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“Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?”

(President George W Bush. Address to UN General Assembly 12/09/02)

This study proposes to delve into the complexity and intrigue that results when two worlds collide. It will focus on the relationship between the US and the UN and examine how it relates to international conflict resolution by using the examples of the Palestine and the Persian Gulf. In doing so, we may hope to identify some of the conditions that feed into this complex cycle of international relations. It is therefore important to chart an approach that rests heavily on the implications of today’s US attitude toward an institution it co-founded with words that bespoke grand ideals of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, reaffirming faith in the dignity and worth of the human person, and a sacred pledge to promote social progress…and practice (universal) tolerance .

The world still considers the US beholden to the global constitution it helped draft 52 years ago. We hear Bush ask whether the UN will serve the purpose of its founding. What we fail to register from Bush’s challenge is whether the US has, is, and will continue to serve the purpose of its similar foundations from the ruins of war. The question remains, does the US still consider itself morally obliged to observe literally the terms laid out in the charter? Are we witnessing all the hallmarks of imperial hubris: that America knows now what Britain’s splendid isolation of a century ago meant to the then world hegemon? How is imperial ascendancy affecting the dynamics of a security axis with the UN, constructed around the now defunct post-war balance of power? Does this isolation inure America from the groundswell of discontent emanating from the floor of the General Assembly? Rebuttals like the UN Commission on Human Rights’ ousting of the US representative in 2001 sounded warning of fractiousness in the relationship and consternation in the assembly ranks. This snub in turn had some quarters in the US re-ignited the long domestic debate on America’s role in the UN and its need to maintain that long-standing association.

So, in the geo-strategic battleground of wills between the UN and the US over an area of immense economic and strategic significance for all P5 members, namely South West Asia (incorporating Palestine and Iraq), will we see the present crossroads in US – UN relations take a unilateral stance of defiance on the part of America, or end in its capitulation to the rule of international law, as outlined in Bush’s New World Order speech of 1991, “a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations ?

The dimensions to this national - supranational relationship are so varied that we must invoke their wider context in order to make sense of the ambivalence that has dogged the US attitude to the UN over the past 30 years and raised questions on the home front as to the influence of the world body as a competing interest in the business of global order for which the US, through its burden of leadership , has had unique and unfettered access to in the post-communist new world balance .

We shall focus on two dimensions in the main body of the text. These dimensions are defined as:

1. The nature and context of US – UN relations in international conflict resolution in South West Asia.

2. The strengths and comparative weaknesses of UN activities in terms of the US factor. Case studies – Iraq and Palestine.

The question of nature and context, interdependent as they are, will overlap. The geopolitical milieu will be explored, with particular reference to America’s global and regional interests, in order to understand better the prevailing strengths and weaknesses of UN involvement.

In conclusion, we may switch attention to examining ways and means of improving the effectiveness of UN activities for the attainment of peace with justice in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.


That the US determines its approach to the UN in terms of historical antecedents merits some attention. It displays atavistic traits, defined as the historic continuity of policy, inherited from a previous generation. In essence, the criteria used to determine the new (American) order would be the same as those used after World War 1 .

The unrest we observe in the Gulf States and Palestine today finds its origins in the Arab Façade, British Foreign Policy parlance for fostering weak, pliable Middle East states. Among them, what is now Iraq and Israel. The Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916 parceled out Middle Eastern lands (including Palestine) between Britain and France and thus expanded their territorial spheres of influence under the League’s mandate. When the Red Line Agreement of 1928 was signed, it leased from the Shah and partitioned newly-discovered Persian oil fields between, Britain, the US and France. At the stroke of a pen, the West signed up its economic interests for the long haul and the Arab façade was complete. In the succeeding decades the British framework remained under American inheritance (so that) the West controls what happens in the region.


The concept of peace is easy to grasp; that of international security is more complex . We have already given mention to the complicated and evolving nature of US – UN relations. The nature and context of this cornerstone of international peace and security merit considerable enquiry because it constitutes the political landscape of the Eastern Med and Persian Gulf. Approaches to deliberating strengths and weaknesses will be shaped in part by the contours of this relationship and America’s wider geopolitical concerns.

