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How the USA lost its unquestioned place as defender of world peace

By Paul McGeough - posted Tuesday, 4 February 2003

George Bush is right when he warns that the United Nations risks irrelevance. Its failure in the past decade to hold Iraq to account on the surrender undertakings it gave at the end of the Gulf War is surpassed only by its decision last week to put Muammar Gaddafi's Libya in charge of its global human rights watchdog.

And as Washington masses men and machines for another war against Iraq, it and much of the rest of the world are locked in a struggle that well might mark the end of the UN's usefulness as a global forum.

The eccentricity of giving control of the UN Commission on Human Rights to the Libyan terrorist at a time when terrorism is the clear and present danger is a signpost to the global wastelands in which the UN might finish up. However, the fact that it managed to slip the US into the straitjacket of weapons inspections in Iraq is proof that it remains a wily player.


How the US responds to the UN's Iraq agenda may seal the fate of the organisation set up in 1945 with a charter for global peace, security and co-operation after the horror of World War II. Now it holds court in a 39-storey tower overlooking the East River from Manhattan.

The diplomatic cut and thrust of the General Assembly and the Security Council conveys a notion of equality between nations - it was the "fair" rotation of jobs that landed Libya in the human rights job.

But reality is a different story.

"Superpower" doesn't start to describe the unprecedented combination of military and economic power that is America. Washington, in the evolving jargon of academia, is the "hyperpower" that strides the world with an assertiveness not seen since the early days of the Cold War.

George Bush is the global cop, offering protection everywhere from Jerusalem to Seoul. He has more than one million men and women under arms on four continents and his carrier battle groups are on every ocean. His military spending equals the combined defence budget of the next 14 highest-spending countries.

Even with all that security, there is much to fear. The world is on the edge of its seat as the US does the splits between Baghdad and Pyongyang. And as it gets deeper into the war on terrorism, the US has gone out of its way to disparage or belittle the international forums and treaties that were the stepping-stones to its own greatness.


But something has gone wrong. In the decade between the end of the Cold War and the start of the war on terrorism, the balance between the two superpowers, America and the Soviet Union, and much of what that implied - safety and security wrought by a fear of mutually assured destruction - suddenly dissolved. And so, unburdened, a less-caring US forgot about the problems of the world as it revelled in an economic boom at home.

The first president Bush and then Bill Clinton did little to renovate or renew the international diplomatic and military infrastructure that had been vital to keeping the peace in the half-century after World War II.

In the words of one American scholar, they made a good show of pretending that nothing had changed.

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This story was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 24 January 2003.

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About the Author

Paul McGeough is the author of Manhattan to Baghdad: Despatches from the frontline in the War on Terror, published February 3, 2003 by Allen and Unwin.

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