History in the United Nations

February 20, 2003

February 14, 2003, was one of those historic days. Ghengis Khan never had to go through this. Hitler never had to go through this. Here was an all-powerful American administration which by most reports has intended to go to war for months, being forced to argue its case, in advance, before an international assembly. The mere fact of a council of nations meeting in one open session, deliberately and passionately debating whether the evidence is sufficient for general war was itself a breathtaking first.

In the gathering gloom of this impending storm, therefore, those who fear that all is lost might reserve this small measure of secret encouragement: Even in the rocky soil of conflict the roots of an institutionalized process were inadvertently and quietly gaining foothold. In the progression from the first minimally effective arbitration tribunals of the early 20th century through League of Nations to last week's full-scale, open and comprehensive debate, there has been a climate change.

Never in the annals of warfare has an assembly of the world's most powerful ministers ever gathered to engage in such a contest of facts and analysis. There was China participating as if debate were legitimate. China has heretofore not had a distinguished record as a debater. There was Pakistan, also with a short history in the practice, debating the most powerful nation on earth. Caesar never had to go through this. Napoleon never had go through this. Kaiser Wilhelm never had to go through this. Donald Rumsfeld, who perhaps more than any other in this administration is the architect of this attack, had to go through this, and his team had a bad day.

Forty years ago a Frenchman for whom I worked at the UN would not even shake a German's hand. Any German's hand. On February 14, 2003, Germany and France were actually aligning with each other and with Russia and China, reversing historic divisions that stretch back at least 150 years. Even as George Bush and Colin Powell scorned "process," that very process was changing the political geography on the planet. Many around the globe were carefully listening. The next day an informed public from London to Madrid to Rome to Moscow to Tokyo flowed out into the streets in the millions to express their opinion on the evidence and conclusions offered by the war parties. For every million in the streets it is likely that there were quieter, less bold but no less convinced millions at home. The world did not stand, on that day, with George Bush.

Some who do support Bush's war scorned the Germans and the French because they have oil or chemical interests in Iraq. The Russians, too, are interested in oil contracts; Iraqis are interested in their own oil profits. Such interests, it is suggested, disqualify these countries whose opposition should not be taken seriously. This is profoundly myopic. Is the oil family of George H.W. Bush uninterested? Is the secret Energy Policy Advisory Board chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney, not interested, even a little bit, in Iraqi oil? By what standard does the interest of the French corporations become venal and that of Bush, Enron and Haliburton become exalted?

Senator Kay Bailey Hutichison, (R-Texas), complained three days after the great debate that the Germans were bowing to demeaning political interests by opposing the war for the sake of winning domestic elections. That from a senator who's party was led into control of the Senate by Bush's carefully-timed October war campaign. Are the Germans to be condemned because they use elections to prevent war while the president of the United States is to be lauded because he uses elections to promote war?

It may be, and this is the hopeful part, that the UN is slowly being forged out of the crushing forces of international conflict much the way democratic institutions were forged out of the violence of warring lords in medieval Europe. The lords of ancient Britain were drawn, following battle after battle, finally into a parliamentary process, practically against their will. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were forced to parliament to beg for monies to support their wars and in the end the wars between France and England went away but the parliaments remained.

This week, the United Nations has played the role of crucible for a new, history-shaping debate involving new warlords. The process may have started civilizing them, including even one from Texas. There is little hope, perhaps, that the vigilante mind will learn restraint in time and a high probability that enormous suffering for innocents is to come at his hand. But amidst all that gloom, if we survive, the first-time use of a world council for honest debate will have become an undeniable part of our cultural history, a memory which cannot be erased, a step never before taken, a foundation for leaders of our future.