Many Nations Worried About Unbridled U.S. Power

U By Maggie Farley and Doyle McManus

uNITED NATIONS – For President Bush, this month’s debate in the U.N. Security Council is all about Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction. But for France, Russia and other countries, the issue isn’t just the Iraqi threat – it’s the U.S. threat, too.

The United States says it is providing leadership, lighting a fire under a Security Council that has failed for years to enforce its own mandates on Iraq. President Saddam Hussein’s flagrant defiance has made the world body look “foolish,” President Bush said Monday during a campaign stop in Denver. “Our message from America is this: If the United Nations does not have the will or the courage to disarm Saddam Hussein … the United States will lead a coalition and disarm Saddam Hussein.”

But to many members of the Security Council, it appears as if the United States is using its strength not to lead, but to bully. These ambassadors fear that if Washington sidesteps the United Nations to attack Iraq, the result will be irreparable damage to the institution that should be at the center of international affairs, not on the margins.

“The U.S. must accept that multilateral diplomacy is multilateral diplomacy – not unilateral diplomacy accepted by the rest,” said a council diplomat. “We fear that forcing the machinery of the U.N. would break it.”

How the debate is resolved may shape the way future conflicts are addressed in the new world order – with or without the United Nations.

By taking on the U.S. in the Security Council, France has effectively made itself the standard-bearer for every other country that is worried about the extent of U.S. power.

Citing the need to uphold international law and to preserve the United Nations’ global role, France has proposed a two-step process to prevent the U.S. from using ambiguous language in a U.N. resolution to trigger automatic action against Iraq. One resolution would strengthen the weapons inspection process, and if inspections failed, the entire council would discuss the consequences. The majority of the Security Council’s 15 members have said they support France’s proposal.

In the process, French leaders have reaffirmed themselves as crucial players in the United Nations, the Middle East and the European Union – a role they reportedly relish.

“France is not interested in arguing with the United States,” a French diplomat said recently in Paris. “This is a matter of principle. This is about the rules of the game in the world today. About putting the Security Council in the center of international life. And not permitting a nation, whatever nation it may be, to do what it wants, when it wants, where it wants. It all depends on the kind of world in which we want our children to live.”

French diplomats also recognize that they must maintain a delicate balance in their diplomatic drive. Push too hard, and they may be left out in the cold, the way Germany has been in the Iraqi debate. Paris also worries about destabilization in the Middle East because of its commercial and political interests there and because of potential street unrest among the approximately 6 million French Muslims, Europe’s biggest Islamic community.

“The only thing worse for France than having a war against Iraq would be not supporting a war and having it go ahead anyway,” said Philip H. Gordon, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and France.

At the United Nations, the United States has its own calculus to consider. It must calibrate how much the United Nations can help it achieve its agenda versus how much the world body might curtail it.

As long as the United States stays engaged in the United Nations, it tacitly accepts boundaries on its power in exchange for the benefits of multilateral backing. With U.N. approval, other nations would share the cost of an attack on Iraq and the long-term nation-building that must occur afterward. If the United States goes it alone, fewer countries will be willing to share the burden – not only for Iraq but for other international ventures, such as anti-terrorism drives.

Washington knows that its presence lends gravity to the institution. The other four veto-holding members of the Security Council – Britain, France, China and Russia – derive power from their status in the council. In the solemn, red-carpeted chamber, each country has one vote and one veto. There is no superpower.

But outside that room, reality comes to bear. In the real world, U.S. military and economic power dwarfs every rival, and to most countries, their relationship with the United States is more important than their interest in Iraq. For those who are reluctant, there are sweeteners: Russia wants guarantees for the nearly $8-billion debt owed it by Iraq and, along with France, wants to ensure that existing oil investments in the region are honored by a post-Hussein regime.

In 1990, when the United States was trying to garner the council’s unanimous support for the Persian Gulf War, Washington offered nearly every developing country that was holding seats on the council economic aid packages or military assistance, according to Phyllis Bennis, a director at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

There are also twisted arms. In 1990, Yemen and Cuba voted against the resolution. After the vote, a U.S. diplomat told the Yemeni ambassador – unwittingly in front of a U.N. radio microphone – “that will be the most expensive `no’ vote you ever cast.” Three days later, the United States cut its entire $70-million aid package to Yemen.

Although it is not clear whether the United States is preparing similar blandishments for the Iraq resolution, observers say that the trend of U.S. unilateralism and power politics is worrying.

Diplomats and others say the Bush administration hasn’t made its own task easier by trumpeting the primacy of the United States. Many point, in particular, to the administration’s formal “National Security Strategy,” published last month, which boldly asserted that the United States plans to prevent any combination of other countries from ever challenging its supremacy.

“Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States,” the report said.

“The more we talk about our power, the more apprehension there is around the world,” said Edward C. Luck, the director of the Center on International Organization at Columbia University. “The more you talk about it, the more other countries think the major security threat to the world is the undisciplined use of American military power.”

Even before the National Security manifesto, Europeans and other smaller powers were increasingly resentful – or fearful – of U.S. might and unilateralism.

From its abrogation of the Kyoto treaty on global warming, three nonproliferation treaties and agreements on child soldiers and light weapons, to its attempt to scuttle the International Criminal Court, the United States is perceived to be telling the world that being a team player ranks low on its list of interests. Although the United States argues that the majority of its multilateral efforts are overshadowed by a handful of symbolic withdrawals, its image has been damaged.

To go around the United Nations to attack Iraq and perhaps topple Hussein would be a shortsighted move with long-term effects, said Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch. It would signal “the triumph of power over law and might over right,” Dicker said. “Even the world’s sole superpower benefits from a world order based on the rule of law.”