In late 2004 the U.S. was ignoring the UN despite it being obvious to the outside world that it was increasingly bogged down in Iraq, following its misconceived war. On November 15th, when the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council signed an agreement that set up a transition plan the UN was not even mentioned. But a short two months’ later Washington was on its knees before the UN, its transition plan in tatters.
It's revealing how in a big crisis the big powers can run to it to chew the cud and find a solution short of war or revolution. When the antagonists have either talked or fought themselves into a corner they tend often to crawl back to the body that they were not long ago denouncing to find an exit from the horrors that confront them. But then a few years later they seem to have forgotten that it happened.
Pro UN observers have noticed to their dismay that the organisation seemed impotent during the steady expansion of NATO eastward over the last 20 years and more recently, in the lead-up to President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine. But all of a sudden, this past month, the protagonists appear to have found that in the midst of war they needed the UN as an interlocutor. The first was the unblocking of Ukraine’s ports so last year’s grain harvest could be exported before this year’s arrived from the fields. It had seemed that the Russians would never allow it since the grain blockade was a good and easy way of inflicting serious economic damage on Ukraine. But the UN’s secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, persuaded Moscow that it was losing friends among grain importers, in particular poorer countries who need the grain, and that it was in Russia’s long-term interest to allow Ukraine to sell its huge stocks of grain.
Last week, in a reversal of policy, Putin agreed that UN nuclear inspectors could make their way via Ukraine to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, Europe’s biggest, at the moment besieged on one side by Russian troops and the other by Ukrainian. The danger of a missile hitting a reactor or a stockpile of cooling rods is a very real one. A second Chernobyl disaster when in 1986 a Ukrainian reactor melted down spewing radiation far and wide is not something either side wants. Again, Guterres stepped into the breach and found a diplomatic solution. The inspectors of the UN’s Atomic Energy Agency are now en route to the power station.
The UN still has enough credit in the bank after 77 years of stormy vicissitudes for its secretary-general to be regarded as a neutral interlocutor. This is an amazing achievement without parallel in mankind’s history. The question is whether the UN can build on its past successes to bring the sides to the negotiating table. Russian and Ukrainian diplomats are having to cooperate face to face to implement these two agreements. In this sense talks have begun already. The UN should push for their expansion and find out what each side would settle for. Many, both in NATO and in Russia, are saying there can be no negotiations until the other side is defeated. This is a zero-sum policy. The UN has to work for a non-zero-sum solution. It exists. The UN has delivered before. It can deliver again.
The painful 56-year separation of the Turkish and Greek parts of the island of Cyprus is in some way analogous to the Ukraine debacle. It flowed from the British colonial failure and the first post-Second World War attempt at the ethnic cleansing of part of a European country- by Orthodox Christians of Turkish Muslims. The UN first stopped a would-be pogrom, then halted the advance of a Turkish invasion and subsequently guarded the peace line separating the two halves, unnoticed by much of the world, but not unnoticed by the still nervous inhabitants of Cyprus. The UN’s peacekeepers remain to this day. Who says the UN does not have staying power?
Who says we should forget about the UN- it’s just a talking shop? Present events bring to mind the crisis in 1954 over the capture of 17 American airmen by China. American public opinion became extremely agitated. There was even some talk about the use of nuclear weapons. Belatedly, the UN was asked to intervene and Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld went to Beijing to talk to Premier Chou Enlai. It took six months of negotiating but the men were released. President Dwight Eisenhower has a whole chapter in his book on the incident but the central role of the secretary general is almost totally ignored.
It is the same in Robert Kennedy's book on the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is only a passing reference to U Thant's letter to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Yet it was U Thant's letter that elicited a crucial response from the Soviet leader indicating there was room for compromise.
In Suez in 1956, the Lebanon in 1958, in the Congo in 1969 and the 1973 Middle East war it was the UN that provided an escape hatch for the big powers who had put themselves at the height of the Cold War on a collision course. In the wake of the Yom Kippur war, although both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had agreed in principle to a cease-fire, there was no way of implementing it. The situation looked exceedingly dangerous. Egypt was calling for Soviet help. President Richard Nixon put the U.S. on a nuclear alert. It was fast footwork at the UN, principally by a group of Third World countries, that helped break the impasse. They pushed for a UN force to go in- and by the standards of the slow-moving bureaucracy of today it did the impossible by starting to arrive on the ground the next day. All these crises were at least as difficult as the present one in Ukraine. It should be possible for the UN to find a way out this time.
Critics can deride the Third World majority at the UN but even if it does combine to vote through the Assembly all number of meaningless or impossible resolutions it often seems to rise to the occasion on the most serious matters. It was during the charged Security Council debate that preceded the American decision to invade Iraq that the African members, who by the luck of the rotation held 20% of the vote, pondered dispassionately both sides of the argument before coming down against a war, seemingly at great cost to their immediate short term economic interests. And later it was the Ghanaian secretary general, Kofi Annan, and his right-hand man, the Algerian, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Iraq, whom the Americans couldn’t seem to have enough of once the fighting was over.
The UN has been a successful force, interlocutor and peacemaker. Today in Ukraine it has another hard task ahead. The world, in particular the NATO powers, Ukraine and Russia, need to give it its support and accept the compromises its skilled negotiators are adept at fashioning.