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
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
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