by Jeremy Greenstock
Editor’s note: The author served as UK Ambassador to the UN 1998-2003.
The UN, with its network of institutions and agencies, is the only truly global organisation. It is a great experiment, not in global governance, because the political direction of the UN lies firmly in the hands of sovereign nations, but in providing both norms and tools for managing the international arena 1. Its system is flawed and may well be unimprovable. But what it tries to do, and does, is indispensable for the avoidance of catastrophic war and for the development of a sustainable world.
The UN as an institution is also, not unlike the American Constitution, an adversary of raw power. Born in an era of war and empire, its charter and principles provide shelter and help for weaker nations, and set limitations on the capacity of the strongest countries to throw their weight around selfishly—the generator of empires and wars. It came into being at the instigation of the great powers, and so they know —or they used to know—what they were creating and why. The United States was at the centre of it, seeing it as a great step towards the ending of the era of imperialism.
The UN is not just about what happens in the Security Council. The work of the Secretariat, the funds, agencies and programmes, and indeed of several of the intergovernmental institutions such as ECOSOC, is primarily dedicated to every aspect of international development. They act on the premise that if a large part of the world is racked by poverty and disease, the more fortunate part will not have a stable environment in which to enjoy their relative success. The history of regional conflict over the last 75 years bears this out. As the UK’s Permanent Representative between 1998 and 2003, with a permanent place on the Security Council, I made a point of setting my inevitable focus on the Council’s work in the context of this wider UN purpose. The maintenance of international peace and security is an essential component of sustainable development, not just an end in itself.
Evaluating the US Presence at the UN
In observing and cooperating with the US presence in New York, I quickly came to the conclusion that it was too often overtly national in its approach, not least in setting its work in the Security Council as its top priority. This is not a surprising characteristic of a superpower, which has to be concerned both with exercising its own power and with constraining that of others. Yet I could not help thinking that a truly powerful entity does better to avoid displaying the full extent of its potential, because that invites resistance and competition.
The United Kingdom took a different approach. It had to, since it did not possess any comparable reserves of power. I saw the UK as needing to earn its position as a Permanent Member with every action it took at the UN, given both the general unpopularity of permanent membership and the fact that, if based on end-20th century qualifications, the UK would find it hard to feature in such a special list. The British presence in New York needed to be seen as contributing consistently and materially to the solving of shared problems, not as a vehicle merely for the advancement of UK interests. This involved compromising quite often on London’s first preferences on any issue. But because the UN is above all a forum for exploring and indeed achieving reciprocity and mutuality, I calculated that we scored higher on overall results by following this path.
It is an extraordinary privilege to serve at an organisation where every country in the world is represented. The mix of contrasting national styles heightens the value of conventional diplomacy, because it is so hard to judge when you might be offending the culture or the person of a colleague if you stick to a subjective mindset. The courtesy and respect that are the hallmark of interactions at the UN, even between representatives of clashing interests, serve a solid purpose in camouflaging power, keeping communication channels open and in ensuring that your voice is listened to. One of the most impressive examples of this came in Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s decision, as a new arrival in the fall of 1999, to call on every Permanent Representative colleague in his first six months. This laid the basis for, amongst other things, his drive to reconstitute the structure of financial contributions to the UN budget in 2000, during which he had to lean on every other mission in New York to play their part in compromises. It was a fine example of genius being 95% composed of sweat, and of the power of courtesy to forge collective approaches.
Nevertheless, the default setting of the majority of UN member states’ attitudes to the US is resentment and suspicion. They highly appreciate the secure and comfortable arrangements for the UN’s headquarters made by the host state; given the animosities and rivalries swirling around the geopolitical scene, it is perhaps surprising that no serious proposal has ever been made for the UN’s removal to another site. But that has deepened their sensitivity to the increased opportunity this might give the Americans to shape issues at the UN in their own national interest.
