The battle—or, more accurately, the massacre—of Srebrenica in July 1995 marked a new low for the United Nations. The small force of Dutch blue helmets stationed in the area didn't know if it was its mission to prevent the atrocities, nor did it have the proper means to do so. So, the Serbs made a mockery of the United Nations. "Like all U.N. forces," wrote David Halberstam in his book War in a Time of Peace, "they remained unsure of their mandate." The tragedy that ensued from their inaction was devastating for the people of Bosnia. The impotence that was responsible for this tragedy was devastating to the United Nations' reputation.
And this week it will be put to the test yet again, as the General Assembly convenes to deal with the most crucial issues of the day. In his farewell speech last week, the president of the 60th U.N. General Assembly, Jan Eliasson of Sweden stressed that "[t]he challenge is whether we have the collective will to combine together for the greater good. The challenge is whether the multilateral system—primarily the United Nations—can rise to the occasion."
But ask the average American, and you'll get the feeling that this constant testing of the United Nations is a waste of time. In a poll conducted by the Hudson Institute earlier this month, 75 percent said they "believe the UN is no longer 'effective' and 'needs to be held more accountable.' " President Bush echoed these feelings last Friday, when he said, "I think a lot of Americans are frustrated with the United Nations, to be frank with you."
However—frustration aside—Bush will go to the United Nations this week in search of action and relevance. Initially the most hostile and suspicious of American presidents regarding the United Nations, in the past couple of months President Bush has asked for its help repeatedly—and on an increasing number of issues. Just look at the list: sanctions on Iran, genocide prevention in Sudan, stability in Lebanon, accountability in Syria, dismantling nukes in North Korea, and on and on.
"When you look at it, we actually have a fairly smart record of achievement," an administration official told the Washington Times last week, speaking of Bush's record at the United Nations. "We've gotten resolutions on some pretty serious issues where nobody thought we could get them." But now the administration faces a more daunting task: making the resolutions work. That is, if it really wants them to work. Srebrenica proved that a resolution can sometimes be a call for action, but it can also be a justification rather than a solution. A resolution can give Washington the benefit of not having to do anything. Call it the "get the resolution and blame the United Nations for not following words with deeds" strategy. The Bush administration is playing a delicate game of using the United Nations but also blaming it for poor results.
There are many possible—sometimes contradictory—conclusions from Bush's new reliance on U.N. action. Is it the administration's weakness and lack of energy that forces it to go to New York looking for solutions? Or is it the wisdom that comes with experience and renewed realism? A similar set of questions can be asked about the United Nations itself—with contradictory conclusions: Does it work better now because the United States is more cooperative and attentive to its allies and partners? Or is it the Bush administration's tough stance that made the United Nations comply, so as not to lose relevance altogether?
You can also gauge the relevance of the United Nations by looking at its record. It's not very impressive. True, it made some progress in Lebanon, and so far Washington has reason to be satisfied with the seriousness with which the Security Council has dealt with this issue. But on the acute questions of Darfur and Iran, the old game of foot-dragging is in play. Resolutions were passed on both issues, but there's been no action. Both represent disasters in the making that the United Nations doesn't seem willing to try to prevent.
Still, Washington keeps trying. Call it persistence and resoluteness; call it a new, friendlier approach to the world. Or you could also call it an excuse. If the United States' ability to prevent a massacre or nuclear proliferation is tested, a U.N. resolution will be the note it brings to class to explain why it failed.
"If you want to test a man's character, give him power," Abraham Lincoln once said. It seems this is exactly what the Bush administration is doing with the United Nations. But there's a cloud hanging over its motivations. Does Washington go to the United Nations when it concludes that it's the best way to achieve important goals and to exhaust all the possibilities before it decides to act unilaterally? Or because it is the easiest way out?