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The UN, George Bush, and You

Robert R. Thompson

Politics and Culture/East and West -- Americans feel very mean towards the UN, at the moment.

It's fall campaign time here in the American suburbs. The leaves are raked into tidy piles on well-manicured lawns. Among the fall foliage acres of campaign yard signs stand firmly impaled upon the lawns. It seems as if some deranged farmer of politics has scattered seeds far and wide, and despite winter's onset, up pop multi-colored candidate signs; orange and blue, green and white, and, of course, red, white and blue. Candidate names are emblazoned in various scripts and patterns. Sign colors and names combine in designs that call out, "Look At Our Sign! Vote For Us! Remember this sign on election day!"

I teach politics, and, as I tell my students, have never been convinced that these political signs have any real, measurable impact upon voters. But, driving home from work recently, one sign in particular, on one of those well-trimmed lawns, grabbed my attention. Placed towards the lawn's edge, right next to the street, with no other signs around to detract attention from it, in bold, eye-catching red, white and blue it proclaimed: "Get US Out of the UN!" I was surprised enough that I drove around the block to pass by the sign again, to be absolutely certain that I had seen it correctly.

It did indeed proclaim, "Get the US Out of the UN!" I thought for a moment that I must be in a time warp. Maybe I've gone back to the early 1960s, when Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was spearheading the embryonic American conservative movement. "Get the US out of the UN" and, "Get the UN out of the US" were among the slogans during the time. Another was, "Impeach Earl Warren". Warren was the liberal United States Supreme Court Chief Justice, whose civil rights, and criminal rights rulings, along with the UN's American location, angered many conservatives, and helped to spark the nascent conservative movement. The movement would come to fruition with Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980.

Yet now, some days after I've seen the sign in this current time and place, I ask myself, why my surprise? From the time of its 1945 founding, Americans have always had a "love-hate" relationship with the UN. They appreciate the importance of its mandate to, as The United Nations Charter states it, "Save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". But there is a belief, especially as UN membership has grown and as the US has less control over the body than it had during the post-World War II and Cold War era, that the UN acts for "them". That is, it mostly benefits those who criticize American actions around the globe.

This American dislike of the UN even seeps into popular culture. In a Simpsons episode (the show always seems to have a steady finger on America's pulse), Homer's first attempt to write a restaurant review column "includes," the editor notes, "several threatening references to the UN". (By the way, did you know that October 24 this year was United Nations Day? Did you miss it? When I was in grade school in New York in the 1950s, we actually celebrated this yearly occasion in class. We had flags, food from different countries, saw filmstrips about the UN, and learned about its vital role.)

The UN's unwillingness in 2002 and 2003 to support the American war in Iraq exacerbated American resentment of the international body. If, last April, as the war "ended", many Americans were willing to have the UN play an important role in rebuilding Iraq (Gallup Poll, 30 April 2003), they remain highly critical of the institution. A Gallup Poll for 10 September 2003 reports, "Six in 10 Americans Say United Nations doing Poor Job-Highest Negative Rating for UN in Gallup polling history." Indeed, Americans feel very mean towards the UN, at the moment. President George Bush's recent "impertinent" UN speech only makes manifest this disdain towards the UN (Slate, 23 September 2003).

It is true that not only the US acts in its own interests. The fundamental problem the UN must constantly face is that, despite all the noble rhetoric one hears at its sessions, all nations are prone to do what they must to support their interests, their "national sovereignty". Stephen Schlesinger's new book on the UN's creation, Act of Creation The Founding of the United Nations (Westview Press, 2003) demonstrates that the UN has faced great obstacles from the time of its creation. (Also, it's interesting to note Mr. Schlesinger's two-year struggle to get his book published. "I learned," he writes, "that the mere mention of the word 'United Nations' for publishing industry folk was the equivalent of biting on an especially bitter lemon." (Act of Creation, p. xi)

For Americans, and for people in other nations as well, the UN and its pronouncements may be something akin to a "bitter lemon". Even if they accept the reality that the UN has been a key factor in avoiding global war since its creation, most nations will be, at one time or another, irritated at or angry with the UN. Despite the distinguished record of � to mention only a few areas of UN action; peacekeeping, human rights, and health protection � it continues to suffer the "slings and arrows of outraged fortune". Or, it is put off with empty rhetoric and meaningless puffery. "The United States of America," said President Bush on September 23, 2003, "is committed to the United Nations . . . (to) give meaning to its ideals." ( 23 September 2003)

But the UN doesn't need a defense. Its actions are its defense. It does, however, need our support. I am especially aware of this. For my family, and for my career path in politics, as both student and professor, the UN looms large. I grew up in New York City. As a youngster, no weekend, no matter what season of the year, was complete without a trip with my mother and grandmother to some city site. The United Nations was, and is, one of my favorite spots. I still marvel at the UN's majestic setting on the East River. The tall, blue-green Secretariat Building sparkles in the sun. Next to it, the broad plaza is crowded with tourists taking pictures. The long row of member nations' flags snap in the breeze. There are many more flags today than when I first visited the UN in the 1950s. I always loved those flags. My grandmother knew that no UN visit was complete without a Gift Shop stop to purchase a small flag of a member nation to add to my ever-expanding flag collection. Studying those flags, and their countries, sparked both my fascination with international politics, and my love of travel.

