Washington — The defiance of one grumpy old man derailed peace plans put forward by diplomats from the United Nations and European Union this week. "We have reached the end of the road," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said wearily after an all-night negotiation collapsed Tuesday because this grumpster would not see multilateral reason.
No, not that guy at the White House. George W. Bush is not old. The stubborn, self-defeating unilateralist I have in mind is Rauf Denktash.
The Turkish Cypriot leader spurned Annan's fair-minded plan to end the island's division and permit a united Cyprus to enter the EU in 2004. Denktash, supported by hard-liners in Ankara, preferred to cling to personal power rather than accept the dislocation of change.
Denktash at age 79 captures the spirit of this moment of political history with his short-sighted pursuit of self-advantage. Around the globe, both economic and political interdependence are in fast retreat as national leaders chase rather than lead public opinion. They do almost anything to avoid talking to their unhappy electorates about their faltering economies and blocked horizons.
Denktash's defiance of Annan helps bring perspective to the confluence of crises the world body, and the world, confront today in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, the Ivory Coast and elsewhere. The spurt of rapidly accelerating international interdependence -- globalization in shorthand -- that dominated the 1990s has run its course for the time being as nations and leaders retrench and focus relentlessly on self-protection.
The Bush administration is often singled out for destroying a now fondly remembered golden age of multilateralism and effective, U.N.-managed world order. There's the whiff of truth in the accusation -- Bush did set the tone for this self-centered policy environment -- but a great deal of illusion in the memory. It overlooks Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and other tragedies the United Nations could not handle.
On the other side of the political spectrum, crocodile tears now flow from American unilateralists about the destruction of the world body's credibility and effectiveness through its failure to disarm Iraq. But that does not obscure the fact that these conservatives have fought overhauling and giving the Security Council real power just as hard as Beijing's Communists and the neo-Gaullists of Paris.
The Security Council has rarely risen above being "a bazaar for the trading of interests between major powers," as Indian journalist C. Raja Mohan has noted. The bazaar closes whenever the five veto-wielding powers perceive there are greater gains to be had or more urgent threats to be met outside a framework that was never intended to tie their hands.
While Bush has been offering financial aid to Turkey and other countries to become "a coalition of the billing," in one wag's phrase, Jacques Chirac has been threatening East European countries with economic reprisals for opposing the French president's stand. And Chirac is not above reminding Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that Paris supplies Pakistan with important military hardware while London and Washington still embargo arms to Islamabad. "What's in it for me?" is not only a question but a guiding spirit of this age of big-power competition.
The exception is Britain's Tony Blair, who has stuck to his reinforcing beliefs that Britain should always be beside America in crisis and that principled internationalism requires the disarming of Saddam Hussein's murderous regime. Blair sticks it out even as support for war falls to 17 percent in British polls. "He is serene in his bunker and in his belief that he will weather this, probably as Saddam is in Baghdad," says one admirer who has seen Blair recently.
Call it the Denktash perspective: The U.N. possesses no self-enforcing mechanisms or goals. It has to be reinvented with each resolution and for each case. A minor potentate on a Mediterranean island or the world's only remaining superpower can disregard its decisions as need or ambition arise.
That is the world body's curse, and its saving grace. It is making itself irrelevant in disarming Iraq and will be bypassed. (No speech by George W. Bush could do more damage to the Security Council than the games that weapons inspector Hans Blix has begun to play with his reports, apparently in an effort to prolong his bureaucracy's tenure and his place in the world spotlight.) But the core U.N. missions of providing relief, helping refugees and giving an international political framework for a new government in Baghdad will quickly make the Security Council relevant, and helpful, in post-conflict Iraq.
The next cycle of economic growth and greater political interdependence lies over the horizon just now. It must be shaped and summoned as soon as possible by nations that are condemned to cooperate.