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'Loner' Stance of U.S. Troubling to Mission of U.N.
Published on Thursday, August 1, 2002 in the Madison Capital Times
'Loner' Stance of U.S. Troubling to Mission of U.N.
by Phil Haslanger

Kofi Annan sat at the head of the table, his hands folded together in front of him, his piercing eyes taking in the faces of those in the room, his voice softly making his points.

He is one of this era's global stars. He has been secretary-general of the United Nations since 1997. He received the Nobel Peace Prize last December. He is immersed in all of the world's biggest problems - war in the Middle East, the prospect of war in Iraq, the AIDS epidemic, famines and poverty, ways to combat terrorism.

And right there in the midst of all of those problems is the country that hosts the United Nations, the country that provides a quarter of its budget. That would be the United States.

Much has been written of late about the growing tendency of the United States to go it alone in international affairs.

We are one of only two nations that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the other is Somalia).

We withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol to stop global warming.

We brushed off the World Food Summit in Rome last month.

This month, we threatened to undermine peacekeeping efforts around the world by our refusal to accept the new International Criminal Court.

Last week we put the lives of women and children at risk by canceling our $34 million allocation to the U.N. Population Fund.

We have also sent clear signals that if the Bush administration decides to attack Iraq, our country will do so with or without broad global support.

So you can understand what Annan means when he says, "Some of us in this building feel that multilateralism is under attack."

Multilateralism is the concept of many nations working together to solve common problems. Nations, by their very nature, first of all look out for their own interests. They are not altruistic entities, after all. The task of the United Nations is to help nations see that their self-interest is enhanced by working together rather than by going it alone.

Of course, the United States is not the only country that gives the United Nations trouble. Iraq has not exactly been a leading voice for world peace. Other nations have their own issues. But because of its historic role in helping to create the United Nations, its financial and military power and its professed national values, the current moves by the United States are particularly worrisome for folks who value the United Nations.

American leaders argue that as the world's only superpower, the United States needs to approach issues differently from other nations. "Every time the U.S. disagrees with a treaty, it is accused of being lawless," observed Nicholas Rostow, the top lawyer for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "Some treaties are not good treaties."

Still, when the United States repeatedly sets itself apart from other nations, it creates a problem for itself. As Annan said in discussing recent U.S. actions toward the United Nations, "It is unfortunate to create an impression that there should be one law for U.S. citizens and one for everyone else."

Gillian Sorensen is an American who serves as Annan's assistant secretary-general for external relations.

"I wish there were times when the U.S. could conduct itself with a bit more humility, with a bit more modesty," she said. "That would win us more friends than acting as a bully. What the U.N. wants is leadership from the U.S., not as the bully on the block but as a superpower."

She defines that as showing respect for the rule of law, being consistent in its dealing with others, not simply using the United Nations as an organization of convenience and not repeatedly claiming that it ought to be given special exceptions from treaties.

Last fall, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on this country, other nations rallied to the side of the United States and there was a sense that maybe the nations of the world could work together.

"The unity that followed Sept. 11 lasted about six months," Sorensen said. "Now it is being dissipated because the U.S. did not recognize the opportunity to keep nations together on terrorism."

As Annan noted, there are difficult issues revolving around the United States' role in the world. "The United Nations is the one stage on which these questions are being examined every day," he said, calling it the "key instrument" for moving toward some measure of global peace, justice and the rule of law.

Because the United States is such a big player on the global stage, if it increasingly chooses to go it alone, it eventually will undermine the essential role the United Nations is playing in forging a better world for the generations to come. In the long term, that's a risky strategy not only for the United States, but for the future of humanity.

Phil Haslanger, the managing editor of The Capital Times, attended two days of briefings recently at the United Nations in his role as this year's president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

Copyright 2002 The Capital Times


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