In U.S. Relations with the U.N., There’s Virtue in Robust Independence

The story often is told of the child who decides to run away from home. His father expresses sadness at his departure, and gravely helps him pack. Dad walks junior to the door, shakes his hand, and tells him he’ll be missed.

Junior makes it as far as the front gate.

George Bush has just done that to the United Nations.

Like a parent with a strong-willed but dependent child, Bush is making it clear that the U.N. is welcome to do what it can about Saddam Hussein, but left no doubt that the U.S. will take responsibility for the rest.

The strategy is working.

Bush has been forthright. Speaking September 14 at Camp David, Bush told the U.N. to “show some backbone” about the tyrant in Baghdad who has spent the past decade thumbing his nose at U.N. resolutions.

“The U.N. will either be able to function as a peacekeeping body as we head into the 21st century, or it will be irrelevant. And that’s what we’re about to find out. Make no mistake about it. If we have to deal with the problem, we’ll deal with it… This is the chance for the United Nations to show some backbone and resolve as we confront the true challenges of the 21st century.”1

In other words, lead, follow or get out of the way.

It’s a deft combination of compliment and challenge. By caring more about Iraq’s adherence to U.N. resolutions than the U.N. ever has, Bush makes it clear he’s not flaunting the U.N., but neither is he leaving the safety the U.S. in U.N. hands.

It’s also a tart response to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who on September 12 told Bush in front of the U.N. General Assembly that the U.S. doesn’t have the right to preempt attacks upon its citizenry without express U.N. consent.2

There are ironies here.

Bush’s multilateralist critics have been known to imply that Bush is little more than an empty-headed cowboy. If he is, his U.N. masterstroke shows he’s an empty-headed cowboy who is running rings around them.

Furthermore, many who demanded Bush receive U.N. support erroneously saw their demand as an impediment to war. Notable in this camp are 37 church leaders from North America and Britain who released a statement saying in part: “We have watched with increasing alarm as the United States government has become increasingly unilateral in its approach to foreign affairs, and has failed to heed the advice and counsel of friends and allies.”3

Statement backers, American signers of which include official representatives of the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ USA, the National Baptist Convention USA and other U.S. Christian denominations, now can relax. The world community increasingly is behind Bush. Incongruously, as Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter requires U.N. member nations to abide by Security Council resolutions authorizing use of force, even in cases where they otherwise would be neutral, following the advice of the peacemakers is strengthening the war effort.

If Bush’s critics knew as much about foreign policy as anyone dispensing advice ought, they would have realized that Bush always has been capable of getting the U.N. behind him.

U.N. support mostly is a stage show. World leaders who ultimately intend to support the U.S. look tough and independent when they demand U.N. approval of U.S. actions – and then line up behind the world’s only superpower. This “independence” plays well in Germany and France, for instance, serving the domestic political needs of leaders there and elsewhere without significantly undermining the U.S.

This shows one reason why Bush was right not to go to the U.N. immediately. By giving eventual allies something to “demand,” he allowed other leaders to get behind him without losing face.

Another reason he was right to wait: not going to the U.N. immediately was a neat advance rebuttal of Kofi Annan and those who believe the U.S. does not have the right to make its own decisions about its self-defense.

Annan, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, claims only the U.N. can authorize military action in cases other than straightforward self-defense.

Annan is wrong. The only limits on what a state can do in self-defense are moral limits. No international body can strip a nation’s sovereign right to decide what is in its own defense. Bush makes it clear that the U.S. remains a fully independent, sovereign nation that works with other nations because we respect them enough to choose to, not because we must.

The Bush foreign policy is one of robust independence with respect for others. Not bad at all.


Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 

Footnotes:1 Patricia Wilson, “Bush Calls on UN ‘To Show Some Backbone’ on Iraq,” Reuters, September 14, 2002.
2 “Annan Opposes U.S. Unilateral Action Against Iraq,” Reuters, September 12, 2002, also “Text of U.N. Chief’s Speech,” Associated Press, September 12, 2002.
3 “U.S., U.K. and Canadian Church Leaders Urge a Halt to ‘Rush To War’ With Iraq,” press release of the Central Committee Of The World Council Of Churches,” issued August 30, 2002 from a WCC meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.