A crucial element in the US – UN relationship is the political order of the postwar international system. This has remained resolutely statist and profoundly hierarchical . Which makes the global covenant of state sovereignty, as established during the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, still vigorous after 350 years. In the words of Boutros Boutros Gali, the UN is a gathering of sovereign states and what it can do depends on the common ground they can find between them . The territorial sovereignty of nation states is enshrined by constitution therefore, and the UN finds itself as no more than a leaseholder.

Underscoring the crucial difference between the US and UN, we need to classify the UN for what it is: the sum of a politically fragmented system of sovereign states…(beholden)…to the persisting role and influence of the major states . Major states of whom five constitute its executive body for peace and security in perpetuum. Atop this pyramid of power sits the US, plainly the world hegemon incumbent. It stands to reason then that a hegemonic power with a foreign relations preference for dealing with things bilaterally (would manifest a sense of) ambivalence, hostility and indifference to a multilateral apparatus like the UN general assembly or security council who themselves may opt to assume a different posture regarding a matter of global importance to that of US foreign policy.

American national interests - an innocuous moniker for economic and geo-strategic consolidation - remain paramount in the drafting of all foreign policy, and as former US ambassador to the UN Richard Hollingbrooke asserts, the UN, despite its flaws, remains an indispensable part of American foreign policy and our national interests . Concerning the UN and its questionable bearing upon the Persian Gulf, military operations under chapter VII (undertaken for humanitarian reasons) are agreed largely on the basis of a calculus of shared interests or of tradeoffs among the five permanent members of the Security Council . This behaviour has long been the modus operandi of the political and economic elite: it is known in its rudimentary form as horse-trading. Which begs the question: where is the role for the UN in all this when conventional wisdom dictates that the dominant powers make life and death decisions in camera and only when it can be balanced against the singular needs of them all, and not the majority humanitarian need? Are we no less witnessing a variation on Von Clausewitz’s contention that War is not merely a political act… but a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means in suggesting that UN Iraqi resolutions are US foreign policy by other means?

The US and its P5 co-conspirators are long renowned for peddling their brand of political commerce in Western Asia, to the extent that increasing numbers in the South perceive the evolving situation as no less than modern imperialism… (whereby)…the full panoply of mechanisms (are employed) to bend the will and shape the global order to suit the preferences and need of the major advanced industrial nations . It is quite possible that many in the South perceive the UN, in either an advisory or peacekeeping capacity, as merely another malleable mechanism of the West, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, there to bestow the wishes and legitimize the policies of P5 members with the most capital investment at stake: the US, Britain and France, in that order. For those in the South have much experience to base this accusation on.

Arguably, during the early cold war period when America’s global reach knew limitations, the need to engage multilaterally was greater than in its aftermath. This trend is reflected in the incremental rise in the US vetoing – 23 times on various Security Council resolutions on Palestine since its first in 1973. US supremacy is laid bare in its characteristically wavering commitment to some kind of global consensus, as the nation’s instinct for Wilsonian isolation grapples with its need to engage and to lead. Indeed, the UN – US relationship is threatened with long-term estrangement as the US opens unilateral and bilateral channels wherever its vast diplomatic wing is deployed. For every Security Council resolution on the question of Palestine there is a US led initiative in the mould of Tennant, Mitchell and Zinni. For every US draft resolution presented to the UN on Iraq, read America’s independent policy of aggressive containment.

Kofi Annan stated that the US – UN relationship has been terribly damaged by myth, misinformation and misunderstanding; by failures of performance and political will . This affirms that the US looms large in the mind of UN, that its very existence and direction is dependent somehow on the will of the US. The context of arrears for which America is now the UN heaviest debtor is a telling one. Having dominated their relationship during the last decade, this aspect insinuates that the United States is in the throes of reevaluating its entire attitude to the UN, and the United Nations is reconsidering its mood of deference towards American fiscal procrastination.


This chapter can be summarized in three stages. When attempting to identify strengths and weaknesses of UN activities in Iraq and Palestine, given the weight of American presence, the following points shall be broached;

• What are those activities?

• In what sense can these activities be deemed strong?

• In what sense can these activities be deemed weak?


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