'When one great power sees a serious threat it will just, you know—the elephant will charge out of the tent’


August 14 2006

'When one great power sees a serious threat it will just, you know—the elephant will charge out of the tent’


August 14 2006

'When one great power sees a serious threat it will just, you know—the elephant will charge out of the tent’



Q The original inspiration for the United Nations was the notion that an international body could lead to better governance and a more stable and peacefid world than when the globe is run by a coalition of great powers or a dominant imperial power. With all that’s going on today, do we still have reason to believe that’s the case?

A: There was an earnest debate between Churchill and Roosevelt about whether you’ve got peace and stability guaranteed through an open international body or whether you got it from a cartel of great powers. And in fact, the UN Charter they hammered out is a compromise between the two.

Q: Today the great powers cartel is embodied in the UN Security Council with its five permanent members and their vetoes, and the global parliament is the UN General Assembly representing 191 nations—is that the balance required?

A: Yes. I’m quite convinced that if we don’t have some international mechanisms for helping to defuse crisis situations and for helping to advance particular agendas we’d be in a worse shape than we are now—and we’re not in a very good shape, God help us. But I don’t buy the “globalist federation of the world” stuff because the independent great powers are not going to go into it. So we have a perpetual tension between aspirations for international civic worthiness, stability and prosperity on the one hand, and

the real, grinding world of Hezbollah and Israeli air strikes and China in Tibet on the other hand.

Q: You have a keen sense of how the world has always worked—what makes you feel that some sort of international government would be a better brake on the propensity of humans to create and fight wars than letting the big boys run things?

A: Well, I think that’s probably your $64,000 question!

Q: But you ardently believe that the United Nations is a necessary institution and potentially a force for enormous good.

A: There’s one large part of my mind which says the nature of international society is always anarchic, and it’s always power-focused, and that creating a set of regulations will be a good thing but it will work just in the minor circumstances, because when one great power sees a serious threat it will just, you know, the elephant will charge out of the tent. But I’m struck by the fact that the decision-makers of 1942 to ’45, Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle and others—men who were extraordinary realists—went beyond a crude realism to say there’s a further realism, and the further realism is that we can probably blow ourselves all to smithereens and we can bring down the world economic and social order if we don’t try to put some sort of breaker points or organizational checks in the system. And I’m struck by the way in which—alas, not nowadays under Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld—a number of notable Americans

who were hardline realists in 1944/45 said they thought it was important to have their enormous international power restrained. They went back to quote Edmund Burke, who said at the end of the 18th century, “the one thing I’m most afraid of is our massive power, because although we proclaim to the world that it will be used for benevolent and benign and always selfless purposes, nobody will believe us and they will begin to suspect us and gang up against us.”

Q: Americans were a huge influence in the drafting of the UN Charter and various American statesmen have given the UN great moral and financial support. Yet the U.S. is constantly criticized for its behaviour in respect to the organization. Do Americans come in for more criticism because more is expected of them?

A: That’s a good question. One way of rephrasing it would be to say, does the U.S. come in for more criticism because of the all-too-obvious gaps between its rhetoric of internationalism and its practical policies of self-motivated strategy? The wonderful preamble to the UN Charter was drafted by the librarian of Congress. When you look at that preamble today and you look at the U.S. track record in so many international issues from not signing the Kyoto Protocol or the international treaty on the rights of the child, you begin to say, “Is this a country which produced the preamble to the UN Charter? Is this the country which goes to WTO negotiations and kind of, in co-conspiracy with French agricultural lobby, screws up any

chances for improving the Doha round?” So, yes, we do expect more from the U.S. The second reason we are so critical and why we hold the U.S. to such a high standard is because, frankly, it is the 500-lb. gorilla in the monkey cage, and we think that the nutcases running Iran, North Korea, Venezuela are deeply flawed in their policies, but I guess we really don’t think that they can do as much damage to the international system as, for example, the U.S. Senate.

Q: How much damage has the Bush administration done to the United Nations?

A [laughs] I’m going to use an Austrian military expression. When the Prussian generals used to report back to headquarters about the way the battle was going they would say, “Ernst aber nicht hoffnungslos,” or, it’s serious but not hopeless. And when the Austrian generals would report back to headquarters they would say the opposite, it’s hopeless but not serious. That’s how I feel about the Bush administration and the UN. It has inflicted a lot of damage because it’s weakened various capacities of the international body and it’s also discredited it. But I still believe that a new leadership or change of attitude on behalf of the guy at the White House would actually lead to a transformation. So, serious but not hopeless.

