A relevant UN - but to what?

Are America's leaders - the leaders of the world in their own eyes - relevant?

They are probably not asking themselves this question as they give the UN Security Council a new Iraq resolution and one more opportunity to "show its relevance" in President Bush's phrase. A cable news channel mistakenly, or maybe mischievously, did an instant replay when Mr. Bush said "revelance" and immediately corrected himself.

But the president and Secretary Powell regularly pronounce relevant or relevance correctly in talking about the world body as if it were a hopeful on reality TV. The nitpicking question here is what does a free-standing relevant or relevance mean? The traditional point of these words is to suggest the logical connection of something to a specified something else. Your noodles are relevant to my hunger.

In law, the United States Code says "nor shall any amendment not germane or relevant to the subject matter contained in the bill be received." James Bryant Conant, wartime president of Harvard, said "a scholar's activities should have relevance to the immediate future of our civilization."

These usages are from the unabridged Webster's Third. The newer American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language cites a scientist and "matters relevant to her own research."

Oh, there are plenty of loopholes for untethered usages with no "to" specified. In the countercultural '60s the young and powerless wanted to be relevant and grasped for a relevance floating out there somewhere. Everyone sort of knew what they meant. And sometimes clarity broke through as in making religion relevant to secular needs or demanding that college courses have relevance to postgraduate life.

While not countercultural in the same sense, President Bush himself has done a bit of clarifying. If the UN failed to act (in line with Bush gospel), it would "prove irrelevant to the problems of our time." In its "moment of truth" the UN has to decide whether it is "relevant in terms of keeping the peace."

So Bush's warning to the UN to show its relevance does not necessarily mean relevant to the will of the people, relevant to an international legal system, or relevant to a single standard for regimes packing weapons of mass destructing.

When the Security Council finally acts, let the president say that it did or did not show just its undefined relevance but its relevance to what.

Then American leadership would show its relevance to public understanding.

Ah, the wisdom of Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible in omitting both relevant and relevance.

Ah, the headline in The New York Times: "With Iraq Stance, Chirac Strives for Relevance." Can he be sérieux? The French president seems to think the American way is not the only way to be relevant.

Roderick Nordell was a longtime Monitor editor.

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