In September 2002, a radical new document declared that "no nation can build a safer, better world alone." These words came not from some utopian internationalist or ivory-tower academic, but from the new National Security Strategy of the United States. For all its underpinnings in realpolitik, the strategy committed the United States to multilateralism.

This statement should not have been surprising, for multilateralism, of course, is not only a means but an end. And for good reason: in international affairs, the choice of method can serve to advertise a country's good faith or disinterestedness. Most states act both unilaterally and multilaterally at times: the former in defense of their national security or in their immediate backyard, the latter in pursuit of global causes. The larger a country's backyard, however, the greater the temptation to act unilaterally across it -- a problem most acute in the case of the United States. But the more far-reaching the issue and the greater the number of countries affected, the less sufficient unilateralism proves, and the less viable it becomes. Hence the ongoing need for multilateralism -- which the U.S. National Security Strategy seemed to recognize.

The United Nations is the preeminent institution of multilateralism. It provides a forum where sovereign states can come together to share burdens, address common problems, and seize common opportunities. The UN helps establish the norms that many countries -- including the United States -- would like everyone to live by. Throughout its history, the United States has seen the advantages of living in a world organized according to laws, values, and principles; in fact, the republic was not yet 30 years old when it first went to war in defense of international law (attacking the Barbary pirates in 1804), and it has done so multiple times since, including in the first Gulf War. The UN, for all its imperfections -- real and perceived -- reflects this American preference for an ordered world.

That Washington has often used force on behalf of such principles makes good political sense. After all, acting in the name of international law is always preferable to acting in the name of national security. Everyone has a stake in the former, and so couching U.S. action in terms of international law universalizes American interests and comforts potential allies. When American actions seem driven by U.S. national security imperatives alone, partners can prove hard to find -- as became clear when, in marked contrast to the first Gulf War, only a small "coalition of the willing" joined Washington the second time around in Iraq. Working within the UN allows the United States to maximize what Joseph Nye calls its "soft power" -- the ability to attract and persuade others to adopt the American agenda -- rather than relying purely on the dissuasive or coercive "hard power" of military force.

Global challenges also require global solutions, and few indeed are the situations in which the United States or any other country can act completely alone. This truism is currently being confirmed in Iraq, where Washington is discovering that it is better at winning wars than constructing peace. The limitations of military strength in nation building are readily apparent; as Talleyrand pointed out, the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is to sit on it.

Equally important, however, is the need for legitimacy, and here again the UN has proven invaluable. The organization's role in legitimizing state action has been both its most cherished function and, in the United States, its most controversial. As the world's preeminent international organization, the UN embodies world opinion, or at least the opinion of the world's legally constituted states. When the UN Security Council passes a resolution, it is seen as speaking for (and in the interests of) humanity as a whole, and in so doing it confers a legitimacy that is respected by the world's governments, and usually by their publics. When the resolution in question is passed under Chapter VII of the charter -- that document's enforcement provisions -- it becomes legally binding on all member states.

The composition of the council that passes a particular resolution is no more relevant to its legitimacy than that of a national parliament that passes a law; congressional legislation, by the same logic, is not less binding on Americans if the majority that votes for it comes overwhelmingly from small states. The legitimacy of the UN inheres in its universality and not in its structural details, which have long been subject to the clamor for reform. Some Americans have scorned the status and conduct of many of the Security Council members that failed to support the United States on Iraq. But this unseemly sneering over the right of Angola, Cameroon, or Guinea to pass judgment in the council overlooks the valuable contribution their presence makes. The election of small countries to the council bolsters its legitimacy by enhancing its role as a repository of world opinion.

Universality of membership also allows the world to view the UN as something more than the sum of its parts, as an entity that transcends the interests of any one member state. The UN guards the vital principles entrenched in its charter, notably the sovereign equality of states and the inadmissibility of interference in their internal affairs. It is precisely because the UN is the chief guardian of both these sacrosanct principles that it alone is allowed to approve derogations from them. Thus when the UN, in particular the Security Council, legislates an intervention in a sovereign state, it is still seen as upholding the basic principles even while approving a departure from them. When an individual state acts in defiance of the UN, on the other hand, it merely violates these principles.

