Kofi, listen closely

Posted: Sep 29, 2003 12:00 AM

If, as Kofi Annan said at the United Nations this week "the last 12 months have been very painful to those of us who believe in collective answers to our common problems," let's hope the U.N. General Secretary listened carefully to President Bush's remarks before the General Assembly. "The Security Council was right to be alarmed," Bush said, referring to the 17 Security Council resolutions on disarming Saddam Hussein. "The Security Council was right to demand that Iraq destroy its illegal weapons and prove that it had done so. The Security Council was right to vow serious consequences if Iraq refused to comply."

"And because there were consequences," the president continued, charitably omitting the Security Council's failure, ever, to enforce those consequences, and "because a coalition of nations acted to defend the peace and the credibility of the United Nations, Iraq is free. And today we are joined by representatives of a liberated country."

All of which sounds like American-Anglo -- or, in U.N. parlance, "unilateral" -- answers to our common problems. Not that anyone was about to say thank you, either collectively or unilaterally. Instead, Annan fretted (partly in French) over the "fundamental challenge" to "world peace" posed by such "unilateralism." Acting without the "unique legitimacy" of the United Nations, Annan continued, such states risk the stability of the globe.

French president Jacques Chirac also took a turn to revive that old, multilateral feeling. What the world needs now, he said, is "fresh impetus." The Chirac solution is: "a summit meeting of the Security Council to frame a genuine United Nations action plan" -- a prospect likely to stir hope only in insomniacs.

Monsieur Chirac was really out there pitching for a Security Council that looks more like, not America, of course, but the world. "More representative," he explained. "France is thinking, naturally, of Germany and Japan, but also of some leading countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America." France is thinking, naturally, of something more anti-American and anti-Zionist -- something more like the General Assembly.

All of which goes back to Annan's original schpiel. He plugged a Security Council "more broadly representative of the international communities as a whole." Not only was unilateralism a threat to world peace, it was also, according to the Washington Post's encapsulation of Annan's remarks, "an assault on the cooperative principles of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and those who founded the United Nations."

Honestly, it's one thing for forces against a unipolar world in which the United States acts as sole superpower to angle to dilute American power, it's another to invoke FDR to do it. FDR didn't have "cooperative principles," unless, that is, the cooperation was tightly held among what he ultimately thought of as the "four policemen": the Soviet Union, Britain, America and China (no France). Not the most harmonious quartet, as time would tell, but, of course, FDR died in 1945.

In 1941, even before the United States entered World War II, Roosevelt envisioned an even more exclusive postwar security arrangement: "the United States and Great Britain (acting) together as an international police force to guarantee world peace for an indefinite period of time," writes historian Robert A. Divine in "Roosevelt and World War II" (Viking Press, 1970). Heeding advice from aides Sumner Welles and Harry Hopkins (later identified by former KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky as a Soviet agent), FDR modified his vision to that of an Anglo-American world police force that would keep the peace "only during a transition period that would eventually end and permit a wider international organization to function." But not much wider.

According to Mr. Divine, FDR's opinion of collective security -- today's multilateralism -- was not at all Wilsonian in scope or aim. He didn't want to include any small countries in security duties. And his major peacekeeping weapon was disarmament -- of enemies, of course, but also friends such as France, Poland and Turkey. "These nations," Mr. Divine writes, describing FDR's thinking, circa 1942, "would be disarmed by the four major powers, but later they might be permitted to join in the policing if 'experience proved they could be trusted.'"

What has experience proven? Nothing much to have dispelled FDR's qualms. Indeed, George W. Bush's alliance with Britain's Tony Blair begins to look like something right out of the FDR playbook, and the Kofi Annan-Jacques Chirac United Nations just what he hoped to save us from: the collective answers to common problems that don't solve a thing.