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Scoop Feature: The Bigger Picture

The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who arrives in Wellington on 22 February, will be the first important overseas visitor to NZ since the change of government. It is an opportunity for the new administration, early in its term, to crystallise thinking and share opinions about some of the key preoccupations of current international affairs. It will also be an occasion for the government’s advisers to clarify, for their own benefit, the new government’s disposition about several important issues.

Kofi Annan will visit East Timor immediately before Wellington. The challenge of nation building in that sadly used country will endure for an appreciable time and constitute an acid test for the UN in a period in which its reputation for maintenance of peace and security has been scarred in Bosnia and Rwanda; when its role has been marginalised in Kosovo; and when the multilateral system that it embodies is under great test from the impacts of globalisation,as displayed vividly at WTO Seattle.

East Timor is an acid test as well for NZ’s resolve. Indeed, reconstruction there is quite capable of absorbing the resources of the entire NZ aid programme ($215 million per year) for several years. NZ shares, therefore, a vested interest in the UN galvanising the international effort for East Timor. The new government will want to reassure the Secretary General accordingly.

But the assurance will need to run wider than East Timor. In the past half- century NZ values, ideals and interests have been well served from being a founder member of the multilateral system of the UN. Multilateralism lends extra reach to its diplomacy and enables this country to play a part in the formulation, or revision, of rules and codes of international behaviour.

Yet as the new century begins, the system is under great stress from a variety of causes. The forces of globalistion, networks of production and finance especially, have left behind nation states and international institutions. One result is that although democracy is spreading, people appear to feel they have less control over decisions that shape their lives. Kofi Annan will have just participated in a UN trade and development conference in Bangkok where developing countries will have conducted a post mortem on Seattle WTO. His insights will be useful here.
Multilateralism is afflicted, too, by indifference, notably among major powers who are unable to command the system as they once did. Senator Jesse Helms, Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said recently that the US people will not countenance the UN as the central authority of a new international order of global laws or governance. On the vexatious issue of American unpaid UN budgetary dues, the Senate, under Helms’ direction, in effect unilaterally reduced the amount of the outstanding debt; and decreased the mandated ongoing US budget share, as a part of a “take it or leave it” settlement.

In the US there is, as ever, more than one voice on the subject of American foreign policy. However, there is something profoundly undemocratic about Senator Helms’ views and of those who think as he does. But he provides a clear signal of the task Kofi Annan confronts in sustaining UN integrity. The Secretary General has indeed spent time inside the US pleading the relevance of the UN as he has pushed ahead with Secretariat reforms which NZ officials pronounce commendable.

The dominant mood in international politics rejects indifference to human right abuse and inhumane behaviour. Annan has suggested sovereignty is not just a matter of power. It is a matter too of responsibility. Where states act inhumanely against their own people, the UN may well be called upon to intervene without the consent of the delinquent authorities. It may, in other words, take sides in ways that traditionally it has avoided. Kofi Annan has produced two remarkable reports on UN performance in Bosnia and in Rwanda, which pull no punches about the moral dilemmas involved.

But along with UN credibility must go legitimacy. How is the common interest of the community of nations to be expressed? Kofi Annan is critical of the Kosovo intervention where North Atlantic nations assumed that responsibility in the absence of UN authorisation. Given that this action was strongly driven by Mr. Blair’s so-called “new internationalism” supported by European states which, in the great majority, have centre-left governments, it will be interesting to see how the new NZ government frames its views to the Secretary General on this key issue of legitimacy. Traditionally NZ has grounded its position firmly on the need for UN legitimisation of international intervention - East Timor is a topical instance.

The Secretary General has reminded governments that intervention is not solely related to the use of force. Inspection, verification and accountability in terms of international rules on disarmament, environment, trade etc., are other forms of intrusion where claims to the protection of national sovereignty are indeed heard from democracies and autocracies alike. He has, as well, challenged governments to change the way they traditionally calculate and define national interest. In a globalising world where overarching military threat has diminished, the collective interest becomes the national interest whether in containing instability, in pursuing humanitarian goals, economic prosperity or sound environmental stewardship. As the new government reviews its defence policy (hopefully as part of broader security policy), Annan’s challenge about calculating national interest is timely.


Terence O’Brien
Teaching Fellow
International Relations
VUW
10 February 2000.

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