My father wasn't much for traipsing around the city. But as a World War II combat veteran who had suffered through the "scourge of war", he was a solid supporter of the UN. When I was a junior and senior in high school in New York, even though it wasn't cheap, he encouraged my participation in student model UN conferences in Boston. Almost as awe inspiring as the real UN, these conferences gave us as student delegates, representing different nations, the opportunity to wrestle with global issues. And they also gave us a chance to meet and talk with some actual UN delegates who worked on the real global stage.

Forty years ago, as far as I can remember, there were a limited number of these student UN conferences. Today they are legion. Type the phrase "Model UN Conference" into any web search engine. There are innumerable meetings, all around the globe, for both high school and college students. An entire generation is growing up imbued with the idea that the United Nations is one of, if not THE most important political institution in existence today. It's true! I saw it as a student. Now I see it as a professor. Since 1998, I have traveled with four student groups to model UN conferences in Brussels, Athens, Vienna, and Heidelberg, Germany.

The post-Cold War world, no less than the Cold War world of my student conference days, is rent with violent conflict. It is gratifying to watch young people from all over the world at work in their conferences on global problems. They act with the passion of their real world counterparts. They believe that the United Nations can work and does work.. And that it is up to us to make it work. The Harvard World Model UN Conference of March 2003 in Heidelberg, Germany, took place as war commenced. The United States and the United Kingdom, in opposition to the United Nations, went to war in Iraq. The war began three days before the conference began in March.

The conference proceeded against the war's backdrop. Early on during the conference, I could see the young delegates, citizens of many countries, struggle with discouragement from the real war, as they confronted issues of war and peace on their own small stage. The war intensified. The student delegates redoubled their efforts. By week's end, a spirit of camaraderie infused the conference. There were small triumphs. "Palestinians" hugged "Israelis". "America" worked with "France", (the latter represented by delegates from The Military Academy at West Point-amazing!) Unrealistic when applied to the real world stage? Perhaps. But a reason to hope? Undoubtedly. I only wish that those six out of ten Americans who dislike the United Nations, and, especially, Bush and other administration officials, could have seen the young delegates at their committee sessions. Maybe they, too, might be convinced about the importance of going that extra mile for peace.

Of course, no one at the Heidelberg conference, or anywhere else for that matter, could think of Saddam Hussein as anything but a brutal, murderous dictator. He saw the UN as nothing more than another tool to use to suit his regime's needs. Indeed, the terrorist attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad in October, 2003, vividly and tragically demonstrated that many of those who hate America have no love for the UN. Among others, the attack killed the Brazilian UN. official Sergio Vieira de Mello. From Kosovo, to Lebanon, to East Timor, Vieira de Mello exemplified the UN's passion for peace. Those who killed him and his colleagues do not want peace. They want Iraq, the Middle East, and the world to be as they wish it to be. Anyone who believes that those who destroyed the UN headquarters have anything useful to contribute to building a peaceful Iraq, or world, are sadly mistaken.

One can then turn to the Bush administration and ask why they constantly fight the UN. What do they think they might accomplish? The issue here is as much the Bush Administration's unilateralism, as it is any isolationist impulse on the part of Americans. The UN is a monument to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts during World War II to create a global governing institution. He didn't build it on his own. But he did fight to head off what he feared would develop into an American desire to leave the world stage and return to isolation � as it had after World War I. And he further fought against any American assumption of a moral right to rule the post-war world, or the new UN. FDR noted, during the 1944 presidential campaign:
-- >The power which this nation has attained � the political, the economic, the military, and above all the moral power � has brought to us the responsibility, and with it the opportunity, for leadership in the community of nations . . . in embarking on the building of a world fellowship, we have set ourselves a long and arduous task, a task which will challenge our patience, our intelligence, our imagination, as well as our faith.
Franklin and Winston, by John Meachem, Random House, 2003)

The Bush administration ignores the wise counsel of this president who saw war and said often, "I hate war". and placed his hope for future peace in the United Nations. It is not only on Iraq that the Bush team has pursued its own unilateral path, disregarding the UN and the world community. Ivo H. Dalder and James M. Lindsey's recent examination of Bush foreign policy, America Unbound The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (Brookings Institution Press, 2003), clearly shows that he is, and has been, a committed unilateralist. Dalder and Lindsey note that "Bush followed up on his opposition to Kyoto (the environmental accords) by directing his administration to oppose a string of international agreements, among them: a pact to control trafficking in small arms, a new protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the International Criminal Court" (America Unbound, Dalder and Lindsey, p. 65).

Two images of President Bush are wonderfully evocative of his tough-guy, unilateralist mind-set. In May 2003, he donned a fighter pilot's outfit, and flew in a fighter jet to land on an aircraft carrier anchored near San Diego. We saw him emerge on the deck, in all his Top Gun regalia, backslapping, and joking with the pilots. He was in his element. Then, in September 2003, very much out of his element, he came to New York City to address the UN General Assembly. He seemed uncertain, apprehensive, and gave his speech with grim-faced determination. The cliché is true; pictures are "worth a thousand words". In this case, the image of the cocky American fighter pilot trumps the image of the man of peace. Would that he might consider FDR's words of 60 years ago about the UN's importance.

I am back at the United Nations building in New York City as a child. I can see myself standing, gazing along with my mother and grandmother at the UN building. Our family, along with so many, many others, knows the truth of Winston Churchill's comment about World War II. His observation might describe any war, "The war strode in havoc through the lives of millions". ( Franklin and Winston , p. 175)

I turn to my right. Engraved on a wall close by the UN are the words of Isaiah (2: 4). Everyone, especially our leaders, should take these words to heart:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore.

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