provided by the Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, forced from his job by sledgehammer American diplomacy, the scars from which have not yet healed.

Outwardly, relations have run more smoothly under his successor Kofi Annan. Yet the world body now faces two massive new challenges, where failure will not lightly be forgiven. Nato, led by the US, may have arrogated to itself the role of the United Nations with its decision to go to war with Yugoslavia over Kosovo. But a "liberated" Kosovo is a protectorate not of Nato but of the UN; if Kosovo slides into anarchy, the UN will be held responsible. And then there is East Timor, which voted yesterday in a referendum for independence. Having superintended the vote, the UN must now police what could be a protracted transition to self-determination. In both cases, success will depend largely upon the relationship between the UN and the world's lone superpower. And if strains over policy have lessened, those over money have gone critical.

Having been kicked off the UN budget committee, Washington now faces the ultimate indignity of being stripped of its General Assembly vote unless it comes up with a $350m (pounds 200m) down payment by the end of the year, on the $1bn ($1.6bn according to UN calculations) that it owes. It seems unthinkable that it could come to that; but then again, who would have thought a rational political system could take 14 months to fill the vital post of Ambassador to the UN, carrying Cabinet rank and second only to the Secretary of State in diplomatic importance? That was precisely the experience of Holbrooke, who was sworn in last week after surviving unfounded ethics charges and Congressional machinations that are too complicated to explain here, and which had nothing to do with his job.

Holbrooke may be America's greatest diplomatic celebrity, the man who bullied Milosevic and devised the Dayton accords that brought peace to Bosnia. But this time his task is arguably more difficult: to restore America's standing at the United Nations and, with it, a normal working relationship between Washington and the UN.

The UN may be repository of a lingering idealism that the world can find a better way to run its affairs than rivalry between nation states. But no one expects it to be an independent governing authority, able to compel its members to surrender what they regard as vital national interests. Nor can it function without the support of the major powers, the five permanent members of the Security Council who possess the right of veto. The UN and most of its member states may loathe the highhanded and hypocritical way in which Washington frequently behaves. They may sneer at Jesse Helms, the UN-phobic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and at the parochialism tinged with isolationism that passes for foreign policy in the Republican Congress. But they also fear them. For without the US, the United Nations simply has no credibility. Take last year's treaties setting up an International Criminal Court and outlawing landmines. Washington signed neither; and both will remain little more than pieces of paper until it signs them.

This is the dilemma that must be resolved. From the UN and the rest of the world realism is needed; from the US, a greater readiness to give way on occasion, to obtain 60 per cent of what it wants through compromise, when by use of the sledgehammer it might have had the lot. Boutros-Ghali may be a proud and embittered man, but surely his private plea was reasonable enough, that every now and then he might be allowed to differ from Washington, for the good of both the UN and the US. Too late did he realise, he writes in his memoirs, "that the United States sees little need for diplomacy; power is enough. Only the weak rely on diplomacy."

You can make the case that with Holbrooke the US is giving peace with the UN its best shot, by sending to New York its most eminent and famous career diplomat. And perhaps, by sheer bravado and force of personality, he can expunge from the UN's collective memory the accumulated slights from Washington - the endless hectoring and lecturing, the refusal to pay its dues, the Boutros-Ghali affair. But we should not be too hopeful. For one thing, Holbrooke's diplomatic modus operandi is based on power and the projection of power. For another, being nice to the UN is not a paying proposition in American politics.

If Al Gore wins the White House next year, the new American Ambassador to the UN is firm favourite to become the next Secretary of State. Holbrooke knows only too well how, in the 1996 campaign, the Clintonites' fear of the way that Republicans might profit from savaging the reviled bureaucracy in New York made them all the keener to secure the defenestration of Boutros- Ghali.

He will provide the Republicans no such ammunition this time. Which is one more reason why, even if it receives every last cent of what it is owed by Washington, the UN may have to wait a while yet for a renaissance.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor