A survey of the op-ed pages in major newspapers today finds a somewhat surprisingly low number tied to the traditionally convenient news peg of the UN General Assembly, where debate opened today in New York. The financial crisis seems to have pushed the UN out of the editorial limelight at The New York Times and The Washington Post, while The Wall Street Journal uses the occasion to assess the legacy of one of New York’s more infamous yearly visitors. Many of the UK’s top papers are mostly focused on Gordon Brown’s big speech today or, again, the financial crisis, but the UN chief does find a spot in The Guardian.
Secretary-General Ban’s piece runs the gamut of dangers facing the world: from the global food shortage to climate change to, you guessed it, the financial crisis. He is honest about the need to continually reform the UN to cope with these challenges, but he does not shy from lauding the UN’s successes.
While praise for the UN could be expected coming from the head of the organization, support from a leader who does not use the word “we” as much as one might like comes as a bit more of a surprise. Yet, even if his reliance on the UN is “stealthy,” as Stephen Schlesinger writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed (I knew there had to be at least one about the UN today), George W. Bush has undeniably come to the organization time and time again, in some of the most crucial moments of his Presidency. Most prominently, Bush turned to the UN in dealing with two of the defining issues of his eight years in office — the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Schlesinger runs down some of the less publicized elements of Bush-UN history: the good, the bad, and the familial:
During his tenure, Bush carefully sidestepped efforts by members of his own party to oust Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He blocked congressional bills cutting further funding to the U.N. He allowed the United States to rejoin UNESCO. His daughter even interned at UNICEF, and his wife today serves as an honorary ambassador for the U.N. Literacy Decade through UNESCO.
Not all has been roses. The White House has withheld funds related to family planning programs at the U.N. Population Fund, opposed a U.N. treaty limiting small-arms trafficking, diluted measures to control global warming, tried to fire the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and derailed other U.N. initiatives.
Nonetheless, Bush has worked directly with the U.N. He has not done so because he has changed his mind about the institution, but because he realized along the way that it is necessary if he wants to gain global legitimacy for his policies. He has acted out of his own political survival needs, seldom admitting to any involvement with the organization.
Naturally, the UN benefits more from a vocally supportive leader than from one who is more reticently so. The world body is not simply a tool for conferring legitimacy when convenient. Yet Schlesinger’s analysis uncovers an important incentive for working with the UN — one that does a great deal in explaining why exactly representatives from 192 diverse countries around the world have deemed it in their interests to show up to New York this week. If a leader’s very “political survival” — the transcendent motivating factor behind most political decisions in any country, an only slightly cynical realist might quip — depends in part on supporting the UN, then I think we might find a great many more politicians dropping by New York more often than once a year.