Douglas Hurd: What is the point of the UN if it is unable to find a solution to this crisis?

The first result of war is to stiffen determination on all sides and make compromise a bad word
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After the Security Council had passed its resolution, the Foreign Secretary reminded his officials that more was needed - a degree of local consent, which was absent, and substantially more troops with a proper agreement on command and control.

That was Bosnia in June 1993. We achieved neither the local consent nor the troops, which could alone have made a reality of the so-called safe-areas resolution passed that month. The gap between the aims agreed in New York and the facts on the ground remained murderous for two more years. Will the same happen in Lebanon?

The success of a Security Council resolution depends on its foundations. Under the pressure of tragic events it may be possible to reach verbal agreement in New York on Lebanon, which will for a few days give the impression of an international community effectively at work. The impression will not last long unless it is based on a clear understanding of what is possible.

Fifty years ago this autumn, the UN provided the textbook example of effective action. Within five days of the Anglo-French attack on Suez at the end of October 1956, the UN had begun to construct a force which took the place of the invaders, cleared the canal which our action had blocked, and gradually levered the Israelis out of the Egyptian territory that they had occupied.

This prompt action was the work of two outstanding international statesmen - Dag Hammarskjold, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and Mike Pearson, the Foreign Secretary of Canada. It was made possible by the determination of the United States that the Anglo-French enterprise should fail, and by the acceptance of this fact by the British Cabinet. Those UN resolutions were built on solid ground; it was the Anglo-French enterprise which had not been thought through and lacked foundations.

The current draft resolution on Lebanon was hurriedly put together in a blaze of publicity by the Americans and French, once the Americans realised they could not wait any longer. Tony Blair's decision to postpone his holiday was of no significance. No doubt he made a great number of telephone calls during that day; but his mistake over Iraq has created a reputation for subservience to the United States which robs him of any weight in Middle Eastern affairs. British diplomats are highly skilled in putting together and gaining support for resolutions in New York; they would have done this technical job with or without the Prime Minister.

The French are in a stronger position. Their troops are not bogged down in Iraq. They are the only credible leaders of a serious international force in Lebanon. They have a reputation for independent thinking and a particular knowledge of the country. What they did not have was the time or capacity to rally the Arab world as a whole round the draft resolution, which as a result appeared lopsided.

The Arab League has no high reputation for united action or skilled diplomacy, but they deserve a little sympathy. Their leaders began this crisis ready to criticise Hizbollah and stick to the Arab summit decision of 2002, which acknowledged the existence of Israel. But the disproportionate Israeli response, the corpses of children and the misery of refugees have forced them to change stance.

The more the members of the Arab League listen to their people, as the Americans urge them to do, the more they are bound to oppose American policy. It is our shame that democracy in the Arab world today means Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbollah and now a Lebanese government rejecting a French-American resolution at the UN.

Israel too lashes out to avenge its dead and protect its living. The first result of war is to stiffen determination on all sides and make compromise a bad word. If the prospects for a United Nations-based solution are dim, why bother? Why not allow the forces on the ground to wear each other out, or else put together another coalition of the compliant to further whatever solution seems right to the American superpower? What is the point of the UN?

At an operational level, there are functions which the UN is better at performing than anyone else. They include small-scale peacekeeping, the provision of humanitarian aid and the monitoring of elections. More widely, the UN acts as a legitimising influence. This is not quite the same as a legalising force, for international law limps behind events. But a plan approved by the UN possesses an authority which other combinations lack. Conversely, action taken without UN backing is widely perceived as illegitimate, as we saw in our invasion of Iraq.

But the UN possesses less magic than 50 years ago. Effective action requires not only a UN resolution, but also regional acceptance and the backing of the United States, as the only superpower.

At the moment, the Bush administration tries to play two different parts - as a supporter of Israeli policy and as the creator of a new just and peaceful Middle East. At present, the two roles are incompatible.

Unfortunately, the security of Israel is held by successive Israeli governments who depend on an occupation of Palestinian lands, which is oppressive and will never be accepted. So long as that remains true, terrorism will gain recruits by posing as resistance. The Arab governments, criticised by the West and unsure of their hold over their own people, will be reluctant to follow up their acceptance of Israel's existence with negotiations for a final settlement.

So a Lebanon-only solution is unlikely to work, even if it could be achieved. Perhaps the most ambitious answer may be the most realistic. The US and her allies, under the aegis of the UN, could summon all the parties to an uncomfortable US air force base somewhere in the mid-west.

They could present the parties not with a procedure or a road map but with a comprehensive plan for a final two- state settlement in Palestine, the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, the disarming of Hizbollah and a guarantee of Israel's security. They could muster all the available pressures to get the parties to sign, negotiating as few adjustments as proved necessary.

It might not work, but the other prospects are not promising - and that is how in 1995 they ended the war in Bosnia.

The writer was Foreign Secretary from 1989-1995. He acts as senior adviser to Hawkpoint and is working on a biography of the life of Sir Robert Peel