To a baby-boomer kid growing up in New York, the United Nations was a revered, almost magical, place. Le Corbusier’s sleek glass-and-marble building rising from the East River was a symbol of our hopes for the world’s future. I remember my first grade-school trip there, marveling at people from all over the globe — some wearing the robes or headpieces of their native cultures — and at the cavernous General Assembly hall where delegates used headphones to listen to the proceedings in languages they could understand. When Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjšld was killed in a plane crash on his way to mediate a war in the Congo in 1961, America — and the world — felt we had lost an international hero.
Somehow it’s hard to imagine Kofi Annan racing off to one of the world’s hot spots. The United Nations — and the world’s expectations for it — has declined dramatically over the last few decades. And now, the Bush administration — with its go-it-alone war in Iraq and its open contempt for the very idea of the United Nations — has dealt a stunning blow not just to the United Nations, but to the dream of international cooperation. As David Rieff points out in his cover story in this issue (“Goodbye, New World Order“), “the most powerful nation on earth…has decided to turn the international system on its head” by rejecting the notion of consensus in international affairs. The fallacy of the Bush approach has already been evident in the botched U.S. occupation of Iraq. The sight of hospitals looted while the wounded and sick lay untreated, along with the inability of the international aid community to operate in a land reduced to chaos, illustrates in the starkest terms the limits of unilateralism. It turns out, despite the scorn of Cheney and Rumsfeld, those blue-helmeted, U.N. peacekeepers — who are not the troops of an occupying power — might have served a useful function after all. And it turns out that when it came down to the tough job of rebuilding Iraq, George W. Bush had told us the truth when he ran for president — he doesn’t believe in nation-building.
The United States needs international consensus. The dangers this nation faces can only be overcome with the cooperation of the world community — and not just for tasks like rebuilding Iraq or Afghanistan, but for dealing with such threats as nuclear proliferation and a belligerent North Korea, not to mention that terrorist group Bush seems to have forgotten. The last reports I read indicated that Al Qaeda was operating from places like Germany and Chechnya — not from Crawford, Texas — and was preparing to strike again.
Until Bush’s Iraqi adventure, most of the world stood with us in the fight against terrorism. But if we want other nations to work with us in stopping Al Qaeda, we must first rejoin the world. That’s still the only real hope we have.