Of course every member state is seeking to promote its own aims. Of course every capital sending instructions to their New York representative is prioritising its domestic requirements. But in the diplomacy of multilateral organisations, and above all at the UN in New York, there is an unexpressed, instinctive, almost tribal understanding that the job of a permanent representative is to operate with colleagues to find compromises that work for the largest number. An important proportion of my time was spent in persuading London that their Plan A target was unachievable, and that the Plan B alternative, stained as it might be with concessions to other positions, was not only the best available outcome but also a significant part of the flow of events towards a world that worked peacefully. On the whole, British foreign secretaries accepted this, because it was normally possible to convince public opinion at home that the loss of Plan A to a UN compromise was in the country’s long-term interest.
American public opinion has a checkered relationship with compromises. That New York hosts the UN’s headquarters, that the US is the world’s number one superpower, that the negotiating language is usually English, that other prominent countries play nationalistic games, that the UN is there to protect weaker states that should have worked harder to improve their own condition, all add up to arguments against concession. The gap between the American preferred outcome on any issue and the compromise available from other stakeholders is often quite significant, especially if the US Plan A has been broadcast as the expectation. Much of the American electorate has come to the conclusion that the US has, over the decades, given away more material interests than it has gained from multilateral interaction. If in fact the true calculation is that the post-war system has, in net terms, served overall US interests, it takes strong leadership to explain the arguments.
UN Politics Dominated by Iraq Issues
The issue which dominated UN politics throughout my five years in New York (1998-2003) was Iraq. Here are some of the cardinal moments in that saga to illustrate the points I am making in this article.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq would not have taken place without the trauma of 9-11. People at the UN felt a deep and first-hand sense of shock at the attacks, partly because the twin towers were so close, but also because of their belief that the UN building itself had been on the list of targets. The strength of the sympathy for the US as a victim lay at the heart of the immediate acceptance of unanimous resolutions in the Security Council and in the General Assembly condemning the perpetrators and authorising the use of force as a response. That later extended into virtually no resistance to the adoption of UNSCR 1373 on September 26, 2001, which mandated an unprecedented range of compulsory measures to be taken by every member state against terrorism, its financing and its sources of support. Everyone, however jaundiced their view of the United States, recognised that Al Qaeda had gone too far. For the next few months Turtle Bay was full of discussions about the possibility of a new chapter being written in the story of multilateralism, if the Americans used the opportunity to build on this momentum. It translated into minimum opposition to US action in Afghanistan in late 2001 and commendable efforts to implement the clauses of Resolution 1373—a process I was asked to lead as Chairman of the Counter-Terrorism Committee established by 1373.
As the months of 2002 rolled by, that optimism faded. It foundered above all on the decision by the US government to pursue Saddam Hussein as a contributor to the circumstances which led to the 9-11 attacks. American actions over the next 15 months were viewed by most member states not just as unilateral, but as breaking open the set of principles which formed the basis of legality for the use of force by one state against another. President George W. Bush did indeed return to the UN in September 2002, largely at the instigation of the UK, to renew the vigour of collective pressure on Baghdad. But Washington’s heart was never in the effort, because of the strength of the American doubt that the UN could be effective in controlling the threat they believed Saddam represented. The UN community’s sense of justice that had informed their reaction to 9-11 was never appealed to over the approach to Iraq in 2002-03. Even when the UN system picked itself off the floor in the second half of 2003 and tried to contribute to the management of Iraq in the Coalition Authority period, Kofi Annan’s lieutenants Sergio Vieira de Mello and Lakhdar Brahimi were never accepted as partners in the hard business of stabilising Iraq. In the court of international opinion, the US never won the argument about its reasons for being in Iraq; and this had a direct effect on the outcomes.
The UK Relationship with the US at the UN
The UK has to make some fine judgments about its relationship with the US at the UN. On most issues the two countries share the same approach and objectives. We are aware in great detail of each other’s positions and coordinate closely on tactics. Often the UK will take the overt lead in the Security Council on a subject of high interest to the US. This avoids the difficulty of a US initiative hitting automatic resistance from those member states prepared to go out of their way to obstruct anything American.
