The role of the United Nations in US foreign policy

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism that came with the breakdown of the Soviet Union, American foreign policy has undergone a fundamental change. The Cold War was over, the conflict between East and West was history; a new era began. Ever since the end of the 1940s, the international system had been a bipolar one. From 1991 onwards, however, the world was no longer bipolar, with the US emerging as world's last remaining superpower. At that time, George Bush Sen. was President of the United States; yet in November 1992, Bill Clinton was elected president. During Mr. Clinton's two terms in the White House, US foreign policy - and the role of the United Nations in it – already changed.

In January 2001, the new US president George W. Bush took office. Back then, the new administration was already planning to increase spending on the military significantly and to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy than its predecessor had done. However, it was clear that the American people would not approve of what was, in effect, a return to the Reagan era. Because Americans felt safe and the world was relatively calm, public support for President Bush's policies was lacking: just months into his presidency, his approval rating had dropped to a mere 50 per cent.

On September 11, the World Trade Centre was reduced to a pile of rubble by what is universally acknowledged to have been a terrorist attack. Weeks later, without prior Security Council authorisation, the President ordered US forces to attack Afghanistan. As a result, his approval rating rebounded strongly - jumping to around 90 per cent. Amid a new patriotic climate in the US in the wake of the fateful day, public support was forthcoming for many of the measures deemed necessary by the Bush administration in defence of the American homeland. Since then, Mr. Bush has had a free hand in what he did.

Weapons inspections in Iraq

In the autumn of 2002, the United States went to the UN to draw up a new resolution designed to force Saddam Hussein to allow UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq to scour the country for weapons of mass destruction and, ultimately, to trigger war. On November 7, UN security council resolution 1441 was adopted unanimously.

After months of weapons inspections which failed to uncover any WMD, after an unprecedented transatlantic rift over whether to go to war against Iraq, which culminated in France and Russia announcing to veto a US/UK-sponsored resolution authorising military action, the United States and Britain finally bypassed the UN and went to war regardless in March 2003.

In the wake of the attacks, the US has waged war against two countries without the UN's seal of approval, threatening to sideline the world body in one case. However, the US has returned to the UN to ask for help in post-Saddam Iraq. What role, if any, does the UN have in the current US foreign policy? Who is shaping American foreign policy?

The so-called “neo-conservatives” and their agenda

The Project for the new American century is a right-wing think tank. Its statement of principles' signatories include some household names: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Jeb Bush (1), to name but four of them. The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research is another think tank; what's more, it is the headquarters of neoconservatism. Among its staff are Richard Perle and Irving Kristol. According to Mark Mardell (2), “They believe that 'American leadership is good for America and good for the world'. American defence spending is too low, and that as the only super power, America must remain militarily unchallenged. Some neo-cons have updated the doctrine to suggest that the US has the right to pre-emptively deal with any state that has the temerity to come close. They insist America's mission is to bring democracy to the world.”

The think tank Project for the new American century advocates increasing Pentagon spending significantly and modernising US armed forces for the future. The statement of principles puts it bluntly: “We aim to make the case and rally support for American global leadership.” The last paragraph is similarly explicit: it calls for a “Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.”

The American Enterprise Institute endorses a “strong foreign policy and national defense (3).” To put it in a nutshell, the neo-cons want a return to the Reagan era. According to the PNAC, President Reagan's policies were successful.

In September 2000, this think tank published a document entitled “Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a new century (4).” On 76 pages, the United Nations is mentioned just once: The text claims that constabulary missions “demand American political leadership rather than that of the United Nations…” The world body's acronym is mentioned a total of three times. Chapter 5 of the document, headlined “Creating tomorrow's dominant force”, reads like a blueprint for US hegemony in all but name.

By counting how many times the UN is mentioned in neo-conservative pamphlets, one can conclude to what degree the organisation is important in their opinion.

How important is the UN in the US National Security Strategy?

When it comes to mentioning the world body, the US National Security Strategy does no better than the neo-conservative pamphlet. This is of greater importance still, because the strategy document actually is Bush administration policy. The National Security Strategy (5) names the United Nations twice, even though the document runs to more than 20 pages; it refers to the “UN” a few more times and once even mentions UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

The document's preface asserts how important alliances and multilateral institutions are, saying that “the US is committed to lasting institutions like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization …” The world organisation is at least mentioned, but only along with other organisations. It is not made clear in any way whether the UN is seen as any more important than the organisations mentioned alongside. Not until several pages into the document is the UN mentioned again. All this is open to interpretation as to what role the United Nations do play in the thinking of the US government.

In part three of the NSS, which deals with anti-terrorism alliances and with averting attacks against the US and its friends, it stresses that Washington will go on working “with international organizations such as the United Nations, as well as non-governmental organizations …to provide the humanitarian, political, economic, and security assistance necessary to rebuild Afghanistan.”

Again, the UN is mentioned only once and alongside NGOs. Reading the paragraph cited above, I am reminded of the slogan “We break it, you pay for it!”- expressing that the US will bomb a country, with the UN picking up the bill for reconstruction. In other words, the UN is supposed to play the paymaster's role, or the role of a “useful idiot” after the US has bombed to smithereens any disobedient country. In the passage in question, the world body is not even asked to help overseeing any peacekeeping efforts, let alone approve a new government for such a country.

