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Imperiled United Nations has failed to change with times

Huddled in San Francisco in the spring of 1945 to draft the first United Nations charter, delegates from 50 countries paused for a day to remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The former U.S. president, who had died just weeks earlier without seeing the end of World War II, had championed scrapping the feeble League of Nations in favor of an international body with enough muscle to ensure lasting global peace and with a strong U.S. presence at its core.

The delegates drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods, a dense forest of ancient redwoods. At the spot where the United Nations first met — a stand of some of the world's largest trees, known as Cathedral Grove — the U.S. Park Service later erected a plaque, quoting Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N.'s first secretary-general.

"Persons who love nature find a common basis for understanding people of other countries, since the love of nature is universal among men of all nations," it reads.

The United Nations could probably use a wilderness retreat right about now. The organization, now numbering 191 members, is facing one of the greatest threats ever to its existence.

President Bush has warned that the United Nations is perched on the brink of irrelevance.

The crisis has been decades in the making. Critics say it is a by-product of a setup that has frozen post-World War II international power structures in place and failed to keep pace with 21st-century threats of terrorism and rogue regimes.

Even Bush's supporters agree that his rhetoric has been harsh and his diplomacy clumsy. But it's also true that the U.N. showdown has exposed just how far the organization has strayed from the mandate envisioned by its framers.

With the Second World War winding down, U.N. architects had seen the organization as a sort of global cop, capable of keeping the peace by drawing on the collective military might of its members. It was to be everything the maligned League of Nations was not — tough, united and effective.

It hasn't worked out that way. The United Nations has used its clout only sparingly, sanctioning full-scale wars only twice — in Korea in 1950 and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Bush has set up Iraq as a test case of that long-lost U.N. model, which he insists must match words with force.

At the same time, the structure of the United Nations under Secretary-General Kofi Annan has fallen badly out of step with global geopolitical realities, most notably the emergence of the United States as the world's only genuine military and economic superpower. The Security Council grants equal weight to the United States and France or Britain, among the five World War II victors that enjoy permanent seats and veto power.

The other 10 members of the council are chosen on a rotating basis among the 186 other member nations, which can give tiny countries such as Guinea and Cameroon (both current council members) more clout than Japan or India.

The showdown has become a "graphic lesson in international power politics," suggested Ted Galen Carpenter of the conservative Cato Institute in Washington. "In truth, the United States has always regarded the UN as selectively useful. Occasionally, it provides a good multilateral facade for U.S. policy. But the U.S. has never let the United Nations get in the way of what it wanted to do."

The lesson the UN's detractors in the United States are already drawing from the current saga, Carpenter warned, is that this and future U.S. administrations would be better off making an end-run around the international community.

"A lot of people in the administration were suspicious about the UN going into this crisis," he said. "This will simply confirm their worst suspicions."

The current crisis "has very little to do with Iraq and a great deal to do with the future of the U.S. relationship to other countries," suggested Edward Luck, professor of international relations at Columbia University.

"The UN is not the problem," Luck said. "The UN is just the stage on which other problems are played out."

France, China and Russia, he said, appear to want a return to the League of Nations, a weak organization that shied away from taking action in the face of aggression. The League stood by when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and when Italy seized Ethiopia four years later. It was also powerless to stop the rise of Hitler in Germany.

Given a choice, France, China and Russia appear to want a UN that shies away from issues of critical importance to the United States, such as Iraq and that's exactly how the League of Nations would have dealt with Saddam Hussein.

"If you don't want a tough organization, choose the League of Nations," he said. "But to choose what San Francisco was all about is to accept U.S. dominance."

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,