Building defenses of peace

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Armed with a resolution from the US Congress authorizing him to go to war with Iraq, President Bush has been winching up the pressure on the United Nations. In effect, he wants the UN collectively to pull the trigger on the American gun, now that Congress has loaded it.

Certain that Saddam Hussein will never knuckle under to a comprehensive weapons inspection and disarmament regime, the tacticians in the White House have been attempting to maneuver the Security Council members into a trap. If they choose an inspection regime with a built-in war clause, the president will soon carry the UN flag into battle. If they postpone a decision on invasion until inspection teams have tested Mr. Hussein anew, President Bush can go to war anyway and call the UN irrelevant to boot. To be a gunslinger or a wimp, that is now the question before the Security Council.

This diplomatic judo flips the United Nations on its head. The UN was designed specifically "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind."

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That was not the ambition of wimps or pacifists. The mostly American and British drafters were the same "united nations" leaders then directing the massive combat of World War II. Determined to avoid the unrealistic idealism of the failed League of Nations, the UN architects fashioned a practical, peace-guarding buffet of war-preventing actions ranging from a forum for dispute resolution among parties of good will to "effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace."

Sadly, not much was prevented by the new machinery. World War III was avoided, but mainly by force of superpower geopolitics and nuclear weapons. A stream of deadly little wars made the second half of the century as bloody as the first.

But here is where the White House strategists misjudge the UN and misunderstand war. Their taunts that the UN is merely an international wind tunnel overlook the gradual evolution of UN mechanisms and practices that will likely contribute far more to peace in the 21st century than precision-guided bombs.

Why? The essence of war has changed.

Wars nowadays are fought mostly among neighbors, not between armies on formal battlefields. Often incited by malevolent leaders seeking power and profit (Milosevic), these community wars roil on for so long (Sudan) and are so destructive (Chechnya) that armies cannot deliver a war-ending "victory" nor diplomats a durable "peace" (Israel-Palestinians). Prevention is imperative.

Enter the UN. The past two secretaries-general have pushed "prevention" to the top of the institution's agenda. The UN is evolving a family of organizations increasingly skilled at digging among these new roots of war. Some, like the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, have been learning how to help refugees return and restart civil life; some, like the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, have been exploring creative ways to reestablish local security infrastructures. Others of the UN's alphabet soup of agencies work to break the threads that lead from poverty and hopelessness to violence.

The UN founders were notably forward-thinking: "A peace based exclusively on the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting, and sincere support of the peoples of the world." It's a caution the Bush White House might take to heart as it thinks about postinvasion Iraq.

To foster resilient, people-level peace, the founders created the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. UNESCO specializes in nurturing the seeds of peace at the level of individuals and among cultures – exactly the places where contemporary war and terrorism rage.

Based in Paris, UNESCO operates with a constitution that begins with a famous precept from the pen of the American Archibald MacLeish: "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." President Bush announced during his September exhortation to the UN General Assembly for action on Iraq that the United States is rejoining UNESCO "as a symbol of our commitment to human dignity." Britain and the US abandoned the organization in the mid-1980s when its work seemed more to comfort tyranny than shore up democracy.

Now reformed, UNESCO's return to the forefront of international peacebuilding illustrates the capacity of the UN to learn and adapt as it keeps pecking away at civilization's oldest problem: how to arrange human affairs to be a little more civil, a little less violent.

For all its faults, the UN has, for more than 50 years, immersed itself in the prevention problem, not the war-making problem. Mr. Bush will get his war if and when he wants it. Let's not damage the UN by trying to bend it to a new, war-sponsoring agenda merely for tactical expediency with American voters.

• Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, writes about contemporary war and strategies for peacebuilding. From 1995-1999 he was a senior outside adviser to the director-general of UNESCO on creative approaches to conflict prevention.

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