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September 05, 2006

Herding the UN
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Last week David Adesnik of Oxblog took issue with a post I wrote about Iran that stated that in order to be effective at marshaling support at the UN, the US needs to retain the ability and freedom to act outside the UN, and even unilaterally, when it is impossible to muster support for important American priorities.  He found the position surprising in light of my political leanings.

In the interest of fostering progressive consensus on how to approach the UN, I want to elaborate a bit.  My conclusion derives directly from experience working at the UN and trying to build consensus around controversial US foreign policy priorities.  This involved a delicate dance:  If we were too aggressive and unbending, everyone's back's went up and we had no chance of winning support. 

But its equally true that when we were too gentle, it was impossible to surmount a combination of knee-jerk anti-superpower sentiment, and opposition ginned up by whatever special interest was against what we were proposing.  It took a finely seasoned brew of bluster, rigorous fact-based argumentation, flattery, cajolery, patient listening, pressure applied in capitals, veiled threats, horse-trading, eloquent speechifying, wining and dining, diplomatic niceties, and the occasional temper tantrum to get our proposals off the ground.  The omission of any ingredient could easily spoil the stew.

James Traub's insightful piece in last Sunday's NYT magazine last Sunday on the evolving role of the Chinese mission to the UN illuminates part of the challenge and is well worth reading in full.   He points out that several of what China views as its bedrock national interests, including the principle of sovereignty and non-interference with the so-called domestic affairs of states and its insatiable appetite for natural resources to fuel its economic growth, run directly counter to foremost American foreign policy priorities in, for example, Darfur and now Iran. 

Most people realize this, but bringing the Chinese around on these questions is not a matter of having diplomats who are more user-friendly than John Bolton, or even a foreign policy that's less arrogant and blundering than the Bush Administration's.   Those would help, but not alter the fundamental dynamics.

How do we deal with the Chinese at the UN?  Here's Traub's last paragraph:

Why did China want to punch underweight? [Chinese UN Perm Rep] Wang spoke of China’s peaceful rise, of the need to reassure all who fear its growing clout. “We don’t,” he said, “want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”

Elsewhere in the piece he describes how the Chinese are reluctant to be up-front on issues and often have others front their battles. 

In my experience, this is where leverage within the 130+ group of developing world nations at the UN is critical.  These countries are nominally aligned with China in the Group of 77, but that collective is loose, and many of its members have close ties to the US.  When we have strong support (in can be either wide, or narrow but staunch and unyielding among influential 77 members) among the developing world bloc, it becomes difficult for China to fight us without being pushy and obtrusive in ways that they prefer to avoid.

All this is being played out tragically right now over Darfur.  The Chinese abstained from last week's resolution calling for UN intervention, arguing that absent the assent of the Sudanese government, a UN mission was bound to fail.  The result is circular:  because the UN won't push them hard, the Sudanese continue to resist; because the Sudanese resist, the Chinese refuse to push them.  Meanwhile the killings go on. 

The latest Chinese reticence has provided the Sudanese government with the cover to insist that the African Union either extend its own mission (thus implying that a UN force would not deploy), or pull out right away.   Both scenarios would be disastrous.

The African Union, to its credit, is standing up and saying that they refuse to let their flagging mission hang on.   It badly wants the UN to step in.  The US should build on this, and try to forge as broad a consensus as possible throughout the developing world that UN intervention is a must-have, ASAP.  If such agreement emerges, China's diplomatic pattern suggests that it will not stand alone.


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Your point about China is interesting, but it's been clear for some time now that Russia is the key to getting a consensus on Iran. (Obviously if Russia's not on board, China doesn't have to worry about going it alone.)

So how does a more unilateral approach to Iran put any pressure on Russia? We threaten to cut Iran's ties to Europe, thereby forcing Iran to turn to ... Russia. That's seems like a good deal for Putin. Iran's isolation would seem to serve Russia's interests quite nicely.

I think that we need to rethink our entire foreign policy approach. In 2000, many nations signed into action an agreement to end world poverty called the Millenium Development Goals, which we have heard little about since.
While i realize that national security is an issue, if we paid as much (or even half as much) attention to the goals outlined in the MDG, we wouldn't have the security issues we have now.
we need to put pressure on our representatives to get these issues in motion.

Many posters in here likely do not realize that this essay is "mirrored" on the site. This is where Nossel's primary "progressive" jury weighs in on her prudent policy discussions.

You can read the collective wit and wisdom of the "progressive" base in full fulmination at

Or, if I might paraphrase:

1. Iran isn't a foreign policy concern of the U.S. Neither is Sudan. We should, instead, work to isolate rogue democratic states such as India and Israel. There is some hint that Nossel is sympathetic with the "neocrazies" running America's foreign policy machine, and that Iran has the right to defend itself against same.

2. Nossel should apply for a gig with John Bolton, her kinship with the brute well demonstrated by her curiously prescient notions about the UN, statecraft and the use of force.

3. Nossel also must be plotting the invasion of Iran, which would be most imprudent because Tehran is in "complete compliance" with IAEA dictates and, well, a barrel of crude would shoot to $200 if bullets fly.

4. The U.S. is at fault for "dragging its feet" on Darfur, not China.

My favorite policy recommendation, however, should be preserved in its precious entirety --

"I hate to say it, but the best thing that could happen to the UN is to have the US kicked off the Security Coucil."

Nossel writes a very thoughtful essay, complete with some hard tips indicating the tactics necessary to beat Chinese diplomacy at the world body. And the "progressive" jury, at least as judged by their collective responses to her effort, is united in rank stupidity and crass indifference to the way the world -- much less the UN -- works.

Moments like these give Beinart more cachet than perhaps he's earned. I very much enjoy Nossel's weekly bagatelles.

I'm not sure my fellow "progressives" do, and that might prove interesting in the next administration.

Suzanne, your point is taken - the age-old debate surrounding the sovereignty of the nation state vs. committed membership of multilateral organizations. It seems the U.S., as with any other country, will always retain the right to act unilaterally when it perceives interests are at stake, etc. The question it seems to me, is when is this appropriate ... to what extent does this threat of and/or continued unilateral action undermine the U.N. and therefore weaken its effectiveness? When is the justification justified? (to stop the brewing) Perhaps an appeal to "natural law" would be one instance (e.g. genocide, etc.), and imminent threat would be another. No surpise that these are such normative measures - but finding yardsticks of international law should be one approach.

Suzanne misses the point, as most people do, regarding Darfur.

The only thing China contributes to the discussion about Darfur is its veto on the Security Council. The only reason China is willing to use it to block a resolution for a peacekeeping force not dependent on the Sudanese government is because every Arab government supports this position. Khartoum's importuning by itself could scarcely determine Chinese policy toward a country so far away, let alone toward a region of that country in which Chinese interests are hardly involved at all (most of Sudan's known oil reserves are located outside of the Darfur region).

Effective diplomacy toward the Darfur crisis has to begin with the realization that Khartoum is not isolated -- and that the reason it is not isolated is not China. Disrupt the united Arab front defending genocide in Darfur, and you will see China retreat from an exposed diplomatic position. The problem is that the united Arab front will not be disrupted by discreet diplomatic maneuvers. It has to be attacked head on, in public.

If this produces Arab outrage in the short term, complete with the usual mobs in the street chanting idiot slogans, that price will have to be paid. In the long term the policy we are publicly committed to now -- encouraging democracy among governments and people willing to tolerate genocide -- makes neither logical nor practical sense.

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