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Those creaking World War II institutions (San Francisco Chronicle) February 26, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

If you could turn down the volume of the shrill rhetoric about Iraq, you would hear another disturbing sound: the cracking and groaning of such multilateral institutions as the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. Each of these organizations, formed in the aftermath of World War II, is unlikely to survive unchanged from their first bit test of the 21st century.

Although NATO has managed to patch up its most visible fissures — finally breaking a monthlong stalemate and authorizing weapons to defend Turkey — it is the most vulnerable of the multilateral bodies. With the collapse of the former Soviet Union, NATO is essentially all dressed up with no lace to go. It was always a marriage of Cold War and convenience, providing Europe a sure American defense against the Soviets, and establishing strategic military bases for the United States. Now that the Soviet threat is gone, there’s not much to hold that union together.

One sign that NATO was losing its way came with the addition of former Soviet satellites as members. Growing to 19 members from 12 creates management challenges. But when your former enemies join your defence pact, isn’t it really time to declare victory and move on to new institutions with more relevant goals? The difficulty in reaching agreement to defend against a new enemy — terrorism — has exposed NATO cracks that may prove terminal.

Similarly the European Union is showing its age, as Donald Rumsfeld’s “old Europe” takes stock of its aspiring “new Europe” members. Frankly this body, which has been courting former Eastern bloc countries, would have trouble agreeing on a dinner menu, much less a political or defense policy.

The crisis over Iraq has exposed two major fissures in the European Union infrastructure. Its longtime members are split, with several willing to take action against Iraq and others strongly opposed. Then Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, set to join in 2004, were basically disinvited from the meeting, and French President Jacques Chirac said Romania and Bulgaria might not be invited to join if they continued to support the United States in Iraq. “Quiet, you young upstarts,” was the clear message. Maybe these youngsters don’t want to sit at the “adults’ table” after all.

Which brings us to the U.N. Security Council, yet another anachronism from the 1940s. The whole idea of a body with rotating members and few permanent members with veto powers belongs in “The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Organizations.” That the vetoes would go to war victors of 50 years ago is an attempt to freeze history. It can’t be done, and the Iraq crisis reveals major cracks in the ice.

Now there are smaller headlines about new international bodies, such as the International Criminal Court electing its first judges. The ICC, the most important international institution since the United Nations, is opening without the support of the United States and other world powers. A related headline indicates that Belgium will try Israel’s Ariel Sharon for war crimes. If the United States is the world’s police, Belgium aspires to be its court.

That old multilateral institutions are struggling is not all bad. It’s probably time for NATO and the European Union to ask whether they are dinosaurs that should give way to new forms of organizational life. The U.N. Security Council needs to consider new permanent members that reflect current global realities and reform the veto process. But the new institutions aren’t all good either. The United States is right to have reservations about the ICC and Belgium’s notions of universal jurisdiction.

Just as it took world wars to create a League of Nations and the United Nations, we will now learn whether important international organizations will be reshaped, and whether it will take a major war to accomplish it.

This op/ed appeared on Page A-25.

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