US, UN find common ground
SALT LAKE CITY — Last week wasn't a great one for President Bush.
He was buffeted by political fallout over the tardy governmental response to hurricane Katrina. Violence continued apace in Iraq.
While there was cautious optimism for a breakthrough with North Korea, Iran remained obdurate about developing nuclear technology that the president is sure is a cover for developing nuclear weapons.
But at week's end there was light at the end of one foreign policy tunnel. The United Nations dipped its collective toe into the waters of reform and its relationship with the US took a turn for the better.
Had it not done so, it would have been a very black day for the UN and a very dark omen for its relationship with the US.
Mr. Bush was in a calculatedly conciliatory mode when he addressed the annual meeting of the UN's General Assembly in New York, beginning his speech with words of appreciation for 115 nations that have offered aid to the victims of hurricane Katrina.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was positively gushing about her relationship with UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan.
The new US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, was on his best behavior, so much so that The New York Times, whose editorial page has been sourly critical of him, ran a Sunday news story quoting ambassadors of other countries in praise of Mr. Bolton's "work ethic, his knowledge of his brief, his clarity in declaring it and his toughness as a negotiator."
If all this signaled the administration's intention to work with the UN in the rest of Bush's presidential term, neither was there any doubt that the president wants to see much more reform than has so far been promised in the watered-down document the General Assembly approved last week.
As Bolton put it; this is just a start: "This is not the alpha and the omega, and we never thought it would be."
Said Bush: "The process of reform begins with members taking our responsibilities seriously."
And, clearly referring to Sudan, Cuba, and Libya, he continued, "When this great institution's member states choose notorious abusers of human rights to sit on the UN Human Rights Commission, they discredit a noble effort and undermine the credibility of the whole organization."
This was one of the most critical issues for the US, and had the UN not moved on it, it is unlikely that the Bush administration could have offered up any encouraging words for the future of its relationship with the international organization.
The discredited Human Rights Commission is to be replaced with a new human rights council, the exact specifics of which are to be determined in the General Assembly.
The Security Council is not to be expanded and Mr. Annan will apparently not respond to calls for his resignation, despite recent faulting by the Volcker commission of the UN's management practices, particularly in the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal.
The General Assembly document did provide a rationale for international intervention in a country where genocide and ethnic cleansing are evident.
It also condemned terrorism "in all its forms and manifestations" but was squishy in defining terrorism.
The Bush decision to continue working with the UN is based on two important factors.
One is that multilateralism is being given more emphasis in the president's second term, whereas unilateralism seemed dominant in the first term.
The second factor is the hope that the UN can play a significant role in curbing the nuclear weaponry ambitions of such nations as North Korea and Iran.
The US seems close to seeking UN Security Council sanctions against Iran after inconclusive negotiations between European powers and Iran.
Meanwhile if a weekend agreement with North Korea falls through, the US would likely seek support at the UN for punitive measures against the Pyongyang regime.
Many of the Bush administration's reservations about the UN clearly remain.
But the Bush White House calculates that there are still areas where the UN can be useful.
One is the UN's vast humanitarian outreach to the poor and oppressed. Another is the UN's ability to field peacekeepers, thus lessening the demands upon the US military.
Another is the legitimacy that the UN can sometimes lend to American initiatives in sensitive areas of the world.
Thus the UN's move to reform, however modest, and the US's positive response, while continuing the pressure for further effort, are welcome developments in a turbulent world.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary-general of the UN in 1995.