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The US-UN Dance Recovers Its Balance


Susan Rice
Susan Rice, left, the US ambassador to the UN, greets Michelle Bachelet, the chief of UN Women, in April 2012 at the Security Council. RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

CANBERRA — The United Nations is located at the cross-section of Interdependence Avenue and Multilateral Cooperation Street in Manhattan. But its destiny lies at the intersection of Indifference Avenue and Hostility Street in Washington.

That was the case, at least, under the George W. Bush administration through the mode of John Bolton, the United States ambassador to the UN at the time. But as the tenure of the current US ambassador, Susan Rice, winds down, it provides a chance to reflect on how much has been done to repair America’s standing at the UN.

The US’s “we’re all in it together” approach, recognizing the need for mutual cooperation among nations, was demonstrated last year when the US successfully “led from behind” to back the rebels in Libya by enforcing a UN-declared no-fly zone to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. By year’s end, the US also withdrew from Iraq in a mission gravely compromised from the start, as it was executed in defiance of UN norms governing the use of force.

Obama’s administration has not merely reversed much of the reputational damage caused to the US by the blunt unilateralism of its predecessor. It has also recalibrated the balance among unilateral, bilateral, UN-centered multilateral and non-UN multilateral (the Group of 20, for example) approaches to foreign policy goals. Rice has been effective in the UN by acknowledging its potential and limits. For her successor, named after this year’s presidential election, to leverage the UN to augment US policy, an appreciation of the UN-US relationship is critical.

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The US remains the most influential international and biggest global actor, the guarantor of trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific and trans-American security orders. But as the Libya and Iraq comparison shows, its power is enhanced with the UN stamp of approval. The world body’s legitimacy acts as a force multiplier; lack of international legitimacy is a force divider. Yet no other country beyond the US plays as crucial a role in determining the UN’s agenda and actions, nor is there any other country that can devastatingly hurt the UN’s fortunes by withholding support.

Over all, the UN has been responsive rather than inattentive to US concerns. The Charter proclaims mainly Western liberal values as guiding principles, and US dominance in the UN is embedded in its primary agencies and voting procedures. The crucial executive decision-making body is the Security Council, which has often bent to US will, although Syria has been a glaring exception recently, and cannot act against US vital interests because of the veto clause.

In the world theater, the UN earns star billing or played supporting roles in preventing and managing conflicts, regulating weapons and championing human rights, international humanitarian law and international criminal justice. It has helped liberate the colonized, provided development aid and technical help to newly liberated countries, organized elections, empowered women, educated children, fed the hungry, sheltered the dispossessed and displaced, housed the refugees, tended to the sick and coordinated disaster relief and assistance: all on a 24/7 basis. Backstage, the UN helps to coordinate and manage mundane activities whose influence on daily lives would startle most people if they paused to think about it.

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Yet the terrorist attacks of 9/11 provoked an anger that bred confrontational US international policies, disregarding world opinion and defying the UN, particularly the American-led war in Iraq. Lost in the anger was the reality of how quickly the UN continues to support Washington in its fight against international terrorism.

While power is the capacity to carry out policy and enforce rules, authority is the right to make the policy and set the rules. The US has global reach but it lacks international authority. The UN has authority but no power and, as such, practices only part of its Charter.

The UN record shows a surprising capacity for innovation, advances, adaptation and learning with regard to human security, human rights, atrocity crimes, international criminal justice, sanctions, pandemics and terrorism, to name some of the tough issues it tries to manage. But the mostly positive record is little consolation to the suffering people of Syria, Darfur in Sudan, Zimbabwe or North Korea.

The UN will remain relevant for setting international standards to regulate interstate behavior. Norms, laws and treaties for governing the global commons – including global warming and nuclear proliferation — will be negotiated in UN forums or ratified by the UN machinery.

There is no foreseeable substitute for the UN’s institutional and political legitimacy. If global consensus exists, the UN can provide the setting for translating that position into new norms, treaties, policies and operations. No other forum could control the process better. Libya last year was proof.

But as the climate talks in Copenhagen a few years ago and Syria this year attest, the UN cannot manufacture international consensus where none exists. It cannot be the center for harmonizing national interests — and mediating or reconciling them in the global interest — when the divisions are too deep to be papered over by diplomacy. As power, influence and wealth leach from the North to South, Washington and the West will steadily lose their ability to push the rest into agreement and shift toward a more mixed strategy of giving as well as taking.

Additional resources

A Science Prize Complicates Life at Unesco and for the UN

Proposed US Foreign Aid Shows Slight Increase

Quietly, New US Policies Align With the UN


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at Australia National University in Canberra and a professor of international relations in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy. He was vice rector and senior vice rector of United Nations University (and assistant secretary-general of the UN) from 1998–2007. Educated in India and Canada, he was also a professor of international relations at the University of Otago in New Zealand and professor and head of the Peace Research Center at the Australian National University, while also advising the Australian and New Zealand governments on arms control, disarmament and international security issues.
In addition, Thakur was a principal author of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and a senior adviser on reforms and principal writer of the UN secretary-general’s second reform report (2002). He has written or edited more than 40 books, 400 articles and book chapters. His most recent book is “The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics” (London: Routledge, 2011).

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