'The United Nations is just an instrument at the service of American policy'
While many commentators say that the UN is in danger of becoming irrelevant, a former secretary general, Boutros Boutros Ghali, believes the institution still has a chance of overcoming the current crisis. Interview by Francesca de Châtel
The Guardian, UK - Monday March 17, 2003
What do you think of the current US foreign policy?
The United States foreign policy has completely changed in the last 10 years. Since the arrival of Bush Sr there has been a fundamental shift in US foreign policy. The international community was not aware of the importance of this change; now, the young Bush and the people surrounding him represent a group of rightwing extremists. They are fundamentalists: Christian fundamentalists.
Their policies are ideologically inspired: the United States believes it has a special message to the world. First they invented economic globalisation and now they want to globalise their philosophy in the same way. Like communism or socialism, you could call it "Americanism"; it is an ideology based on the liberation of the economy and the imposition of a democratic system. By spreading this around the world they hope to bring peace and security.
Since the attacks of September 11 Bush sees the world as divided between good and evil. They are going back to Reagan's rhetoric: he talked about the threat of communism, now Bush has replaced communism with terrorism. September 11 was not a military aggression - it is impossible to destroy the American military power - it was an ideological aggression.
Thus the Bush administration needed to come with an ideological response. But the change in foreign policy was not determined by 11 September alone: since the arrival of Bush there was an intention to do something about Iraq and address terrorism. September 11 only gave added strength to this resolve.
Multilateralism and unilateralism are just methods for the United States: they use them a la carte, as it suits them. The United Nations is just an instrument at the service of American policy. They will use it 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. Of course with a military budget that is equivalent to that of all the permanent members of the security council together, they can afford to.
Is it not about power and a desire to dominate the oil resources of the Middle East?
No. It may sound surprising, but I believe they already dominate the Middle East and its oil. If it was about gaining control over Iraqi oil, they could obtain it through much cheaper means, without spending many millions of dollars on a war in Iraq.
Is this new? Hasn't the United States always done as it pleased? Yes, to a certain extent it has, but before they still needed to seek the endorsement of the other superpower: the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War brought an end to the bipolar system and now the United States can act alone without the agreement of another superpower. It is in complete contradiction with the philosophy of the United Nations, which is based on multilateralism, and taking decisions by consensus. The current US philosophy is: "We don't need consensus; I decide."
Will the United Nations still have any value as an institution if the United States and Britain decide to bypass it and attack Iraq without a resolution?
They went into Kosovo without a UN security council resolution and no one said anything... Look at it from the other side: could the security council condemn this illegal intervention? No, because the United States will use its veto right or pressurise other member states to vote against a condemnation, so that there is no majority vote.
America says this is a moment of truth for the United Nations.
What they say is not important, what is important is that they will act on the basis of resolution 1441. Other members will demand a second resolution, but they will say that they have tried to get a majority vote for a second resolution and failed, and so they will act on resolution 1441. Second scenario - which is worse- is that a second resolution is refused by veto: France Russia and China veto the second resolution and the United States will attack unilaterally based on resolution 1441. That would be a slap in the face of the other members of the security council.
What value will the United Nations still have after that?
If you are an optimist you will say this is not the first crisis within the United Nations in the last 55 years. The United Nations has in its history been able to overcome many more difficult crises: the blockade of Berlin, the aggression against Egypt in 1956, the war in Korea, the war in Vietnam... it survived all of these and continued to work. So this will be remembered as an accident, a sad accident, but six months later, everything will be back to normal. If you are a pessimist, you will say this is the beginning of the end of the United Nations, just like the League of Nations that disintegrated before the second world war.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
It is hard to say what will happen. If it is a short war, with a clear victory, it will be easier for everybody to forget and say with hindsight that the US was right after all. On the other hand, if it is a long war with a lot of collateral damage, everyone will say it was to be foreseen and that it was a terrible mistake. The Americans will have to leave Iraq; the country will be devastated; and the United Nations will be asked to intervene but they will not have the capacity or the money - it will be the same mess as in Yugoslavia.
And what do you think will happen?
I am not a specialist in military intervention. I don't know how the Iraqi army will react; will Saddam Hussein be betrayed by his own people? Or will he be able to count on solidarity from the population?
Do you believe a war is justified if UN inspectors find weapons of mass destruction?
... There are weapons of mass destruction in Israel, so why don't they start by disarming Israel? They have the atomic bomb, they never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so why not start there? It is deux poids et deux mesures [two weights and two measures]. This is inherent in the nature of the United Nations as a political institution: certain resolutions are adopted to be implemented and certain resolutions are passed and everybody knows they will never be implemented.
