Yesterday was United Nations Day—the 65th anniversary of the day in 1945 when the UN charter legally entered into force. A 65th birthday is not especially exciting and the UN hasn’t been in the news all that much just lately. Certainly not the way it was in 2003 during the build up to Iraq war, when Prospect last asked me to write about it.
In the first months of that year, the security council had been the scene of high drama, as Britain and the US sought to browbeat other members into adopting that elusive “second resolution,” which we now know that Britain’s then attorney general had deemed necessary if force were to be used legally against Saddam Hussein. There was no second resolution—despite all the pressure, only four out of 15 council members were prepared to vote for one—but the war happened anyway.
Anglo-American forces occupied Iraq and overthrew Saddam. President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier, proclaiming “mission accomplished.” UN secretary general Kofi Annan, fearing that in a US-dominated new world order the UN would be swept into irrelevance like its predecessor the League of Nations, sent a team of the UN’s best and brightest, headed by the ultra-charismatic Sergio Vieira de Mello, to help with Iraq’s post-war reconstruction. But it turned out both he and Bush had miscalculated. It wasn’t a post-war environment at all, but a murderous “a-symmetrical” war, in which Sergio and his colleagues were among the first and most spectacular victims. On 19 August a suicide bomber detonated a truckload of explosives just below the window of Sergio’s office. Both Bush and the UN found themselves in “new world order” very different from the one they had imagined.
In 2003 I was paid to speak for the UN. Seven years and a job-change later my perspective may have changed, but so has the world. After a brief burst of hope surrounding Obama’s election, the US seems less and less able to accomplish any of its self-assigned missions. The “unipolar moment”, proclaimed by US columnist Charles Krauthammer after the cold war ended, has well and truly ended. Analysts of geopolitics now differ mainly on whether we are headed for a new bi-polar world, in…