President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry referred to the United Nations 17 times during their debate last Thursday on American foreign policy. Kerry’s references outnumbered the president’s more than 2 to 1. The senator’s attitude? The U.N. is the centerpiece of any definition of America’s strategic interests.
Kerry put U.N. centrality this way: “You don’t help yourself with other nations…when you refuse to deal at length with the United Nations.” Speaking of Iraq, “at length” meant “We needed to go to the U.N. The president needed the authority to use force….” Any use by a president of the option of a “preemptive strike” must be done “in a way…that passes the global test where…you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”
So what world is Kerry talking about? The presidential debate took place just as the General Assembly wound up its two-week opening session on September 30. At the session, dozens of world leaders told the U.N. what would pass a global test in their minds. Let’s listen in.
On terrorism: President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika: “[T]errorism…excludes the legitimate struggle of peoples against foreign occupation.” Deputy Prime Minister of Lebanon, Issam Fares: ” National liberation is legitimate, terrorism is reprehensible.” Ditto numerous other Arab ministers.
On nuclear non-proliferation: Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (Chairman of the 100+ members of the Non-Aligned Movement): “We also note with great concern the increasing tendencies to link the fight against terrorism with the campaign against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Developing countries suffer as a result of restrictions imposed on access to peaceful uses of technology….” Foreign Minister of Iran, Kamal Kharrazi: “[P]revent[ing] the proliferation of nuclear weapons…must be done…in a comprehensive and non-discriminatory manner…. We insist on our right to technology for peaceful purposes….” Ambassador of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Choe Su Hon: “[O]ur army and people…are…pushing ahead with their struggle to build a…powerful state with…devotion to the socialist cause….The nuclear deterrent of the DPRK constitutes a legitimate self-defensive measure….”
On the genocide in Sudan: Minister of Foreign Affairs of Syria, Farouk Al-Shara: “We view with satisfaction the positions and measures adopted by the government of the Sudan to address the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.” Minister of Foreign Affairs of Yemen, Abubakr Al-Qirbi: “[T]here was no hard evidence of massacres [in Sudan]…. [A]ll external parties must…refrain from interference in the domestic affairs of the Sudan.”
On advancing human rights protection and democracy: Foreign Minister of China, Li Zhaoxing: “[I]t is imperative to…promote greater democracy in international relations…China will…safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity, brook no interference in its internal affairs….” Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe: “Zimbabwe will…welcome to [its sixth parliamentary] elections those observers whose sole and undivided purpose will be to observe the process and not to meddle in the politics of the country…. [T]he West should spare us their lessons on human rights.” Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, Nizar Obaid Madani: “[W]e believe that the process of helping developing nations to initiate political and economic reforms should not be imposed or dictated from without…. Of course there is much that the advanced countries can provide in this process, especially in the areas of investments….”
On identifying the villains: Foreign Minister of Cuba, Felipe Pérez Roque: “We, as non-aligned countries, will have to entrench ourselves in defending the United Nations Charter…. The powerful collude to divide us.” Foreign Minister of Iran, Kamal Kharrazi: ” Israel…[is] the single greatest threat to regional and global peace and security.”
On the role of the U.N.: Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe: “[T]he UN Charter remains the only most sacred document and proponent of the relations of our Nations…. Foreign Minister of France, Michel Barnier: “[T]he U.N. remains the one irreplaceable, legitimate framework for harnessing…mobilization and translating it into collective action…. The Organization…has a natural vocation to be at the center of counter-terrorism measures…. The U.N., through its legitimacy and ever-increasing effectiveness, must be the instrument of the universal conscience of which it remains the crucible.”
Let’s sum up the rules of the U.N. game as set out by its most ardent fans from France to Cuba over September’s festivities: (1) Democracy is the governing principle between countries (read outvoting the United States), regardless of the rights of actual inhabitants. (2) International measures to insist on democracy within states constitute unacceptable interference in a state’s internal affairs. (3) Nuclear non-proliferation is O.K. in theory provided it won’t be put into practice until Israel and the United States are weapons-free, and any pressure in the meantime is oppression of developing countries. (4) The only acceptable contributions of developed countries to the affairs of developing countries are cash donations. (5) Terrorism is defined as harming one’s friends, so Israelis are fair game. (6) Israel is the greatest threat to world peace. (7) Sudan should be commended for its role in reducing the spontaneous humanitarian crisis within its borders and anything but minute numbers of friendly neighboring forces would be an illegitimate interference in Sudanese sovereignty. (8) The U.N. is the centerpiece of all legitimate international action concerning peace, security, self-defense, and the war against terrorism.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan works well at the top of this heap. He opened this year’s Assembly by drawing moral parallels between the ongoing acts of unrepentant terrorists in the name of religion and the isolated acts of American soldiers condemned and punished by their countrymen. Annan said: “[W]e see civilians massacred in cold blood and…non-combatants…taken hostage and put to death in the most barbarous fashion. At the same time, we have seen Iraqi prisoners disgracefully abused.” In his address, Annan named only one country in the world as violating international law through the “excessive use of force.” You guessed it: Israel.
Into this toxic mix came President Bush with a message as honest as it was different. While the secretary general never once mentioned “democracy,” “free speech,” “political parties,” “free press,” “trade unions,” “independent courts,” every one of these was central to the president’s address to the General Assembly. Announced the president in a statement which should have warmed tender hearts from Turtle Bay to Massachusetts: “For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability. Oppression became common, but stability never arrived. We must take a different approach. We must help the reformers of the Middle East as they work for freedom, and strive to build a community of peaceful, democratic nations.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, in his speech to the Assembly a few days later, asked: “Today, 60 years after this organization came into being, we must ask ourselves: What are we united for and what are we united against?”
The answer is: not terrorism, not the immediate threat of nuclear proliferation from Iran or North Korea, not the recognition of genocide or the action necessary to stop it, not the limits of sovereignty, not the requisites of democracy, not what constitutes a human-rights violation, and not the identity of the violators.
Senator Kerry would take American foreign policy on a new road. In his words: “…with other nations…you have to earn [their] respect. And I think we have a lot of earning back to do.”
American voters could not have a clearer choice: groveling for the respect of nations whose values we do not share or helping reformers build a community of peaceful, democratic nations, with or without the “United” Nations.
–Anne Bayefsky is an international lawyer and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.