What do think of the idea of a pre-emptive strike in the context of international law?
It is illegal. Undoubtedly. It is in contradiction to the whole spirit of the United Nations. And this is where the pessimists say: "This is the beginning of the end of the United Nations."
We have to be clear on this: if military action is authorised by the security council then even preventive intervention is legitimate. The security council has the monopoly over the use of military force, they can use the military force at their discretion and no one can judge them on this. However, a preventive war that is the product of a unilateral decision by a member state is illegal. Bypassing the security council is illegal. It has only happened once before, when the Israelis bombed an Iraqi atomic power station. This was a preventive, unilateral attack.
How much credibility will the United Nations still have if the United States decide to "go it alone"?
I am for defending the United Nations because it is the only existing institution that can contribute to the democratisation of international institutions: poor countries, weak countries, small countries - they all need the United Nations because they have nothing else. Big countries have diplomacy and their own business network; they can handle their foreign policy without the United Nations.
So even if the United Nations failed on the question of Iraq, the institution would still have value?
We don't know how member states will respond in future, whether the fact that an illegal preventative action has been carried out will encourage other countries to do the same thing. If this is considered an exception, then the United Nations will perhaps be able to continue to do its work.
What do you think will be the response in the Arab world?
Again, if it is a quick war, and - even though I don't like this term - a "clean" war, then there will be no great reaction. There will still be huge hostility in the Arab world; big demonstrations, but in two or three weeks it will die down. But if through CNN, through BBC, we see blood, we see great damages, houses demolished, people killed, then there will be problems.
I don't know what will happen in the case of Iraq, but we do have a precedent which could help us to predict the degree of reaction, or the lack of it. In the last 12 months we have seen the horrible things done by Israelis in the occupied territories: demolishing houses, killing children - without any reaction. There is some protest, some demonstrations, but that's all. The Arab world is weak, it is powerless, and the United States supports Israel.
Do you believe this is a clash of civilisations?
I don't believe in this. There may be an increase in terrorist actions - individual or by groups like al Qaida - but it is not a clash of civilisations. It will never be a mass movement.
How strong is the pan-Arab movement?
Pan-Arabism is passing through a crisis: the Arabs are weak and divided... Before, in the bipolar system, they were able to play A against B and B against A. One of the reasons for the current weakness is that they have no backbone, no support: there is only one superpower and they can turn to no one for back-up. In the war between Egypt and Israel, where did the arms come from? From Russia. Today they can turn to no one but the United States; Europe is too weak to play a role. And America has the capacity to accentuate this division by according assistance to one and neglecting the other. The question of Israel only heightens the Arab weakness: the United States are so pro-Israel that the Arab world cannot have good relations with America.
How will the conflict in Israel be resolved?
By 2010, 2015 there will be more Arabs than Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza. Already now, 20% of Israelis are Arabs; with time, this will be 30%, 40%, plus the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza. They will form a majority. It will be like the situation in South Africa in the 1980s, where a white minority ruled a black majority: in Israel, in 20 years a Jewish minority will be ruling an Arab majority.
What will this mean for Israel?
The situation will change: on the long-term you cannot dominate with a minority. You can do it for two, three, maybe 10 years, but it cannot be maintained long-term. The Israelis will be weakened and they will have to concede power and change their attitude.
Why has the United Nations been incapable of stopping the spread of the AIDS epidemic in Africa?
The international community is indifferent. The world is divided in haves and have-nots; rich and poor. Thus there are also "rich wars", and "poor wars". By "rich" I do not mean "rich in money"; "rich" in the sense that you have the attention of the world community. Everybody wants to help you, you have mediators, you have money, you have Blue Helmets. The wars that occur in the north receive this kind of attention.
But the wars in Africa are the wars of the poor. No one cares about these wars. Look at the war that has been raging in the Sudan for the last 20 years: no one cares. The war in Somalia also continues, but when the Americans and Europeans left there in 1993-94, it was forgotten. And yet they are still killing each other in Somalia, and Mogadishu is split in three, but no one cares. These are "orphan wars", and AIDS is part of this.
How effective is the United Nations as an institution if it cannot mediate this situation?
The United Nations is the association of member states. If member states are not interested, nothing happens. In my time as secretary-general of the UN, I once asked for $5m for Liberia. I didn't obtain the money, at the same time [the UN] were spending $5m a day in Yugoslavia.
· Boutros Boutros Ghali (81), was the first Arab secretary-general of the United Nations from 1992 to 1996. Before his period at the UN, Mr Boutros Ghali was minister of foreign affairs in Egypt from 1977 to 1991. Today he lives in Paris, where he holds an honorary title on the board of the Association Mondiale de la Francophonie.