Mario Tama  /  Getty Images file
Iraq's then U.N. ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri delivers a speech as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell looks on at a Security Council meeting on Feb. 14, 2003, during the acrimonious run-up to military action.
By U.N. correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/16/2004 8:28:21 AM ET 2004-03-16T13:28:21

A year after the failure of the United Nations to avert a war in Iraq -- the culmination of lengthy and rancorous Security Council deliberations -- the world body has regained much of its historic role as an honest broker and a global forum, according to diplomats and analysts. 

A more amicable style of diplomacy has replaced the drawn daggers of a year ago, when the United States and its allies defied the Security Council and the General Assembly by invading Iraq.

The heated disagreements last year among the Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the United States.) led some analysts to question the relevance of both the council and the United Nations in resolving major disputes among nations. 

Indeed, no previous disagreement between the permanent five members of the Security Council had attracted such global attention or raised such dire predictions about the future of the United Nations. One senior U.N. official described the debates as "uncharacteristically aggressive and emotional,” especially with "foreign ministers insulting each other in public." 

But feelings are on the mend, and relations are improving, albeit slowly, between countries that confronted each other, including historic allies like France, Germany, and Britain.

Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, contends that reconciliation among council members began last year, but that “the media and public perception lagged behind diplomatic realities.” 

Future of Iraq takes precedence
Whatever the merits of the argument for invading Iraq, most Security Council members now seem ready to cooperate in making the new state into a functioning democracy. 

The first clear sign of reconciliation came last Oct. 16, when the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1511, which formally approved the status of the international military force deployed in Iraq and gave a mandate to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to act as interim governing authority. 

In effect, the United Nations provided the United States with international legitimacy for its actions, something that the Bush administration dearly wanted and could have gotten in no other way.

One of the key moments in the reconciliation between the United States and the United Nations came in the fall when President Bush took lead responsibility for Iraq away from the Pentagon and shared it with National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and the National Security Council.

U.N. officials understood the change as signaling moderation and the embrace of a multilateral approach in order to achieve a functional, democratic Iraq. They are “far more comfortable” with the switch.

U.N. officials expect a further reduction in tensions after June 30, when sovereignty will be transferred to a provisional Iraqi administration. The transfer will change the status of the U.S. military forces, from an occupying force to guests of the Iraqi government, removing a point of contention since the toppling of Saddam Hussein last May.

Kofi Annan diplomacy
Meanwhile, Secretary General Kofi Annan has been working quietly to help facilitate a close working relationship with and among the leading members of the Security Council.  Many observers praise his diplomatic savvy.

As one U.N. official notes, Annan is a “people person…gifted as a schmoozer” who keeps in touch with world leaders yet is widely recognized as a man of principle and long-term thinking.

Paul Chiasson  /  AP file
Kofi Annan
The issues between Washington and the United Nations never involved the Secretary General personally, so for the United States it “was easy to turn back to the U.N.” in recent months, said a U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the United Nations has entirely healed its battle wounds. According to David Malone, President of the International Peace Academy, the world body has lost some of its credibility as a major international actor. 

Malone believes that world public opinion expected the U.N. “to avoid the Iraq war” and was greatly disappointed when the Security Council seemed to be impotent in the face of defiant members. 

“It will take many more years before some [people] around the world believe that the U.N. can play a leading role, as it should and in fact does play, in international security,” Malone said.

Malone, a former Canadian diplomat, maintains that the  “major punchup between the U.S. and others”  and its domination of international news coverage last year did damage to the U.N. partly because little attention was given to “useful” Security Council efforts in Afghanistan, Africa, and more recently in Iraq itself.

Many United Nations officials agree that the organization needs time to rebuild its diplomatic role, and, to this end, Annan has worked hard to defuse the tensions in the Security Council and encourage a spirit of collaboration. 

One of his more intriguing moves was to create a 16-member “Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change” that will study global security threats and is charged with recommending to the international community how the United Nations should deal with future global threats to international peace and security. 

Established on Nov. 3, 2003, the blue-ribbon panel includes eminent names, such as former U.S. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Russian minister Yevgeny Primakov, and Secretary General of the Arab League, Amre Moussa, and is scheduled to present its report in September 2004. 

Some U.N. insiders see creation of the panel as a way of taking the pressure off Security Council members, who can now pay attention to immediate problems while they wait for the panel to report its findings.

“Annan is helping the big powers to do what they want which is to get the Iraq issue and disagreement over going to war off the table without giving up their positions of principle,” according to one U.N. official.

Renewed cooperation
In the Security Council, the scars are clearly healing, shown by the increasing cooperation among members that were at each other’s throats a year ago. 

The United States and France, for example, have been working closely with each other to address civil violence and strife in Africa and the Caribbean.

France needed American support in getting the Security Council to authorize a peacekeeping force, of some 6,240 troops, to its former colony, the Ivory Coast.

Meanwhile, the United States sought French help in authorizing and deploying an interim multilateral force to Haiti. Each party responded positively, and the momentum of cooperation seems to be building. 

With time, continued  effort, and some luck, the UN may be able to bring a satisfactory resolution to 12 months of  stress that could have crippled it, but may instead help make it stronger.

Linda Fasulo covers the United Nations for NBC News. She is the author of  “An Insider’s Guide to the UN,” recently published by Yale University Press.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments