Today's date:
Winter 2003


US Will Return to Multilateral Fold

Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the former secretary-general of the United Nations. He spoke from his home in Paris with NPQ.

NPQ | At the end of your term as secretary-general of the United Nations you feared that the United States going its own unilateralist way would make the UN as irrelevant as the League of Nations.

In his key speech on Iraq, US President George Bush turned your fear into a threat, saying that if the UN doesn't act as the US wants on Iraq, the US indeed would go its own way.
Has your fear come to pass?

BOUTROS BOUTROS-GHALI | Well, not yet. But certainly US action outside the UN would provoke real damage to the international system as such and to UN credibility.

What is important for a leader, whether an individual or a nation, is to think about the long term. In the short term, a unilateral American operation in Iraq might well be a success, but in the long term would be at the expense of international order. There would be more problems without the UN, not fewer.

In the past, it has always been the Americans who understood most that an authoritative international body was necessary. The League of Nations was created by an American president, Woodrow Wilson. The UN was created by another American president, Franklin Roosevelt.

Today's unilateralist approach goes against the multilateralist convictions of the US during the 20th century. In the end, I have no doubt, sooner or later the US will return to its traditional conviction. Even as the superpower, the US cannot successfully be policeman of the world. It needs others.

Furthermore, a unilateralist approach now by the US actually undermines the democracy it seeks to promote around the world. If we don't promote democratization of globalization, it will demolish democracy at the national level because globalization undermines the legitimacy of governments that can't cope with problems beyond their scope—whether as a result of capital flows, illegal migration, pollution or terrorism.

In this age of globalization, you can't have democracy at a lower level, but be undemocratic at the upper level. The UN is one of the chief mechanisms of democratization. So it is a mistake to undermine it.

NPQ | The strength with which the French, with the Chinese and the Russians behind them, stood up to the US in the Security Council over the months leading up to the new Iraq resolution surprised and annoyed Washington. What do you make of that?

BOUTROS-GHALI | If you accept democracy as one of the basic elements of global governance, then the fact that there is opposition and debate should not be surprising. That is very healthy and a good sign that the vigor of the UN system has not dissipated too far. Why accept debate in the US Congress but try to avoid it in the Security Council?

NPQ | During the Cold War, the UN was said to be hampered by a bipolar world. Yet, after the demise of the Soviet Union, it became clear (as Kofi Annan once said) that, without the interplay of competing powers and only one superpower, the UN was actually less effective.

Perhaps Europe is emerging now, through the French and Russian votes, as the check on the sole superpower that will make the UN effective once again?

BOUTROS-GHALI | I don't believe that, for the time being, there will be any counter-power to the US. Europe is divided. And on the Security Council, France, Russia and China will not be able to sustain the minimum equilibrium to create a balance. For the next 10 years, there will only be one superpower. The only hope is that the sole superpower will decide that it is in its own interest to have a strong UN.

NPQ | Did Nelson Mandela go too far recently when he said the "the US is a threat to world peace"?

BOUTROS-GHALI | He is going too far. The US is interested in peace. History shows this. But certainly the reaction of Nelson Mandela and other leaders proves that the unilateral approach does not have the support of those—especially those—who have worked so hard to create a just and fair global order.