Unity at the UN marks a welcome return to diplomacy

The Americans deserve credit for doing something right. US diplomacy has been counterproductive so often in recent months that unity at the United Nations seemed improbable until as recently as Wednesday.

The practical implications of yesterday's vote are of course limited. It may be that a few million more dollars may be forthcoming for Iraqi reconstruction at next week's donors' conference in Madrid. But the vote does not mean that any troops will be sent to Iraq that would not have been sent anyway. Both the Pakistanis and the Indians, for example, absolutely refuse to provide troops to serve under US command. The Americans, British and Iraqis themselves will continue to bear the whole of the burden for law and order in Iraq for the foreseeable future, therefore.

The symbolism of yesterday's vote, however, is great and highly desirable. The concessions made by the Americans may not have been substantial, but they added to the sense of urgency with which the transition to an Iraq ruled by Iraqis will take place. Just as important, they marked a return by the Bush administration to the old-fashioned idea of diplomacy, which is that every side makes compromises and concessions in order to reach an agreement that is least objectionable to all. It was significant, on the anti-war side of the argument, that the Russians, French and Chinese have explicitly endorsed the US-led authority as a UN "multinational force". French fries all round.

Earlier this week, right-wing commentators in the US were cheering the fact that the Americans had given up on the UN. They cheered too soon. They reckoned without the domestic electoral imperative of America being seen to have allies in its efforts to turn round a situation in Iraq that remains worse than anyone expected.

Indeed, George Bush may benefit more than the Iraqi people from the vote in the short run. They are unlikely to be persuaded that a vote in New York magically confers legitimacy on the occupying forces. But there are long-term gains for Iraqis and the world in keeping America tied into international institutions, and in anchoring the transition to democracy in Iraq firmly in a UN framework. For that at least we, and they, should be grateful.

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