It is fall, and the leaves are not the only ones changing their colors as world leaders arrive in New York City to give speeches at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly and to mark United Nations Day. In his final speech as U.S. president to the United Nations on Sept. 23, George W. Bush said, “The United Nations and other multilateral organizations are needed now more than ever.” This completes the administration’s turnaround on the United Nations.
Upon entering office, the administration was hostile to the United Nations, seeing it as ineffective and unnecessary at best, corrupt and opposed to U.S. interests at worst. The administration did not even bother to appoint a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for nearly a year. Later the administration chose John Bolton for the job, a fierce critic of the United Nations and international law, who notoriously said, “If the U.N. Secretariat building in New York lost ten storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”—a callous comment, considering that the United Nations has repeatedly been targeted for terrorist attacks.
The administration believed in unilateralism and, if necessary, coalitions of the willing, not in strengthening and using the very international laws and institutions the United States had worked hard to construct in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the administration worked to withdraw from or undermine numerous global treaties endorsed by U.N. members. At the nadir of U.S.-U.N. relations, Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 without U.N. Security Council authorization, something his father, President George H. W. Bush, had sought and received prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
U.N.-bashing is easy domestic political fodder, but bad foreign policy. When the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan began to go badly, the U.S. turned to the United Nations to pick up the pieces and to legitimize the new regimes. The United Nations monitored elections and helped write the countries’ constitutions and set up the new governments. While publicly withholding U.S. contributions to the United Nations, behind the scenes the administration got U.N. peacekeepers to replace U.S. troops in Haiti. While criticizing the U.N. bureaucracy, the administration worked for the imposition of U.N. sanctions on the other members of the “axis of evil,” North Korea and Iran.
Catholics ought to appreciate this turnaround. From Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris to Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at the United Nations last April, Catholic teaching emphasizes support of international law and institutions like the United Nations as a means to achieve the common good in an increasingly interdependent world. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes in its 2007 document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “The United States should provide political and financial support for beneficial United Nations programs and reforms, for other international bodies, and for international law, so that together these institutions may become more responsible and responsive agents for addressing global problems.”
Conservative and liberal critics alike are right to demand reform of the United Nations, from corruption such as that uncovered in the Iraq oil-for-food program to sexual abuses by U.N. peacekeepers. But too many U.S. politicians have a disingenuous habit of creating self-fulfilling prophecies, undermining the United Nations and then criticizing the organization for not being strong enough to handle global challenges.
The world increasingly relies on the United Nations, from its food programs during this global food crisis to its peacekeepers in hotspots around the world. The number of U.N. peacekeepers engaged in crises around the world, for example, has tripled since 2001, from nearly 40,000 to nearly 120,000. Numerous recent studies from the Government Accountability Office to the Rand Corporation have found U.N. peacekeeping to be a highly cost-efficient means of addressing conflict and post-conflict stability. Undermining the United Nations actually undermines U.S. interests. When the United States wants a global response to stop terrorism or the genocide in Darfur, we need a capable United Nations.
The next president will have to work hard to restore U.S.-U.N. relations. Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama are relatively supportive of the United Nations, but as Deputy U.S. Representa-tive to the United Nations Alejandro D. Wolff cautions, rhetoric alone does not translate into improved partnerships.
Senator McCain has in the past expressed support for the U.S. joining the International Criminal Court and ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty; but in his quest for the Republican nomination this year, he has backpedaled or obscured his position on these and other U.N.-related issues, and he did not answer the United Nations Association for the United States of America’s questionnaire of presidential candidates (http://www.unausa.org).
Senator Obama supports the U.S. paying its U.N. dues in full and on time, noting: “No country has a greater stake in a strong United Nations than the United States. The United States benefits from a global institution intended to advance the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, effective collective security, humanitarian relief, development, and respect for human rights.”
As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, noted in 2002 during the run-up to the Iraq war, the United Nations is not perfect, but “The United Nations exists.... It is the instrument created after the [Second World] War for a moral coordination of politics.”