Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

AIDS, Other Trends Give New Prominence To U.N. Population Division (June 23, 2003)
"Ethnic wars, epidemic diseases, huge migrations of people have helped make [the U.N. Population Division] one of the busiest offices in the U.N. Secretariat."

Fixing The Security Council (June 16, 2003)
"If the United States and the rest of the world seem to be looking at the same Security Council and seeing two very different images, most governments can agree on one point: the council needs fixing."

Peacekeeping's Unsavory Side (June 10, 2003)
"Among the uglier stories surrounding international peacekeeping in recent years is that U.N. operations too often fuel booms in local prostitution."

More from U.N. Notebook.


U.N. Notebook | July 1, 2003
 
from U. N. Wire U.N. Still Battered by U.S. Action On Iraq

by Barbara Crossette
 
....

UNITED NATIONS—Secretary General Kofi Annan recently told a group of scholars that U.S. President George W. Bush wanted to end the searing attacks by administration officials that have deeply wounded the United Nations since the Iraq war began.  That was a surprise.  But the question that lingers at a demoralized United Nations is whether, without some public show of support for Annan from the White House, the organization can ever recover from this low point in U.S.-U.N. relations.  Too much damage may have already been done and another anti-U.N. campaign is out of control across the United States.

Ironically, it may be Iraq, the focus of the problem with Washington, that will ultimately temper the ugly mood, since the United Nations, with experienced officials back on the ground, may soon be bailing a beleaguered U.S. occupation out of at least some of its morass.  But no one thinks it will be easy.

It would be almost impossible to overstate the sense of loss and grievance felt these days by U.N. staff members from the secretary general down to the lowest ranks.  Anger against the United States is palpable among people who say their U.S. denigrators are too ignorant to separate the Security Council from the rest of the organization and too stubborn to admit that the rejection Washington suffered when it sought backing for the Iraq war came from foreign leaders, not U.N. officials.  "The U.N. won't be the same after Iraq," a senior official told colleagues last week.  He and others say that the Americans seem to hate the United Nations for not supporting the war, while a lot of the rest of the world hates the organization for not preventing it.

Outside the United Nations, supporters such as William Luers, president of the U.N. Association of the United States of America, say they are stunned by the level of ill-informed contempt for the organization and even for the secretary general displayed by otherwise fair-minded Americans who took their cue on this issue from the Bush administration.  Annan agrees that the problem has gone well beyond the confines of official Washington.

A poll in May by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that approval of the United Nations among Americans had dropped catastrophically.  Only 5 percent said the influence of the United Nations was "very good," compared with 18 percent in August 2002.  Thirty-eight percent said the United Nations' influence was "somewhat good," compared with 54 percent last summer, and 19 percent said it was "very bad," up from 6 percent.  There were similar slides in many other countries.  In the United States, surveys show the United Nations falling behind the old bugbears, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in credibility among the public. Here is what Annan told the Academic Council of the United Nations System, better known by the acronym ACUNS, June 12, the day after a meeting with White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who has been critical of international institutions, and lunch with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has been close to Annan for years. (Full disclosure: I was asking the questions at this event.)

"I warned them a couple of months ago," Annan said.  "Be careful knocking the U.N.  You may be embarrassed to have to turn to the U.N.  In fact, they gave me the assurance that they were going to stop the U.N. bashing and that the president also agreed that U.N. bashing must stop.  But I presume this is within the administration.  There are others outside the administration who will continue, and they have pushed it to a fine art.  So I don't think that we will be able to stop them.  But I could sense yesterday that the administration wants to work with us.  They realize we need to be together in Iraq.  But of course I didn't go to the Pentagon.  I was only at the State Department and the National Security Council.  I do not know if the Pentagon has the same attitude.  But we will find out."

It was the then-chairman of the Pentagon's advisory Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle, who first knocked some U.N. supporters breathless with an article he wrote for the London magazine The Spectator March 22, just after the attacks on Iraq began.

"Saddam Hussein's reign of terror is about to end," Perle wrote.  "He will go quickly, but not alone:  in a parting irony he will take the United Nations down with him."  Perle, a former assistant defense secretary, called the United Nations "the looming chatterbox on the Hudson."  It is, of course, on the East River, but that demonstration of ignorance was scant comfort.

Perle, who resigned his chairmanship of the board at the end of March over an unrelated conflict-of-interest charge, cast sweeping doubt on the entire international system and seemed to want a rump U.N. salvaged only as an example of wrong-headedness.  "As we sift through the debris of war to liberate Iraq," he wrote, "it will be important to preserve, the better to understand, the intellectual wreckage of the liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions."

The United Nations, largely founded by Americans or under American encouragement in 1945, has since taken a lot of hits from the United States.  Gamely, it has often tried to find ways to counter bad publicity.  This time, a lot of people seem to think it is not worth trying.  Shashi Tharoor, undersecretary general for communications and public information, says he is not one of them.  But Tharoor, who has given more than 170 interviews and made more than half a dozen speeches in defense of the U.N. in recent months, acknowledges that it isn't easy to get the point across that the Security Council and the Secretariat are two separate entities.  That, he said, calls for "a long tutorial no one has time for in a sound bite era."

But is this gloom and resignation all the fault of the Bush administration?  It is always easy to hit a big target, and there is in this mix more than a little European visceral dislike for a Republican like Bush.  At the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Ruth Wedgwood, the Edward B. Burling professor of international law and diplomacy, said in an exchange of e-mails that relations between the Europeans, especially the French, and the Americans had to improve before the kind of Security Council confrontations at the heart of anti-United Nations sentiment can be avoided.

"U.S.- U.N. relations —or rather U.S.-Security Council relations—work only as well as the alliance relationships, so the question is whether the U.S. and France will reconcile," she said, adding that President Jacques Chirac has been criticized in France as well as elsewhere for pushing the Security Council into crisis over Iraq.  "Washington has always had to find ways to garner a substitute multilateralism when the U.N. machinery does not work."

Coupled with official French disdain for cultures outside Europe, recently displayed again at the European Union summit in Greece, Wedgwood said, French willingness to cripple the Security Council bodes ill for the future of the U.N. vision for the world.

Maybe the secretary general is owed an apology from the Europeans, too.


What do you think? Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.

More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see NationalJournal.com.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.