The world body began work this week on a global treaty against antiterrorism.
With diplomacy crucial in the Bush administration's strategy to fight terrorism, Washington is setting aside its traditionally dim view of the United Nations and offering closer cooperation.
The UN's diplomatic weight and reach can't be ignored. But the world body, in turn, needs the lone superpower's active support to retain credibility.
And the UN has responded with its greatest show of unity since the Gulf War, quickly condemning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as "a threat to international peace and security." This week, its 189 member states began to hash out a treaty that would harmonize antiterrorism laws worldwide and commit signatories to crack down on terrorists.
But some ask: How long will the bonhomie last? Relations will be influenced not only by military actions on the ground. Debate of the Comprehensive Convention Against Terrorism has bogged down for years over the question of "what is terrorism?"
So far, however, US officials seem delighted with the support.
"We have a right to act on our own, and everyone expects us to do so, but we really need a united front against this," says a US State Department official. "The UN is where all of the member nations can get on the same page." Key countries such as Russia, China, and Iran are insisting that the UN play a leading role.
In previous months, the Bush administration's stance on global warming, biological warfare, and the international criminal court had led UN members to accuse Washington of being "isolationist" and "unilateralist." In May, the US lost its longtime seat on the UN Commission on Human Rights, in part due to Arab and Muslim states fed up with US criticism. Last month in South Africa, the US pushed the UN World Conference Against Racism to the brink of collapse when it walked out to protest language critical of Israel.
Sept. 11, though, may have ushered in a new era. The UN antiterrorism legislation would provide legal steps for member states to deal with terrorist bombings, hostage-takings, airplane or ship hijackings, terrorism financing, and protection of nuclear materials. The treaty would eliminate much of the wiggle room for states that aid terrorists but claim not to.
But on Tuesday, several diplomats - including representatives of Yemen, Malaysia, Libya, and Iran - called for a definition of terrorism. "Acts of pure terrorism, involving attacks against innocent civilian populations - which cannot be justified under any circumstances - should be differentiated from the legitimate struggles of peoples under colonial or alien domination, and foreign occupation for self-determination and national liberation," said Malaysia's Ambassador.
The Bush administration has yet to offer a definition. Initially, officials spoke of vanquishing terrorism wherever it might exist. But in his Sept. 20 address to Congress, President Bush vowed to go after terrorists with "global reach." Bush seemed to be hinting that he might exclude Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah - not to mention Northern Ireland's IRA, among others.
"This is the beginning, and I think greater specificity will come later," says Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. "That would be too much to bite off at this point."
Washington's take on terrorism may be gleaned from the Mitchell Commission, which earlier this year analyzed the causes of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence. "Terrorism involves the deliberate killing and injuring of randomly selected noncombatants for political ends. It seeks to promote a political outcome by spreading terror and demoralization throughout a population," the Mitchell report said.
Which would seem to qualify terrorists without "global reach."
Bush also emphasized in his address that the US will go after only nations that "continue to" sponsor terrorism or harbor terrorists. That seemed to offer a window of opportunity, for the sake of broadening the antiterrorism coalition. Among the countries Washington is believed to be wooing, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Sudan sit on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Sudan reportedly has responded with intelligence information. Last week, the US rewarded it by abstaining from, rather than vetoing, a Security Council vote to lift travel restrictions on Sudan's political and military elites.
It remains unclear what will happen to states that don't change their ways. Both US officials and analysts dismiss this as "speculative."