Q: It wasn’t just George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who kicked around the UN, but a good segment of opinion in Congress, in the Senate, in the intellectual community in the U.S.— they all lost confidence in the institution. Does the UN bear any responsibility for that?

A: I think it was a confluence of things. First of all, it clearly is not a top-class personnel organization.The UN bureaucracy does have to abide by certain principles established a long time ago about equitable regional representation and that sort of stuff. If you had a real international civil service examination, the UN would be run by the Scots, the Dutch and the Canadians. Everybody knows it. There would be nobody from Sierra Leone, right? So there’s the personnel thing, which is abiding. Secondly, the Security Council asked the system to take on much more in the way of peacekeeping and peace enforcement than it possibly could when you realize that it’s all on a voluntary basis. You know, the Security Council can pass a resolution saying it’s going to hold major elections in Congo, but then the poor secretarygeneral has to go to Ottawa, and go to Canberra, and go to Delhi and ask for contributions. The Security Council has unlimited powers to proclaim peacekeeping mission after peacekeeping mission but it’s dependent upon the goodwill of the national states

and governments to carry them out, and even countries like Canada or Norway or Sweden get donor fatigue. The Swedes have pretty well pulled out of peacekeeping.

Q: Canada has, to a large extent, too.

A: Yes, I know. It may also be in part because the nature of peacekeeping has become much more peace enforcement. When you get to big, heavy, dirty actions in the Balkans or Afghanistan, then a number of those donor countries begin to have doubts.

Q: If another Rwanda were to happen tomorrow, say in the Sudan, would the UN be able to perform any better this time?

A: I very much doubt it. You’ve got three or four things. One, donor fatigue, especially in contributing troops for really serious operations. Secondly, will you get past the Chinese veto? Thirdly, will you get past an African Union protest that this was neo-colonialism? I get—as you must—just sickening details of what’s going on in Darfur. Are the big powers going to stand up to it? I don’t know. And that leads to a great amount of cynicism—that the Security Council and the big boys will agree to operations in areas which are not important to them. Think about it: “Yes, of course, send 2,000 commandos into Sierra Leone because China doesn’t give a bugger about Sierra Leone.”

Q: A lot of people want the UN to have a standing army in order to respond to trouble around the globe.

A: The standing army issue is ridden with all sorts of complications, like who controls it? You know, Canada has a very long and wonderful tradition of its armed forces being in multinational organizations and armies and fleets. It’s used to it. But who is going to imagine that if there was a UN standing army, units contributed by some of the big powers would be under any direction other than that of their own defence ministry?

Q: We have a situation now where the UN had troops in southern Lebanon, troops that were supposedly helping the Lebanese government disarm Hezbollah in keeping with two UN resolutions. Instead of being cleaned out, Hezbollah acts up and the whole of southern Lebanon is now in flames and the UN troops are helping to evacuate civilians and to keep themselves from getting shot. UN SecretaryGeneral Kofi Annan has called for a ceasefire and condemned the warring parties in the strongest possible terms, and he’s been ignored.

A: And did you see the photographs in downtown Beirut of the local inhabitants beating the windows of the UN building?

Q: Yes. Is there anything the organization can salvage from this disaster? I suppose it is remarkable that after all of this U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears to be headed towards the UN Security Council in

search of a solution.

A: The original mandate in Lebanon was for the UN to be neutral observers, lightly armed, acting as a breathing space in the way that they do between the northern and southern parts of Cyprus. That’s your very traditional Swedish/Canadian peacekeeping mode of the ’60s and the ’70s. Now it’s found itself in the middle of a heavy-duty, big-boys’ war and it’s not equipped to handle that. It can’t handle Hezbollah, it certainly can’t handle Israeli missiles, so one can say, here’s another example of where lightly armed UN peacekeeping troops were mistakenly put into a situation where they don’t belong. Either you should have put in really heavy boys, or you should have pulled them out. I think that’s a fair criticism. But, on the second point, we’ve got an international crisis which is being referred to the Security Council. The French are taking a resolution

'The UN is clearly not a top-class personnel organization and everybody knows itv

to the Security Council. The Americans are going to the Security Council. The Chinese are going to the Security Council because they lost an observer in an air strike. Like it or not, the spotlight is going to turn on the Security Council. In fact, recent reports suggest even Israel would actually prefer to have the Security Council ask NATO to put in a force. So in a way, your critics on the extreme left and your critics on the extreme right may say this is redundant, this is hopeless, this is elitist, this doesn’t work well, but for the foreign ministries of the world—and sometimes for the defence ministries of the world—it’s what you’ve got. M