This is why so many countries, including the most powerful ones, take care to embed their actions within the framework of the principles and purposes of the UN Charter. For examples of this, one need only peruse a random selection of speeches by countries explaining their votes on the Security Council, especially those concerning military action. The value of internationally recognized principles resonates across the globe and has been reified through 58 years of repetition -- including last March, when the council debated Iraq.


To suggest -- as did some critics of the UN during the Iraq crisis -- that the organization has become irrelevant overlooks the message President George W. Bush himself sent when he appeared before the General Assembly in September 2002. In calling on the Security Council to take action, Bush framed the problem of Iraq as a question not of what the United States (unilaterally) wanted, but of how to implement Security Council resolutions. Indeed, these resolutions were at the heart of the U.S. case. Had the Security Council been able to agree that force was warranted, it would have provided unique (and incontestable) legitimacy for U.S. military action. The fact that the council did not ultimately agree, however, strengthens, rather than dilutes, the rationale for approaching it in such situations. The council's refusal to serve as a rubber stamp for Washington will give any future support it lends to the United States greater credibility.

Council resolutions do not serve only to codify the acceptable in the eyes of the world; they also, quite directly, lay down the law. In fact, several countries, from Norway to India, do not or cannot (as a matter of politics, policy, or constitutional law) commit forces overseas without the council's explicit authorization. Such a practice ensures that these countries will not be drawn into military adventures at the behest of one or a handful of powerful states. They send troops only when the Security Council, speaking in the name of the world as a whole, blesses an enterprise.

Nonetheless, since the Iraq crisis, some critics have suggested that "coalitions of the willing" will eventually eliminate the need for formal structures such as the UN. "Multilateralism á la carte," the thinking goes, will replace "multilateralism á la charte." But even ad hoc coalitions require structure: many states, when asked by Washington to contribute troops for Iraq, have hesitated to do so without the sanction of a UN resolution or a UN-authorized command structure. International institutions give the United States' potential partners a framework within which they can feel empowered on (at least notionally) equal terms -- and without which they are not willing to participate.

Put another way, the difference between a UN operation, in which everyone wears a blue helmet, and a "coalition of the willing" led by one big power is similar to that between a police squad and a posse. Posses are more difficult to find and to fund than are police. Similarly, developing countries in any coalition need financing in order to play their part, and such financing is more easily provided through the UN's agreed cost-sharing formula. Unilateralism is always more expensive than its alternative, and in today's tight world economy, the costs of international unilateralism may no longer be sustainable.

Even when a Security Council resolution is not legally required for an action, the UN's imprimatur can still prove extremely useful for the United States. A council decision does not just spread expense and political risk, by diluting Washington's responsibility for a course of action that might provoke resentment or hostility. It is also easier for many governments to sell a policy to their publics if they can describe it as a response to a UN resolution, instead of to an American request. The United States has already learned this lesson: for example, when it has tried to prompt countries to revise and update their domestic security procedures or laws on terrorism, it has discovered that governments are often happier to receive the same American expert as a UN adviser than as a U.S. one.

In fact, part of the value of the UN (including for Washington) is the respect in which its members hold the body. Such respect has permitted the United States, on numerous occasions, to advance its specific interests under the cover of international law. For example, UN sanctions on Libya helped the United States achieve a settlement over the Lockerbie bombing. And after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Security Council's two subsequent resolutions provided an international framework for the global battle against terrorism. Resolution 1373 required nations to interdict arms flows and financial transfers to suspected terrorist groups, report on terrorists' movements, and update national legislation to fight them. Without the legal authority of a binding Security Council resolution, Washington would have been hard-pressed to obtain such cooperation "retail" from 191 individual states, and it would have taken decades to negotiate and ratify separate treaties and conventions imposing the same standards on all countries.

As such examples demonstrate, it is clearly not in the U.S. interest to discredit the UN or the Security Council. For every rare occasion when the council thwarts Washington, there are a dozen more when it acts in accordance with U.S. wishes and compels other countries to do the same. To marginalize the council, then, would be to blunt a vital arrow in the U.S. diplomatic quiver.


What about the Security Council's structural deficiencies? For all the carping about its outdated composition -- which, by common consensus, reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945 rather than 2003 -- no other body has acquired the kind of legitimacy it brings to bear on world affairs. The council may need reform, therefore, but until member states agree on how to go about making changes, it remains the only global body with responsibility for maintaining international peace and security.

