It was not a great week for President Bush last week. He was buffeted by political fallout over the tardy governmental response to Hurricane Katrina. Violence continued apace in Iraq. While there was cautious optimism for a breakthrough with North Korea, Iran remained obdurate about developing nuclear technology that the president is sure is a cover for developing nuclear weapons.
But at week's end there was light at the end of one foreign policy tunnel. The United Nations dipped its collective toe into the waters of reform, and its relationship with the United States took a turn for the better. Had it not done so, it would have been a very black day for the United Nations and a very dark omen for its relationship with the United States.
Bush was in a calculatedly conciliatory mode when he addressed the annual meeting of the United Nations' General Assembly in New York, beginning his speech with words of appreciation for 115 nations that have offered aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was positively gushing about her relationship with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, was on his best behavior, so much so that the New York Times, whose editorial page has been sourly critical of him, ran a Sunday news story in which the ambassadors of other countries were quoted as praising Bolton's "work ethic, his knowledge of his brief, his clarity in declaring it and his toughness as a negotiator."
If all this signaled the Bush administration's intention to work with the United Nations in the rest of Bush's presidential term, neither was there any doubt that the president wants to see much more reform than has so far been promised in the watered-down document the General Assembly approved last week. As Bolton put it: This is just a start. "This is not the alpha and the omega, and we never thought it would be."
Said Bush: "The process of reform begins with members taking our responsibilities seriously. When this great institution's member states choose notorious abusers of human rights (clearly a reference to Sudan, Cuba and Libya) to sit on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, they discredit a noble effort and undermine the credibility of the whole organization."
This was one of the most critical issues for the United States, and had the United Nations not moved on it, it is unlikely that the Bush administration could have offered up any encouraging words for the future of its relationship with the international organization.
The discredited Human Rights Commission is to be replaced with a new human rights council, the exact specifics of which are to be determined in the General Assembly.
The Security Council is not to be expanded and Kofi Annan will apparently not respond to calls for his resignation, despite recent faulting by the Volcker commission of the United Nations' management practices, particularly in the Iraqi "oil-for-food" scandal. The General Assembly document did provide a rationale for international intervention in a country when genocide and ethnic cleansing are evident. It also condemned terrorism "in all its forms and manifestations" but was squishy in defining terrorism.
The Bush decision to continue working with the United Nations is based on two important factors. One is that multilateralism is being given more emphasis in the president's second term, whereas unilateralism seemed dominant in the first term. The second factor is the hope that the United Nations can play a significant role in curbing the nuclear weaponry ambitions of such nations as North Korea and Iran.
The United States seems close to seeking U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran after inconclusive negotiations between European powers and Iran. Meanwhile, if a weekend agreement with North Korea falls through, the United States would likely seek support at the United Nations for punitive measures against the Pyongyang regime.
Many of the Bush administration's reservations about the United Nations clearly remain.
But the Bush White House calculates that there are still areas where the United Nations can be useful. One is the United Nations' vast humanitarian outreach to the poor and oppressed. Another is the United Nations' ability to field peacekeepers, thus lessening the demands upon the U.S. military. Another is the legitimacy that the United Nations can sometimes lend to American initiatives in sensitive areas of the world.
Thus the United Nations' move to reform, however modest, and the United States' positive response, while continuing the pressure for further effort, are welcome developments in a turbulent world.
John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column, and he served as assistant secretary-general of the U.N. in 1995. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.