Adrian Hamilton: Only Annan's resignation can save the UN

It would clear the air and force the US to commit itself to what it wants for the UN's future
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The Independent Online

You can say that again. It is often forgotten that Annan, when appointed, was the man who was supposed to bring reform and order to the UN's internal affairs and, in doing so, make it more acceptable to its biggest paymaster, the US. As it is Annan, one of the most fundamentally decent men to have headed the organisation, is now hopelessly embroiled in the oil-for-food scandal and fighting for his life in the organisation. The man who came through London while waiting for the publication of the final report by Paul Volcker into the scandal was, frankly, a defeated man with little stomach for the fight he needs to wage at next week's all-important UN summit on reform.

The final Volcker report as released yesterday doesn't provide the killer bullet that would fell the secretary general by associating him directly with getting work for his son. But it does present such a damning analysis of the ways of working in the UN that no chief executive could feel other than pole-axed by it, however much Annan denies that this is his role. The UN has few friends on Capitol Hill these days and Volcker can only serve to increase the appetite of the organisation's many foes.

Not that the White House necessarily wants Annan's scalp at this moment. That is the horrid part of the story. President George Bush would prefer him there and neutered and a UN not so much reformed but tamed.

Which is exactly what they're likely to get in next week's summit. Annan had wanted the meeting to be the occasion of the organisation's great leap forward into the new world, its structures reformed, its aims broadened and its Security Council widened. Instead it is all too likely to be a damp squib, the strained family gathering in which everyone agrees to hold back on their enmities but all the participants want over as decently and quickly as possible. It has to be held but no one expects it do anything.

There'll be many fine words, of course, about the need to fulfil the millennium goals of eliminating poverty and disease and making the world a better and safer place.

Tony Blair will want to make it seem an affirmation of what he feels he achieved at Gleneagles with the G8. President Bush will want to make it appear that the US is concerned with high ideals, only doubtful that they can be achieved with the bureaucracy at hand. The Third World countries will continue to demand that the West accept their role not just in principle but in the practice of sharing decision-making with them.

But that is precisely what the America of George Bush - and the other permanent members of the Security Council - are not prepared to do. Much has been made of the way in which the new US representative at the UN, John Bolton, has excised most of the proposed statement for the summit. But it is not Bolton's personal prejudices that are driving him but his interpretation of what the White House wants - a UN programme that avoids tying the US into anything of an international nature.

This will change. We are living at a curious moment of history when an America which saw itself - and was seen by most of its allies - as the world's one remaining superpower chose to exercise that power in ways that only served to show its limitations. It is not just Iraq that has done it, but New Orleans. A country which had once thought it had the power to do anything is now seen to be incapable even of responding to an internal disaster properly. That will have its effect on how Americans see themselves over time. Abroad it has already had the effect of diminishing its stature, as anyone watching the foreign media, with their daily vision of avoidable tragedy, knows. The US no longer looks as all-powerful or as all-competent as it once did, more the same as any Third World country, with added looting.

America will get over that. Its capacity to gather together resources and organise them is phenomenal. But Hurricane Katrina will alter its appetite for foreign ventures, perhaps making it more introverted over time, certainly making it more cautious of international confrontations. That in turn may allow what so much of the rest of the world really wants - a period of developing co-operation and multilateralism to fill the vacuum, a reforming of international organisations to reflect the realities of tomorrow rather than the circumstances of 1945.

But not at this precise moment. After all the preparations and recommendations, there simply isn't the support of Washington for structural changes in the UN nor for its wider ambitions. Nor does the UN have the stature or self-belief to push onwards despite America.

The UN can ill afford to lose its secretary general at this stage, but if it is to restore its authority an act of self-sacrifice and of purging is needed. However unjust personally and unfair politically, Kofi Annan should now resign for the good of the organisation but also for its members. It would clear the air and force America and the UN's major shareholders to commit themselves to what they want for the organisation's future and have it out in public, instead of letting the United Nations drift away in high-minded irrelevance.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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