Global, Global Geopolitics, Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, North America | Analysis

POLITICS: Is Cold War Rhetoric Back at the U.N.?

Analysis by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 8 2008 (IPS) - When the United States and the former Soviet Union were on the verge of a military confrontation over Cuba during the height of the Cold War, the legendary U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson went eyeball-to-eyeball with Soviet envoy Valerian Zorin in the Security Council chamber.

As old U.N. hands would recall, Stevenson aggressively sought a response from Zorin over allegations of Soviet nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba.

“Yes or no?” Stevenson demanded, and added the punch line: “And don’t wait for the translation”, as he pressed for an immediate answer from the Russian-speaking envoy.

Zorin turned to Stevenson and said, through a translator: “I am not in an American court of law, and I do not wish to answer the question put to me in the manner of a prosecuting counsel.”

Stevenson famously responded he will wait for an answer “until hell freezes over”.

Judging by the recent deadlock in the Security Council – over Kosovo, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), Zimbabwe, Sudan and most recently Georgia – one wonders whether the days of the Cold War are back in vogue. Or perhaps its political rhetoric?

In January last year, a Western-backed and U.S.-led move to castigate the Burmese government for human rights violations suffered a rare double veto, both from China and Russia.

And last month, history repeated itself when these two big powers exercised their vetoes again – this time to stall a resolution aimed at imposing sanctions against Zimbabwe.

The U.S.-Russian political confrontation in the Security Council has been intensified in recent weeks with the Russian invasion of Georgia, and Moscow’s subsequent decision to recognise the breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

When U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sought a response from Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin on whether or not the Russians were bent on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia, Churkin said he had already provided an answer to the question.

Maybe, he added rather sarcastically, the U.S. representative had not been listening when Churkin had given his response. “Perhaps he had not had his earpiece on,” he added.

And when U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff recently blasted Russia for its perceived violations of international law and the U.N. charter during the invasion of Georgia, Churkin hit back with another dose of sarcasm.

“Did you find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?…And are you still looking for them?” he asked.

Speeches laced with sarcasm and personal insults are rare in the Council chamber. But is the United Nations now back to the days of the Cold War?

“The United Nations is not headed for a new Cold War,” predicts Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalist Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, and author of several studies on the United Nations.

As U.S. economic, political and diplomatic power has diminished around the world, she argued, military power has become ever more dominant as a viable tool of hegemony.

“The threat of U.S. unilateral military power continues to rise not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also with increasing U.S. military bases across the globe, as well as possible new interventions in Iran, in Georgia, in Pakistan and perhaps elsewhere,” Bennis told IPS.

Partly as a result of that rising militarism, and partly out of longstanding habit, she pointed out, governments around the world continue to treat the United States as if it were still an unchallengeable dominion.

“And in the United Nations, that means allowing Washington to continue to call the shots,” added Bennis, author of the recently-released ‘Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer.’

“A return to the Cold War era? Not sure whether we can characterise it as such?” says an Asian envoy, who keeps close track of the state-of-play in the Security Council.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said it is a fact that the Security Council has not been functioning effectively for some time now.

“In my view, the last time it operated effectively was probably during the first Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the then Bush [Sr.] administration (1990-91) worked hard to put together an international coalition to take on Saddam Hussein,” he told IPS.

It was just after the Cold War and Washington was in less of an “ideological mode”.

Maybe it was because they felt that they had won the Cold War and could now afford to be magnanimous without behaving in an overbearing and unilateral manner, he added. Or maybe they saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership and to work towards the preservation of a system where they remained at the top of the heap.

But, over time, especially in the last eight years, he argued, “the Americans have become extremely ideological and unilateral in their approach – they are always right and you are either with them or you are seen to be against them. It’s all black and while with no grey issues.”

“This was evident during the run-up to the Second Gulf War – it blinded American planning and strategising, with them thinking that they would hailed as liberators in Baghdad,” he added.

Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, said that since 1990 the United Nations, and particularly the Security Council, has under U.S. domination (perhaps “proprietorship” is a more accurate term) increasingly become an instrument for the marginalisation of international law.

The United States, he said, has also been undermining the consensus of the vast majority of its constituent states on a range of issues, as opposed to an institution that works to uphold international law and enforce the will of the international community.

“In this context, the prospect of a new Cold War at the global organisation is to be enthusiastically welcomed,” Rabbani told IPS.

“At the very least there will be some daylight between the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and the U.S. National Security Council, and hopefully some dimunition of the role of the UNSC itself,” Rabbani said.

The Asian envoy said the ideological zeal of the United States and the West is also seen in the disturbing tendency by the “West” to try to broaden the definition of what is a “threat to international peace and security”.

While the U.N. Charter leaves some room for interpretation, he said, this definition of a “threat” has generally been confined to wars and violence.

“Increasingly, what we are witnessing are attempts by the West to include all manner of transgressions as possible reasons that require Security Council action,” he said.

In the Zimbabwe case, he said, the argument was that democracy, elections, and human rights all fall under possible new definitions of “threats”.

“This is the same sort of reasoning that we have seen the West try to apply to Myanmar over the political process and the humanitarian crisis,” he added.

While Russia and China are becoming more assertive, it is primarily on issues that bear directly on their own national interests, like preventing the UNSC from producing a lopsided resolution on Georgia.

The real issue remains unchanged – whether the United Nations is capable of reforming itself to become an effective international organisation.

“And here the joint interests of the U.S. and Russia are likely to converge to prevent this from happening, as in the past,” Rabbani added.

The Asian envoy said: “I don’t see either side backing off for the time being. The West will continue to push the envelope and many amongst the Rest continuing to resist,” he added.

Republish | | Print |