The abbreviation UN is mentioned several times - for example, when the document praises Kofi Annan for establishing a new global fund for HIV/Aids - but that is hardly worth mentioning. Regarding the UN's role in the NSS, Sven Gareis and Johannes Varwick put it quite frankly in their book about the United Nations: “Zu dieser präemptiven Verteidigung sind die USA gegebenenfalls auch im Alleingang bereit - vor allem ohne zuvor die Vereinten Nationen einzuschalten, deren Funktionen und Zuständigkeiten in der gesamten Sicherheitsstrategie mit keinem Wort erwähnt werden (6).“

The language is very candid elsewhere in part three of the national security document: “While we recognize that our best defense is a good offense, we are also strengthening America's homeland security to protect against and deter attack.”This sentence speaks volumes about the US government's intentions. It is all but certain that the US strives for global hegemony, yet anti-Americans could not have hoped for a passage more frank. In that sentence, neo-conservative influence becomes palpable once again. Here, the NSS appears to have copied what the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, wrote in an essay for the journal Foreign Affairs in spring 2002: “Defending against terrorism and other emerging threats requires that we take the war to the enemy. The best - and, in some cases, the only - defense is a good offense (7).”

The UN - an obstacle to the national security of the US?

In a recent article for the Los Angeles Times (8), former Pentagon adviser and neo-conservative mandarin Richard Perle and AEI resident fellow David Frum say that the world body faces a stark choice: reform, or we shun the UN! This newspaper article makes it plain as a pikestaff what role the UN should play according to neo-conservative thinking. Among other absurd accusations against the organisation, the authors criticise it for being an obstacle to the US winning its war on terrorism. In the second paragraph, they write: “The UN has become an obstacle to our national security because it purports to set legal limits on the United States' ability to defend itself.” As the Bush doctrine has little to do with defence, this accusation is absurd. It is impossible to wage war on an abstract noun such as terrorism; terrorists are an invisible enemy that can hardly be defined; they are organised in a fine network of groups which operate independently of each other. As a result of these cells being arranged entirely unlike an army, they cannot be defeated by military means. It is inconceivable that no one in the Bush administration is aware of this fact. So the “war on terrorism” is just a smokescreen, an excuse for the US administration to invade different countries in the name of pursuing America's geopolitical interests; to station US troops around the globe; to achieve their goal of global US hegemony.


If the US government acted exclusively according to the neo-cons' wishes, the all-important world organisation would not matter tuppence - or two cents. In that case, the UN would be reduced to a US tool to help pick up the pieces after the party is over - namely, after a US military intervention. The neo-cons do not even want the UN to send peacekeepers into Iraq; they want to send in even more US troops: “They [the Pentagon] should be making sure they [US troops] have a big role in there [in Iraq], too (9),” AEI staff member Danielle Pletka has said. “For once, I find myself agreeing with the right-wing ideologues! They helped to frogmarch the world into war against Iraq; they got US troops into this mess, so I suggest they now find a way of stabilising the country.”

Now that Iraq has turned out to be such a quagmire for US troops, the US has returned to the UN to ask for help. The world body is in a strong position now: It should refuse to help fund Iraq's reconstruction or to help in any other way, it should not give way - unless the organisation is granted a vital role in Iraq.

Generally, in the words of former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros Ghali, “they [the US government] will use it [the UN] when they need to, through a multilateral approach and if they don't need it, they will act outside the framework of the United Nations.” (10) The statement effectively sums up the UN's role in the current US foreign policy. The Bush administration has, in disregard of the world organisation, not sought UN approval before attacking Afghanistan - though if it had, no UN member would have dared voting against or vetoing military action. Because of this, David Frum's and Richard Perle's criticism of the UN in this regard is utterly misconceived.

Last spring, George Bush and Tony Blair, treated the UN with contempt and bypassed the UN Security Council. The organisation seemed to be in a crisis of its own making, but the US needs it now. If it were not for this, the UN would be “an instrument at the service of American policy”. The trouble is: the UN currently comes close to being such an instrument.

UN reform is vital, but not in the way Frum and Perle envision it. For the UN to survive, the US superpower needs to be re-integrated into the organisation. However, in some cases, it must be strong enough to stand up to the US. The Security Council needs to be reformed as well: the Permanent Five cannot be allowed to block important decisions time and again by casting their veto.

In a few years' time, the world body will have a greater role again greater than now at least. The United States will still strive to achieve full spectrum dominance - even if Mr. Bush is not re-elected come November. However, a Democratic president will respect the UN more than Bush does. This is because the next president will have witnessed how the Bush administration's arrogance and unilateralism has damaged America's international standing. He will be aware that people around the world - not least in Arab countries - accept the UN more than the US.

by Florian Barisch


  2. BBC News online, April 2, cited in: The rise of the Washington 'neo-cons', The Guardian, 14.04.03
  6. Gareis, Sven/Varwick, Johannes: Die Vereinten Nationen. Aufgaben, Instrumente und Reformen, Bonn 2003, S. 173.
  7. Rumsfeld, Donald H.: Transforming the Military, in: Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002, S. 20-32.
  9. Burkeman, Oliver: Vision of the neocons stays fixed on making hard choices, in: The Guardian, 23.09.2003.
  10. Châtel, Francesca de: 'The United Nations is just an instrument at the service of American policy', in: The Guardian, 17.03.2003.


Czempiel, Ernst-Otto (2002): Weltpolitik im Umbruch. Die Pax Americana, der Terrorismus und die Zukunft der internationalen Beziehungen, München.

Gareis, Sven/Varwick, Johannes (2003): Die Vereinten Nationen. Aufgaben, Instrumente und Reformen, 3. aktualisierte und erweiterte Auflage, Bonn.
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Zuletzt aktualisiert: 2004-07-14 0:21