Suggestions that the UN should be replaced -- by a coalition of democracies, for example -- overlook the fact that during the Iraq debate, the most vigorous resistance to the United States in the council came from other democracies. Nor is NATO a feasible alternative to the council, because its legitimacy is geographically limited, as is that of other regional organizations. NATO authorization might have been deemed sufficient for the Kosovo campaign. But in that war, the target was another European state, Yugoslavia. NATO's imprimatur would not have been enough to justify military action in Iraq, which is why the United States and the United Kingdom tried so hard to get the Security Council's benediction for that action.

In any case, the council's final vote (or lack thereof) on Iraq was not the only gauge of its relevance to that situation. Just four years ago, when NATO bombed Yugoslavia without even referring to the council (let alone securing its approval), many critics similarly argued that the UN had become irrelevant. But the Kosovo question soon came up again at the Security Council, first when an unsuccessful attempt was made to condemn the bombing, and then when arrangements had to be made to administer the province after the war. Only the Security Council could have approved the arrangements so as to confer on them international legitimacy and encourage all nations to extend their support and resources. And only one body was trusted enough to run the civilian administration of Kosovo: the United Nations.

The same pattern was not followed precisely in the case of Iraq, but the events were similar. Resolution 1483, adopted unanimously on May 22, granted the UN a significant role in postwar Iraq. That the United States chose to give the UN such a prominent position reflects not just British pressure but also Washington's own recognition that it needs the world body. Indeed, the very fact that the United States submitted the resolution to the Security Council was an acknowledgment by Washington that there is, in Secretary-General Kofi Annan's words, no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the UN. The body might have been written off during the war. But as with Kosovo, it was quickly found to be essential to the ensuing peace.

Of course, peace can be kept in many ways, and Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, and now Iraq offer four different models for how the UN can engage in postconflict situations. But peacekeeping (which includes mediation, monitoring, and disarmament) remains exactly the kind of mission where using the UN has advantages for Washington that greatly outweigh the negatives. First, there is the obvious attraction of burden-sharing: UN peacekeeping allows other countries to help shoulder the United States' responsibility for maintaining peace around the world.

Second, despite some well-publicized failures, UN peacekeeping works. The UN's "blue helmets" won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988; since then, they have brought peace and democracy to Namibia, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, and East Timor; helped ease the U.S. burden after regime changes in Haiti and Afghanistan; and policed largely bloodless stalemates from Cyprus to the Golan Heights to Western Sahara.

Third, UN peacekeeping is highly cost-effective. The UN is used to running operations on a shoestring, and it spends less per year on peacekeeping worldwide than is spent on the budgets of the New York City Fire and Police Departments. UN peacekeeping is also far cheaper than the alternative, which is war. Two days of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 cost more than the entire UN peacekeeping budget that year, and one week of Operation Iraqi Freedom would amply pay for all UN peacekeeping for 2003. The UN operation that ended the Iran-Iraq War cost less annually than the crude oil carried in two supertankers. Considering how many supertankers were placed at risk during that ruinous conflict, this makes peacekeeping an extraordinary bargain.

None of this is to deny that the Security Council's record has been mixed. The body has acted unwisely at times and failed to act altogether at others: one need only think of the fate of the "safe areas" in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda for instances of each. The council has also sometimes been too divided to succeed, as was the case in early 2003 over Iraq. And all too often, member states have passed resolutions they had no intention of implementing. But the UN, at its best, is only a mirror of the world: it reflects divisions and disagreements as well as hopes and convictions. Sometimes it only muddles through. As Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN's second secretary-general, put it, the UN was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell.

And this it has done innumerable times, especially during the Cold War, when it prevented regional or local conflicts from igniting a superpower conflagration. To suggest, on the basis of the disagreement over Iraq, that the Security Council has become dysfunctional or irrelevant is to greatly distort the record by viewing it through the prism of just one issue. Even while disagreeing on Iraq, the members of the Security Council unanimously agreed on a host of other vital issues, from Congo to Côte d'Ivoire, from Cyprus to Afghanistan. Indeed, the Security Council remains on the whole a remarkably harmonious body. Authorizing wars has never been among its principal responsibilities -- only twice in its 58 years of existence has the council explicitly done so -- and it seems unduly harsh to condemn it solely over its handling of so rare a challenge. In any case, it would be folly to discredit an entire institution for a disagreement among its members. One would not close down the Senate (or even the Texas legislature) because its members failed to agree on one bill. The UN's record of success and failure is no worse than that of most representative national institutions, yet its detractors seem to expect the UN to succeed (or at least to agree with the United States) all the time.

