If Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor were the naïfs who foisted the United Nations on the world, George H. W. Bush was responsible for its revival as a political force.
From about 1950 to 1990, the United Nations Security Council was essentially toothless, as the Soviet and U.S. governments disagreed on issue after issue. As a result, anyone wanting to get things done generally by-passed this forum, from the Berlin problem to the Vietnam War to Arab-Israeli negotiations.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 constituted the first post-Cold War crisis. The great powers could have handled it any number of ways – in NATO, with a “coalition of the willing,” or with a new organization – but Bush (himself a former U.S. ambassador to the UN) took the matter to the Security Council for decision making.
I opposed this decision at the time, seeing it as investing unwonted authority that would long outlast the Kuwait crisis in a morally decadent and politically hostile institution. Indeed, Bush’s action had this effect – and we live with the rueful consequences today. UNSC votes on Iraq, Libya, and Syria have had a major impact, permitting a semi-despotism in Moscow and a full-scale one in Peking to exert a major influence on the decisions of democratic states.
(1) A bipartisan folly: a Democrat founded the organization and a Republican turned it into today’s powerhouse.
(2) Counter-history: the 2003 invasion of Iraq would likely have turned out very differently if not for the UNSC.
(3) Another Bush: George W. Bush build on his father’s mistake by begging the UNSC for resolution after resolution on the Iraq issue.
(4) Syria: It is particularly painful to watch the weight of vetoes by the Russian and Chinese governments of a resolution calling on the Syrian president to leave office. How can the democracies allow dictators protecting their own to stymie their own policy?
(5) The future: presumably, only an American president can dismiss the UNSC and transfer its authority to an organization of only democratically-elected governments. Republican candidates are good on this issue while Barack Obama will imbue the UNSC with yet more power.