Where US and UK viewpoints differ, the arguments are usually pursued privately and a way found to avoid a public falling-out. Sometimes, however, the UK makes a point of open opposition, either because the difference in approach is too important to finesse, or just occasionally because the UK’s credibility in the system can only be maintained by a display of evidence that it is not the US’s poodle. In my time in New York, for instance, this occurred over the saga of the International Criminal Court, on which London thought the American reluctance to sign up to the statute unnecessarily sensitive and internationally damaging; and sometimes on the American defence of Israel on the question of Palestine, whenever the UK felt that justice for the Palestinians under UN norms and resolutions was being sacrificed. On Iraq, the nuances of difference between the two partners, which could have escalated into a real split if they had followed the instincts of popular feeling in each country, were rigorously constrained by Tony Blair’s determination to stick with the US as a vital ally post 9-11 2.
The Value of the UN to a Great Power
The United Nations is rarely the place where the hardest issues of international rivalry get settled. Decision-making in capitals is the real arbiter. The positions taken at the UN by the United States, the language and body-language of its representatives, make it abundantly clear that this is Washington’s view. The political and cultural tension is seldom far from the surface. But deciding on a policy is one thing, getting it implemented in the international environment is another. As geopolitics move further away from the era of Western supremacy and into a structure of politically and morally equal sovereign powers (a basic aim of the whole UN construct), and as the use of brute force becomes increasingly problematic and unproductive (cf Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen), the most valuable instrument for getting national objectives met is the capacity to persuade 3. The United States has, by most estimations, lost ground in this area during the first two decades of the new millennium.
The UN remains the leading forum where that loss of persuasive power in the international arena could be regained. The paradox is that virtually every member state wants to have a good bilateral relationship with the US, while at the same time fitting easily into the crowd of critics of Washington. That is not a position which Moscow or Beijing find themselves in, because they have less to offer to the rest of the world by way of economic momentum, convertible currency, development assistance, technological innovation, and trade stimulation. If China is gaining relative ground in these areas, it is still not an easy and open participant at the UN, as the US is, in every debate of note, in every corridor discussion, in the constant cycle of initiatives, negotiations, nods, and winks. And New York is an environment where quiet diplomacy with pariah states (eg Iran, North Korea) can more easily be pursued than in other geographies.
To begin rebuilding a reputation as a collective contributor to the solution of shared problems should be seen as a material ingredient of American global influence. It starts with the disguising, not the displaying, of power. It moves on through constant courtesy and the willingness to listen. It gets lubricated by reciprocity and the search for mutuality. And the criterion for successful outcomes is winning the argument through persuasion, not through superpower exceptionalism. Virtually every UN member state wants to have the US on its side; while that is of course often unachievable, a mounting score of mutual interests satisfied will accumulate into an atmosphere of acceptance of American successes. As of January 2021, it seems a long time since that was the case.
Jeremy Greenstock’s principal career was in the UK Diplomatic Service (1969-2004), specializing in the Middle East, Transatlantic Relations and UN/Global Affairs. He had postings to the UAE, Washington, Saudi Arabia, Paris and New York, and held senior positions as FCO Political Director (1996-98), UK Ambassador to the UN (1998-2003) and UK Envoy for Iraq (2003-04). His later career included Director of the Ditchley Foundation (2004-10), Special Adviser to BP plc (2004-10), Chairman of Gatehouse Advisory Partners (2010-) and Chairman of Lambert Energy Advisory (2011-). He was Chairman of the UN Association-UK from 2011 to 2016 and has been a Special Adviser to the NGO Forward Thinking since 2006.
- See Strobe Talbott’s book ‘The Great Experiment’ (2003), which compares the attempts through history to establish collective institutions and which rates the UN as the most successful effort yet.
- The detailed story of diplomacy on Iraq in this period is covered in Jeremy Greenstock’s book ‘Iraq: the Cost of War’ (2016).
- Chapter 13 of Barack Obama’s ‘The Promised Land’ (2020) makes the point well.