Mon. Sep. 15, 2003. | Updated at 05:07 AM
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Sep. 10, 2003. 01:00 AM
A chance to build that brave new world


Every crisis, goes the old Chinese saying, is both a challenge and an opportunity: the challenge of survival; the opportunity to figure out ways to do things in a radically different and better way.

Throughout the past year, and in many ways for quite a lot longer, the United Nations has been struggling to survive. Last winter and spring, its governing Security Council divided against itself — France and Russia vs. the U.S. and Britain — as has never happened before.

Simultaneously, George W. Bush's embrace of unilateralism threatened the U.N. with global impotence since without American power behind it, there's precious little the U.N. can do.

Most damaging of all, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq without U.N. sanction left the world body looking weak and irrelevant. If the doctrine of "pre-emptive defence" is valid for the U.S., so is it logically for any and all of the U.N.'s 190 member-states.

The U.N. has seemed to be on the verge of going where the League of Nations once went, leaving the world in a free for all within which nothing but might is right any longer.

Except that it's the U.S., and Bush personally, that's now in crisis.

Post-war Iraq isn't at all yet another Vietnam, as some critics are saying, some of them gleefully. Despite the successful guerrilla attacks, there are, from the newly clean streets in Baghdad to the Iraq Governing Council's acceptance by the Arab League, some signs of genuine progress there.

The nature of the U.S.' crisis resides, instead, in its belated realization that there are limits to unilateralism. Even a Rome reborn can't do it all.

What the U.S./Rome can't do alone is to stay the course in Iraq for as long is it's now clear that it's going to be necessary — years, that's to say — and at the cost that's going to be required (a whopping $75 billion for reconstruction, according to an estimate just leaked in Washington).

In his televised speech last weekend, Bush took his first step into the U.S.' new post-unilateral era.

It was only a half step. Bush asked for help, for other countries to send troops and money. But he offered little in exchange, with effective political and military control to remain in U.S. hands.

It would seem that an opportunity is about to be squandered. Except that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was ready to seize the opportunity.

The outlines of a new and better way of doings things are starting to take shape.

Just hours after Bush had spoken, Annan released a long-planned report on U.N. reform.

"Unless the Security Council gains the confidence of states and of world public opinion, individual states will increasingly resort exclusively to their own perception of emerging threats and their own judgment on how to meet them," declared the report.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Annan disclosed that he intends to propose ideas for "realigning" key U.N. bodies like the Security Council to meet the tests of whether it was "representative and democratic enough."

At stake here is the notion of expanding today's Council, which essentially represents the winners of World War II, to instead reflect today's world by adding major powers such as Japan, India, Brazil and South Africa or Egypt from Africa.

A larger Security Council won't necessarily be a more efficient Council. But it would have greater legitimacy.

And it's legitimacy that the U.S. now needs to help it resolve its crisis in Iraq.

A grand global bargain is within reach, although still a long way off. The U.N. and the U.S. would help each other, for the practical reason that each needs the other. All other nations would benefit from a U.N. that been reinvigorated both by its own internal reforms and by the renewed involvement of the U.S.

It's easy to come up with reasons why none of these brave new beginnings will go anywhere. If the U.N. goes too far, too fast into Iraq, it may be seen as just a front for the U.S. occupation.

No reconstruction of Iraq, let alone of the broader Middle East, is possible without an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, a subject about which Bush was conspicuously silent in his speech. Suicide bombers can blow up anything, including hope.

Yet until that hope gets blown apart, there are at least some signs that out of the U.N.'s worst crisis in its history, as well as of a major crisis for the U.S. and for Bush, there may emerge some of the foundations of the new world order that everyone's been searching for since the last global order, based on the sterile stability of the Cold War, came crashing down.

Richard Gwyn's column appears Wednesday and Sunday.

Additional articles by Richard Gwyn

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