What a difference a year makes. It was just one year ago that the Bush administration walked away from a bitterly divided U.N. Security Council and went to war in Iraq, leading many to question whether the world body had lost its relevance in the post-Cold War world. Responding to these concerns, Secretary-General Kofi Annan named an international panel of eminent persons to study global security threats and rethink how the United Nations could better respond.
But in the year that has passed, the world body has come back; some would say even stronger. The powers that broke ranks over removing Saddam Hussein are finding common ground, and Washington is leading a chorus of voices asking the United Nations to take the lead in returning Iraq to civilian rule. The bitter wrangling of a year ago is giving way to a new spirit of cooperation. February 5, 2003. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an extraordinary presentation before the Security Council, warns the United Nations it could become irrelevant, unless it endorses the U.S.-backed campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein.
"I believe that Iraq is now in further material breach of its obligations. I believe this conclusion is irrefutable and undeniable," he said. "Iraq has now placed itself in danger of the serious consequences called for in U.N. Resolution 1441. And this body places itself in danger of irrelevance, if it allows Iraq to continue to defy its will, without responding effectively and immediately."
The Security Council, however, rejected Secretary Powell's pleadings. France threatened to use its veto to kill a draft resolution authorizing military action to oust Saddam. Russia and Germany were among others opposed to the measure.
Faced with certain defeat of the resolution, the United States and Britain ended their efforts to gain the support of the Security Council. With a coalition of supporting countries, they invaded Iraq the following month.
It was perhaps one of the lowest points in U.N. history. The word "irrelevant" rang in the hallways and echoed through New York's diplomatic missions.
The war was over in a few weeks. But it was immediately clear that the task of rebuilding a democratic Iraq was far bigger than ousting its dictator. The U.S.- and British-led coalition faced a monumental challenge in restoring order to Iraq. They clearly needed help, and the United Nations was the best, possibly the only, place to look.
Before the war, some observers had characterized the U.S. attitude toward the United Nations as defiant. But when President Bush addressed the General Assembly in September, his tone was one of reconciliation.
"I also recognize that some of the sovereign nations of this assembly disagreed with our actions," he said. "Yet, there was, and there remains, unity among us on the fundamental principles and objectives of the United Nations. We are dedicated to the defense of our collective security and to the advance of human rights. These permanent commitments call us to great work in the world; work we must do together. So, let us move forward."
The spirit of reconciliation showed itself a few weeks later, when the Security Council passed resolution 1511. That resolution gave coalition forces in Iraq the international legitimacy it needed, and blessed the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council with a U.N. mandate.
On the anniversary of the invasion, there is a strong sense at U.N. headquarters that the deep wounds inflicted on the world body's credibility are healing. And disagreements over whether to invade Iraq have given way to a new sense of cooperation.
French Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, who was in the forefront of opposition to military action, says he sees no lasting damage to the prestige of the United Nations.
"When I was asked this question a year ago, I didn't think the prestige of the U.N. was undermined," he said. "I thought the U.N. and the Security Council had done a very good job in refusing to authorize the use of force. Now, we are looking not to the past, but we look ahead, and I think all members of the Council are working together to see how the international community, with the assistance of the secretary-general, can help the Iraqi people find the way of a transitional, political transition that will lead to elections the beginning of next year."
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, whose verbal sparring with his French, German and Russian counterparts a year ago drew worldwide attention, says everybody seems to have "turned a page."
"In this post-conflict phase, France, Germany and other countries, Russia and the membership in general, want to work together in the Council to do what is most appropriate and best to assist the government, the country and the people of Iraq," he said.
U.N. diplomats say much of the credit for the turnaround goes to Secretary-General Kofi Annan. They say Mr. Annan has used his diplomatic skills to persuade Security Council powers to move past their dispute over going to war, and to focus on the task ahead, returning stability to Iraq.
Reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, Mr. Annan told reporters he sees the events of the past 12 months as an affirmation of the world's trust and belief in the United Nations.
"I did not accept the idea that, because the Council did not vote for the war, the U.N. was going to be irrelevant," he said. "I think events since then have indicated that the U.N. does have a role to play, the U.N. has a unique legitimacy no other organization has."
Just a day earlier, Mr. Annan received a letter from the Iraqi Governing Council welcoming U.N. participation in the country's transition to democracy. When the U.S.- and British-led coalition starts withdrawing from Iraq at the end of June, many expect the United Nations to fill the gap.
It might be going too far to say the world body has regained the credibility it lost a year ago, when it failed as a mechanism for preventing war. But it has shown itself uniquely suited for the job it is increasingly being called on to play, that of nation-building.