Exclusive interview: In defence of the United Nations

Mark Malloch Brown, outgoing deputy secretary general, criticises Blair and Bush over the Middle East, and says now more than ever, the world needs to work together
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Indy Politics

Lebanon may have been the final nail for Tony Blair but it was Iraq which was the coffin. It is not the kind of language you might expect from the UN's second most senior official but Mark Malloch Brown - who retires at the end of the year as Deputy Secretary General - has always been one for the bold and colourful phrase.

"Mr Blair's position on Lebanon was unhelpful though he did come round in the end," he says. "It was a really unfortunate coincidence that he came to the United States for a long-scheduled meeting with President Bush at that point. They had a press conference and there they were - the two of them, so well-remembered in the Middle East for their press conferences at the time of Iraq - back on stage holding out against the opinion of the rest of the world that there should be an immediate ceasefire."

But if Tony Blair had still not learned the lessons of Iraq others have, Mr Malloch Brown suggested. Behind the scenes of international diplomacy, something good has emerged from the war in Iraq. It is the realisation in the White House that even the world's only remaining super-power cannot maintain a position of arrogant self-sufficiency.

"America's unilateral approach had its high moment in 2003 with Iraq but it has been on a steady descent ever since." There is nothing high-minded about this. "It is, of course, driven by a suspicion that the US really doesn't want to open up any more military fronts and has its hands full with what it's got."

Even so there is now, he detects, a healthy new "recognition of the limits of even the US's power to influence and shape issues in many parts of the world".

Multilateralism is "coming back very strongly", he says. "The Bush administration has come to the Security Council on Iran, on Darfur, and it was central, whether the Bush people liked it or not, to Lebanon over the summer."

Bush's notorious "Yo Blair" remarks when the mikes were on in St Petersburg showed the President acknowledging, "impatiently and somewhat petulantly," that the UN had a key role to play. When Washington belatedly came around to the need to move for a ceasefire it was forced to turn to the UN which was able to speak to nations which would not deal with the US. "We became the indispensable partner in getting people to the table. There's been a great normalisation of relations."

And so there needed to be. The United Nations is a body with a chequered history. Set up as club for the winners of the Second World War it was launched not as an expression of global community but as a "coalition of the willing" who had opposed Germany and Japan and who intended, as guarantors of the 1945 peace, to guarantee peace going forward. The founders gave themselves a veto on all major decisions on the UN's Security Council. But the effectiveness of this system was significantly diminished with the Cold War when Mutually Assured Destruction became the perverse new strategy to maintain peace.

Things changed again with the collapse of the Soviet Union. "All kinds of countries, particularly the US," says Malloch Brown, "jockeyed to determine the power alignment in eastern Europe and other areas of former Soviet influence." Slowly the United States began to develop the unilateralism which culminated in the invasion of Iraq in the teeth of almost universal international opposition.

"America was a country which, right up to its entry into the Second World War, resisted a global role. It had a suspicion of the world, of young American lives being lost for other people's mischief making." When Washington found the UN did not share its black and white view of the world it decided to go it alone.

"It is much profounder than the anger of the neo-cons. In the US Congress there was a visceral dislike for subjugating American power to others and a fury that America's own institution, the UN, had come down on the bad guys' side. There was a real head of anger and steam. It was really nasty."

Kofi Annan, the Secretary General, caught the blast of that anger personally when the Washington press corps began to pursue stories that his son had received payments from a company which had won a lucrative contract under the UN Oil-for-Food Programme to allow Saddam Hussein's regime to purchase approved non-military imports.

"A lot of people in Washington were wanting to settle scores after Iraq. Oil-for-food became the perfect vehicle. Somehow we had been in bed with Saddam and our partners in this had been countries on the wrong side of the Security Council debate like France and Russia."

In the end Kofi Annan was cleared of any illegal actions, but fault was found with the UN management structure.

"In fact far more corruption was found among American officials during the brief year of the provisional administration in Iraq. A fair-minded analysis from Washington would say that on both management weaknesses and corruption in one short year in Iraq did a hell of a sight worse by both criteria.

"In Bush's litany of betrayals the UN didn't rank as high as France or Germany - he continued to take calls from Kofi - but the White House wasn't willing to get into the fray, to get the rottweillers in the Congress back on their leashes."

Nowhere are the new limitations of US power today more exposed thanover Darfur, where Washington has used the word "genocide" to condemn the scorched earth policies of the Sudanese government against the people of Darfur and the rebel groups who hide among them. But, says Malloch Brown, in their outrage the US and the UK are, "out there alone and it's counter-productive almost".

"Sudan doesn't see a united international community. It doesn't see its oil customers [China and Russia] or its neighbours in that front row. And that allows it to characterise themselves as the victims of the next crusade after Iraq and Afghanistan. So Tony Blair and George Bush need to get beyond this posturing and grandstanding. The megaphone diplomacy coming out of Washington and London: 'you damn well are going to let the UN deploy and if you don't beware the consequences' isn't plausible. The Sudanese know we don't have troops to go in against a hostile Khartoum government; if Sudan opposes us there's no peace to keep anyway; you're in there to fight a war. It's just not a credible threat."

What is needed instead is two things: "a carefully-modulated set of incentives and sanctions which Sudan needs to understand" and a diplomatic coalition to back them.

Khartoum wants four things: "the normalisation of their relations with the US, UK and others; an opportunity to deploy their new oil wealth and exercise global diplomatic and economic influence; a UN deployment that will increase their authority as the national government of Sudan and not undermine it; and a way of handling the International Criminal Court indictments laid against members of the Khartoum government which they all feel very threatened by. Those are the kind of issues which the Sudanese need to hear a positive message on.

"But in the other pocket there need to be the sanctions. And those pluses and minuses need to be echoed not just by a group of Western leaders but by a much broader cross-section of countries that Sudan respects and trusts. That's what we're now trying to orchestrate. We've been working very hard on getting China to be part of the next set of diplomatic demarches to put pressure on the Sudanese. We're working on how can we bring the major states within the Arab League and the African Union more into frontline diplomacy."

Meantime, he says, the West could do with matching its moral indignation with cash. The food aid pipeline to three million hungry people in Darfur is still $300m short of what is needed. And the African Union peacekeeping forces in the region - inadequate but the only game in town - isn't properly financed till the end of the year. Western governments, he says, "have really taken their eye off the ball on this".

Darfur is just one example of the new style of networking diplomacy which Malloch Brown sees as the future of the UN. Problems with Iran, Korea, Burma and many others will need similar approaches, and Chinese involvement will be crucial. "We're already seeing China more and more engaged. The way it managed its own domestic emergence is reassuring for how we hope it will manage its emergence onto the international stage."

But the changes go beyond the complexity of the shifting relations of sovereign states. Public health issues like Avian Flu and Aids as well as climate change and terrorism do not respect passports or respond to the old sovereign way of doing things - and global poverty, disease and illiteracy seem increasingly to impact directly upon the citizens of all countries.

The United Nations will need to remake itself to address that.

"When we get there it's not going to look like Westminster expanded to the global stage. I don't expect global government but something with a larger voice for transnational civil society and transnational business. It will be issue-orientated and driven by networks and coalitions which campaigners would recognise better than traditional politicians."

Whatever its shape Mark Malloch Brown is convinced the United Nations will be a key part of it future.