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Herding cats at the U.N.

Getting things done at the United Nations has always been difficult. But since the Iraq debate poisoned the atmosphere, things are worse than ever. Brave New World.
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I broke the law this week at the United Nations. I was in good company, however. Seated beside me, also breaking the law, was Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, who not only broke the law with abandon but clearly made everyone around him feel as though breaking the law was the thing to do (incitement, perhaps?) The law in question is New York City’s ban on smoking in public places, a ban Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been trying in vain to enforce inside the non-conformist walls of the United Nations.

If the Russian ambassador’s attitude is any indication, Annan has about as much chance of creating a smoke-free United Nations as he does of convincing the five permanent Security Council members to give up their veto rights.

“Lavrov will show up a few minutes before every council session, light up and then walk around with his butt in the air, making sure no one misses the point,” says an American diplomat. “It’s not exactly subtle.”

Russia’s envoy has stopped taking questions on the subject — it is beneath him, surely — but he made his point in September, when he told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that he planned to defend his diplomatic privileges. “The U.N. building is owned by all the member nations, while the secretary-general is just a hired manager,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov is not alone, either. An African delegate recently encountered puffing a Gallois in the delegates lounge cited “human rights,” facetiously one hopes, in defense of his droit d’fumar.

The Cuban mission, in the U.N. audit committee, has demanded that the secretary-general justify the cost of removing the wall-mounted, sand-filled ashtrays, which in the past have proven so useful when Havanas were passed around. The United Nations, of course, was perhaps the last public place in the United States where smoking a Cuban cigar was legal.

Smoke and fire
Inside the United Nations, betting is running about 3-to-1 against a smoking ban’s ever taking effect. Annan’s argument — that the United Nations has an obligation to try to conform to local law — falls flat on many counts, from the routine flouting of New York’s parking laws by U.N. diplomats to the unbelievable (but true) fact that the 39-story headquarters has no sprinklers.

Of course, the smoking dust-up would merely be a source for diplo-chuckling if it were not such a perfect metaphor for the paralysis that has affected the entire institution since the Iraq debate forced everyone to choose a side.

Across a broad range of issues, from the Iraq occupation to Security Council reform, from the nuclear proliferation threat posed by Iran and North Korea to the forgiving of debts owed by the most destitute nations, the U.N. appears deadlocked and increasingly unsure of its role. At the same time, Annan continues to try to prevent relations with the United States from deteriorating to the point where the United States simply walks away.

Going nuclear
Iran has been the latest flashpoint, and Annan must be very pleased that a new crisis was avoided — or at least forestalled.

In part because the United States is distracted by the Iraq occupation, three European Union nations — France, Britain and Germany — took the lead in pressing Iran into opening its nuclear facilities to U.N. inspection via the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran did open its facilities, and clear evidence of nearly two decades of efforts aimed at creating a nuclear weapon were found.

It is at this point that the United States and Europe diverged. The United States felt this evidence made it important for the issue to be sent to the full Security Council, where a resolution to censure (and possibly even slap sanctions on) Iran would be debated.

The European approach, backed by the IAEA chief, was to avoid the ritual humiliation (and likely Russian veto) of such a resolution and use the progress made instead to dig the IAEA’s claws deeper into Iran’s research facilities.

Only on Monday did the United States relent, agreeing to accept a statement from the IAEA that “strongly deplores” what Iran had done. Within the Bush administration, some view this as a U.S. collapse and merely a way for Iran to gain more time for research and development of a nuclear weapon.

“The U.N. rules were fairly clear,” a U.S. defense official said Tuesday, requesting anonymity. “This should have gone to the Security Council.”

Signs of progress?
Among other Security Council states, however, there is little sympathy for the United States’ citing the letter of international law. The general feeling is that the United States views the United Nations as a useful charade: a convenient place to allow pipsqueak nations to let off steam, a decent forum for strong-arming smaller powers into “coalitions of the willing,” and only very occasionally a place where a genuine consensus on “collective action” can be forged.

The Iraq debate solidified this view of the United States among many here, and states continue, for now, to identify their place in the world largely according to their distance from the rift that opened between the United States and France.

Both U.S. and French diplomats appear to view the events since the war began last spring as a vindication of their own dogmatic positions. At the same time, both sides will quickly concede that repairing relations is in their mutual interest, and there have been small steps toward reconciliation:

France, along with Russia and China, who also opposed the Iraq war, have raised no major objections to a U.S.-drafted plan to end the prewar “oil-for-food” program and replace it, eventually, with full Iraqi sovereignty over their most important national assets.

France and the United States have found common ground in the Ivory Coast, the war-torn West African state where France led a peacekeeping intervention last year and which Paris is now eager to hand over to a U.N.-led and financed force. U.S. officials suggest they will not oppose turning this into a U.N. operation.

“If relations were really bad, either one of these issues would be a lot harder to accomplish,” says the U.S. official.

Reforming again
Still, the role of the United States at the United Nations remains a major concern to those who would prefer that it remain a functioning institution.

“I think Kofi realizes that the way things are going now, the U.N. looks increasingly, at least from an American perspective, like a club designed to put limits on America’s ability to exercise its rights as an independent nation,” says the U.S. official. “This suits a lot of countries on the Security Council who, frankly, if we started over, probably wouldn’t get a permanent seat today. But it’s also a risk to the institution, and Kofi knows it.”

Partly in an effort to address this problem, Annan earlier this month appointed a 16-member panel, led by an American, to review ongoing efforts to modernize the institution, which in many ways still reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945. Most important to American ears, Annan has mentioned the term “pre-emptive action” in announcing this initiative, his first direct acknowledgment that the rules that previously governed the use of force might need revision to account for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the increasing ambitions of terrorists.

Speaking about a month after a terrorist bombing devastated the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people, Annan said, “We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed effectively through collective action.”

In the past, talk of reforming the United Nations has often involved complex and arguably logical efforts to reconfigure the Security Council. A typical proposal would add, say, Japan, Brazil, India and Egypt as permanent members, while reducing the number of “veto”-bearing members to three — the United States, China and a rotating seat for the European Union.

That, indeed, would reflect the world of 2003 a lot better than the current council. But smoking is probably more likely to stop before Russia or France gives up its veto power.

With that knowledge, Annan has pinned his hopes to reform instead to the language of the U.N. charter, along with a complete review of U.N. security capabilities, showed to be so lacking (yet again) in Baghdad.

His main audience in this effort may be one man: George W. Bush. Alone among those with whom Annan meets regularly, Bush can make or break the United Nations, and Annan knows it. Bush often cites his admiration for Annan in public appearances, and just last week in London reaffirmed it. But he follows such statements with words that sound anything but conciliatory.

“America and Great Britain have done, and will do, all in their power to prevent the United Nations from solemnly choosing its own irrelevance and inviting the fate of the League of Nations,” he told reporters in Britain.

It’s enough to drive a secretary-general to smoke.