Too often, the UN's critics seem to miss another fundamental characteristic of the world body: the way it functions both as a stage and as an actor. On the one hand, the UN is a stage on which its member states declaim their differences and their convergences. Yet the UN is also an actor (particularly in the person of the secretary-general, his staff, agencies, and operations) that executes the policies made on its stage. The general public usually fails to see this distinction and views the UN as a shapeless aggregation. Sins (of omission or commission) committed by individual governments on the UN stage are thus routinely blamed on the organization itself. Sometimes member states deliberately contribute to this confusion, as when American officials blamed the UN for not preventing genocide in Rwanda -- despite the fact that Washington itself had blocked the Security Council from taking action in that crisis.

Indeed, one of the more unpleasant, if convenient, uses to which the UN has regularly been put has been to serve as a pliant scapegoat for the failures of its member states. Former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali ruefully noted this point when alleged UN deficiencies were blamed for the purely American-made disaster in Mogadishu in October 1993. And Annan has often joked that the abbreviation by which he is known inside the organization -- "SG" -- stands for "scapegoat," not "secretary-general." There is, sadly, considerable utility in having an institution that, by embodying the collective will (or lack thereof) of 191 member states, can safely be blamed for the errors that no individual state could politically afford to admit. But those who need a whipping boy must be careful not to flog him to death.


The UN's relevance does not stand or fall on its conduct on any one issue. When the crisis has passed, the world will still be left with, to use Annan's phrase, innumerable "problems without passports" -- threats such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the degradation of our common environment, contagious disease and chronic starvation, human rights and human wrongs, mass illiteracy and massive displacement. These are problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve alone. The problems are the shared responsibility of humankind and cry out for solutions that, like the problems themselves, also cross frontiers. The UN exists to find these solutions through the common endeavor of all states. It is the indispensable global organization for a globalizing world.

Large portions of the world's population require the UN's assistance to surmount problems they cannot overcome on their own. As these words are written, civil war rages in Congo and Liberia and sputters in Côte d'Ivoire, while long-running conflicts may be close to permanent solution in Cyprus and Sierra Leone. The arduous task of nation building proceeds fitfully in Afghanistan, the Balkans, East Timor, and Iraq. Twenty million refugees and displaced persons, from Palestine to Liberia and beyond, depend on the UN for shelter and succor. Decades of development in Africa are being wiped out by the scourge of hiv/aids (and its deadly interaction with famine and drought), and the Millennium Development Goals -- agreed on with much fanfare in September 2000, at the UN's Millennium Summit, the largest gathering of heads of government in human history -- remain unfulfilled. Too many countries still lack the wherewithal to eliminate poverty, educate girls, safeguard health, and provide their people with clean drinking water. If the UN did not exist to help tackle these problems, they would undoubtedly end up on the doorstep of the world's only superpower.

The UN is also essential to Americans' pursuit of their own prosperity. Today, whether one is from Tashkent or Tallahassee, it is simply not realistic to think only in terms of one's own country. Global forces press in from every conceivable direction; people, goods, and ideas cross borders and cover vast distances with ever greater frequency, speed, and ease. The Internet is emblematic of an era in which what happens in Southeast Asia or southern Africa -- from democratic advances to deforestation to the fight against aids -- can affect Americans. As has been observed about water pollution, we all live downstream now.

Thus U.S. foreign policy today has become as much a matter of managing global issues as managing bilateral ones. At the same time, the concept of the nation-state as self-sufficient has also weakened; although the state remains the primary political unit, most citizens now instinctively understand that it cannot do everything on its own. To function in the world, people increasingly have to deal with institutions and individuals beyond their country's borders. American jobs depend not only on local firms and factories, but also on faraway markets, grants of licenses and access from foreign governments, international trade rules that ensure the free movement of goods and persons, and international financial institutions that ensure stability. There are thus few unilateralists in the American business community. Americans' safety, meanwhile, depends not only on local police forces, but also on guarding against the global spread of pollution, disease, terror, illegal drugs, and WMD. As the World Health Organization's successful battle against the dreaded sars epidemic has demonstrated, "problems without passports" are those that only international action can solve.

Fortunately, the UN and its broad family of agencies have, in nearly six decades of life, built a remarkable record of expertise and achievement on these issues. The UN has brought humanitarian relief to millions in need and helped people rebuild their countries from the ruins of war. It has challenged poverty, fought apartheid, protected the rights of children, promoted decolonization and democracy, and placed environmental and gender issues at the top of the world's agenda. These are no small achievements, and represent issues the United States cannot afford to neglect.

The United Nations is a valuable antidote to the tendency to disregard the problems of the periphery -- the kinds of problems Americans may prefer not to deal with but that are impossible to ignore. Handling them multilaterally is the obvious way to ensure they are tackled; it is also the only way. Americans will be safer in a world improved by the UN's efforts, which will be needed long after Iraq has passed from the headlines.


The exercise of American power may well be the central issue in world politics today, but that power is only enhanced if its use is perceived as legitimate. Ironically, although many in Washington distrust the world body, many abroad think the Security Council is too much in thrall to its most powerful member. The debates over Iraq proved that that is not always the case; but even if it were, it is far better to have a world organization that is anchored in geopolitical reality than one that is too detached from the verities of global power to be effective. A UN that provides a vital political and diplomatic framework for the actions of its most powerful member, while casting them in the context of international law and legitimacy (and bringing to bear on them the perspectives and concerns of its universal membership) is a UN that remains essential to the world in which we live.

The goals of the charter, however, cannot be met without embracing the fundamental premise that President Harry Truman enunciated in 1945:

We all have to recognize that no matter how great our strength, we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please. No one nation ... can or should expect any special privilege which harms any other nation. ... Unless we are all willing to pay that price, no organization for world peace can accomplish its purpose. And what a reasonable price that is!

The UN, from the start, assumed the willingness of its members to accept restraints on their own short-term goals and policies by subordinating their actions to internationally agreed rules and procedures, in the broader long-term interests of world order. This was an explicit alternative to the model of past centuries, when strong states developed their military power to enforce their politics, and weak states took refuge in alliances with stronger ones. This formula guaranteed large-scale warfare; as Franklin Roosevelt put it to both houses of Congress after the Allied conference at Yalta, the UN would replace the arms races, military alliances, balance-of-power politics, and "all the arrangements that had led to war" so often in the past. The UN was meant to help create a world in which its member states would overcome their vulnerabilities by embedding themselves in international institutions, where the use of force would be subjected to the constraints of international law. Power politics would not disappear from the face of the earth but would be practiced with due regard for universally upheld rules and norms. Such a system also offered the United States -- then, as now, the world's unchallenged superpower -- the assurance that other countries would not feel the need to develop coalitions to balance its power. Instead, the UN provided a framework for them to work in partnership with the United States.

This is the system to which the world must now rededicate itself. Votaries of the UN have long argued that if the world body did not exist, we would have to invent it. Sadly, it is hard to believe that today's leaders could manage such a feat. Hammarskjöld once described the UN as an adventure -- a Santa Maria battling its way through storms and uncharted oceans to a new world, only to find that the people on shore blamed the storms on the ship itself. Five decades later, Hammarskjöld's metaphor still holds true: the UN continues to sail in turbulent waters and is still blamed for the squalls that assail it.

This brings to mind another metaphor: if international institutions serve principally as ropes that tie Gulliver down, then Gulliver will have every interest in snapping the ropes and breaking free of the constraints imposed on him. If, however, these institutions constitute a vessel sturdy enough for Gulliver to sail, and the Lilliputians cheerfully help him man the bridge and hoist the mainsail because they want to travel to the same destination, then Gulliver is unlikely to jump ship and try to swim on alone. So the world should similarly hold fast to its determination to live by shared values and common rules and to steer together the multilateral institutions that the enlightened leaders of the last century bequeathed to us. Only by doing so will our ship best the storm -- with Gulliver still on board.

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  • Shashi Tharoor is UN Undersecretary-General for Communications and Public Information and the author of eight books, including the forthcoming Nehru: The Invention of India. These are his personal views.
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