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China goes down with UN defeat
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - The accountancy of foreign policy is always extremely difficult. Choices that might seem wrong in the short run may prove right in the long run, and vice versa.

In his first news conference on Tuesday, China's new Premier Wen Jiabao insisted on a political solution for the crisis in Iraq, and the same afternoon Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan underscored that China was working and hoping for a solution within the framework of the United Nations. In fact China's position since the beginning has been consistent: it wanted to achieve a solution, no matter which one, by going through the Security Council, where it holds the important and prestigious veto power.

But US President George W Bush's war ultimatum to Saddam bypassed a vote at the UN and the UN was de facto defeated. It was a major setback for China, which had been betting heavily on the United Nations. Bush's ultimatum underscored a major turning point in the diplomacy of the United States, which had declared war without UN approval for the second time. The first time it was in Kosovo under president Bill Clinton, and so the trend is definitely bipartisan: the United States is willing to work within the framework of the United Nations only if doing so fits US interests, and it refuses to be constrained by the UN straitjacket.

China still argues that the majority of countries in the world favor working within the United Nations, where they have representation, and even the US has no interest in doing without the UN altogether, as it is a useful arena to exercise its global diplomacy. But the truth is that the interest of a weak majority doesn't count as much as that of a strong minority. Besides, most countries opposing the Iraq war do so not because they want Saddam to be stronger (which would happen without the US attack) but to take a protective stand in view of the anticipated wave of terrorist attacks against Saddam's enemies. There were thus two levels of opposition, those who sided with Saddam (very few) and those who doubted the safety and wisdom of US strategy but were nevertheless sure that the attack would occur.

In this second category there is France, which worked to make it impossible to declare war on Iraq through the United Nations. Paris had much to gain with this tactic. In fact it exercised its veto power without having to cast a ballot, and consolidated its ties with Germany, forming a unique, strong, political European front whose interests were distinctively different from those of the United States.
China didn't get any of this.

The US ultimatum dilutes the importance of the UN in a way similar to what happened in the late 1930s with the League of Nations, when Italy proceeded to occupy Ethiopia despite the scathing criticism of the League. The veto power granted to the winners of World War II was to compensate for the League's lack of restraining power, but veto power only really worked until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Until then the two superpowers had an interest in restraining themselves and finding diplomatic settlements for the many proxy wars fought in those 50 years, avoiding direct confrontation. For this the framework of the UN was necessary. If one of the two superpowers was to act outside of the UN it would immensely increase the risk of direct confrontation without the support of most nations, which remained non-aligned or had to fight in the West, with restive public opinion seeking legal legitimacy for the war.

Such restraints do not apply with Saddam now. No competing power can restrain the United States, the US has no fear of a direct confrontation with any other country, and US domestic opinion is supportive of a war on Saddam. At the same time it was risky for the US to drag things out with the UN, as the public debate on Iraq was denting its public determination to fight and thus weakening Bush's drive for war.

But this proves that the UN now is no longer what it used to be, and it will no longer be, and China's bet on this organization has come up short.

In fact the Group of Seven is proving a more authoritative arena. The G7 assembles the most powerful economies on the planet, it distributes power according to the real economic weight of each participant, and by associating with Russia, an economic lightweight, shows its interest in taking over security concerns as well. But China is not part of the G7 despite being at least the sixth-largest economy in the world. So far it has not wanted to show openly that it is no longer a Third World country; also, in the G7 there is no veto power, and Japan, which has no permanent seat on the UN Security Council, is much stronger than China would be in the G7.

Bush's ultimatum, however, could push China to consider the G7 a more realistic forum to talk with and "restrain" the United States.

The war in Iraq is certainly no military problem. But the peace is a big one. The US no longer has the economic muscle to reconstruct a country from scratch by itself. True, Iraqi oil will partly take care of the bill, but only partly. The financial assistance of the big economies is and will be essential to the US for many years, and thus the G7 could be a more realistic forum. The G7 has the severe drawback of keeping out the majority of countries, but there could be measures to accommodate that.

Anyway Bush personifies a problem that has existed for at least a decade. The structure of the United Nations was designed to give representation to every country, but also acknowledged the role of the strong ones. However, relations of power have changed since the end of World War II, but those changes have not been reflected in the UN. China failed to see these changes, and insisted on the role of the UN, whereas the US-UK and France-Russia alliances were set on a collision course. France didn't want to have a war with UN blessings, and the US wanted a war even without those blessings. China was squeezed in between.

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Mar 21, 2003

China's rise in Asia: US concerns (Mar 13, '03)

UN relevance faces historic test (Mar 11, '03)

Gambles and gambits in the UN (Mar 5, '03)

A series by Francesco Sisci (Oct, '02)


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