The U.N.’s secret admirer

Stephen Schlesinger is the author of "Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations."

Despite his widely reported skepticism about global institutions, it turns out that President Bush’s most important partner in the conduct of his foreign policy over the last eight years has proved to be one of the least likely ones: the United Nations.

If you look at the most significant international issues Bush has dealt with during his years in office, it’s clear that in one way or another he has, in the end, entrusted virtually all of them to the U.N. for resolution.

His global credo, at least at the start of his term, would not have suggested such an outcome. At the beginning of 2001, Bush regarded the U.N. as the bete noire of American international policy. He did not even appoint an envoy to the U.N. for nine months after taking office. He voided, withdrew from or scorned numerous global treaties championed by U.N. member-states, such as the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, among others. Bush administration officials said repeatedly that they didn’t see why the world’s sole superpower should have its hands tied by a big, bureaucratic behemoth like the United Nations.


But the attacks of 9/11 changed that. The U.S. quickly sought and won the backing of the U.N. Security Council for retaliatory moves against Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. Bush hastily appointed an American ambassador to the U.N. and paid up back dues. Subsequently, the U.N. helped set up Afghanistan’s new government, assisted in writing its constitution and oversaw its first democratic elections.

Through this period, the administration continued to trash-talk the institution, even while working with it. In 2003, there was a serious run-in when the U.S. (and a coalition of allies) unilaterally invaded Iraq without Security Council authorization -- yet even this sharp violation of the U.N. Charter did not end Bush’s engagement with the U.N. Instead, finding himself isolated in Iraq, Bush swiftly pivoted back to the U.N. to win its support for the American occupation. In the aftermath of the invasion, the U.N. oversaw two elections in Iraq, helped craft its new constitution and supervised its referendum on the accord.

Since 2003, apparently sobered by its foreign policy adventurism, Washington has displayed a pragmatic realism in its relationship with the U.N. In 2004, it got U.N. peacekeepers to replace U.S. troops in Haiti; in 2005, it guided a resolution through the council that ultimately led to the expulsion of Syrian troops from Lebanon; in 2006, after a number of delays, it forged a cease-fire in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict and arranged for U.N. forces to enforce the settlement; in late 2006, it persuaded the U.N. to impose sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear testing. From 2006-08, at the urging of the United States, the Security Council slapped three rounds of sanctions on Iran for its surreptitious uranium enrichment activities.

Washington has, in addition, pushed for expanded U.N. peacekeeping missions and worked to augment anti-AIDS measures, among other endeavors.

During his tenure, Bush carefully sidestepped efforts by members of his own party to oust Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He blocked congressional bills cutting further funding to the U.N. He allowed the United States to rejoin UNESCO. His daughter even interned at UNICEF, and his wife today serves as an honorary ambassador for the U.N. Literacy Decade through UNESCO.

Not all has been roses. The White House has withheld funds related to family planning programs at the U.N. Population Fund, opposed a U.N. treaty limiting small-arms trafficking, diluted measures to control global warming, tried to fire the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and derailed other U.N. initiatives.


Nonetheless, Bush has worked directly with the U.N. He has not done so because he has changed his mind about the institution, but because he realized along the way that it is necessary if he wants to gain global legitimacy for his policies. He has acted out of his own political survival needs, seldom admitting to any involvement with the organization.

He neither talks about the body nor praises it. At best, he appears to tolerate it. All his labors there are done by stealth. His silence and his continuing reticence about the U.N. have hurt the institution with the American people and, more important, with Congress, especially over funding issues.

One hopes that the next U.S. president will finally publicly acknowledge the importance of this body for America’s future global relations in order to assure strong continued backing within our country for the U.N.’s mission.