The most important speech at this week's opening of the General Assembly came not from President Bush or France's Jacques Chirac but from the United Nations chief, Kofi Annan. The secretary-general was direct in criticizing the United States for the way it attacked Iraq, calling the pre-emption policy a "fundamental" threat to the United Nations' founding principle of collective security. But Annan balanced his defense of the United Nations as an institution with an acknowledgement of its many weaknesses. He challenged the leaders in attendance to make the body more relevant in the fight against terrorism, poverty and weapons of mass destruction.
"We have come to a fork," Annan told the assembly.
As Bush's chilly reception over two days in New York showed, the world community still resents the U.S. decision to wage war without specific Security Council authorization. There is also rancor over Washington's reluctance to give the United Nations and member states a significant role in reconstructing Iraq. Even so, the meetings were helpful, for they provided a stage for face-to-face meetings, and there are already signs, particularly from Germany, that some leaders are interested in moving beyond past differences.
This is why Annan's speech was helpful. While defending the integrity of the United Nations' warmaking authority, the secretary-general also nudged his institution along, saying "it is not enough to denounce unilateralism unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some states feel uniquely vulnerable." Some member states have used the cover of diplomacy and patience to frustrate not only the United States on Iraq but peace and security across the globe.
The first test of Annan's bolder approach will be in whether the United Nations decides to close its operations in Iraq. Two suicide bombing attacks on its Baghdad headquarters, including one that killed the senior U.N. diplomat on the ground and 21 others last month, have prompted the United Nations to consider shutting down operations because of continued hostilities there. This would be a terrible message to send, not only to Iraqis who need U.N. services and to terrorists who seek to block such assistance, but to those U.N.-member states who would see the decision as yet another way to embarrass and punish the Bush administration. The humanitarian crisis in Iraq is serious, the United Nations needs to stay.