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debate UN/VS: future of international relations
Date: 07-05-2003
On Wednesday, May 7Th 2003, a large group of American, Dutch and other people discussed the following topics in Theater Kikker (Utrecht):
  • the legitimacy and future of the UN
  • the neo-conservative policy and the defense strategy of the US
  • the future of transatlantic relations
  • the balance of power between the US, Europe, Russia and China
  • the position of the Dutch government


At the discussion table:
  • Dick Leurdijk (DL) Clingendael institute
  • Denis Campbell (DC) Americans Against War aka Alliance for Sound American Policies
  • Harry van Bommel (HvB) SP
  • Luciano Pitzalis (LP) Moderator

Moderator Luciano Pitzalis introduces the themes to be discussed and invites Dick Leurdijk to start the debate of with a brief introduction on the structure and dynamics of the UN and the content of the UN Charter.

Dick Leurdijk explains the function of the UN Security Council, thereby focussing on the system of the veto right of the permanent members of the Security Council. Since World War II, when UN structure and the content of the UN Charter were established, things have essentially remained the same, although there have been proposals for change, especially to the composition and voting system. DL states there were two windows of opportunity for changing the system. The first opportunity presented itself when one permanent member of the Security Council, the Soviet Union, was dissolved but that opportunity was lost. Secondly, the Clinton administration proposed to add Germany and Japan as permanent members of the Security Council in 1990. However, that discussion of who should have the right to be a permanent member with veto right could go on indefinitely. DL regards any discussion on the structure of the UN as a waste of time since any change can be veto-ed by one of the five permanent members and the chance of any or all of them to back any significant change is remote.  

Asked about the issue of ‘state sovereignty’, DL poses a counter-question, illustrating how difficult it can be to agree on definitions: what is exactly meant by ‘aggression’? How effective can the UN be in the face of US neo-conservative unilateralist policies?

Where are the limits of UN cooperation? Was the UN ever meant to be supranational since state sovereignty is such a fundamental part of the UN Charter? All countries retain the right to decide for themselves, even the Netherlands, but now the US seems to regard itself as more equal than others.

Denis Campbell introduces his organisation ‘Americans Against War’ (AAW) aka ‘Alliance for Sound American Policies’ (ASAP) as something that started as a dinner party of concerned citizens. The group wanted to get involved in the Feb 15 anti-war rally and also to reach out to Iraqis. The AAW organised itself and ties were established with exiled Iraqis within a matter of weeks.

In the eyes of DC, Bush is a fundamentalist Christian president who has brought the fundamentalist religion of southern US into the mainstream of US politics. The Bush administration has adopted most policies as proposed by the ‘Project for the New American Century’ (PNAC), a neo-conservative think-tank of right-wing hawks such as Richard Perle, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby and Richard Armitage. The WTC tragedy on 9-11 offered a chance to take action towards protecting the strategic interests of the USA through socio-cultural and military dominance and establishing itself as a global constabulary.

HvB agrees: he thinks the US, as the last remaining superpower, wants to ‘rule the world’. He asks whether the Dutch government should support the humanitarian peacekeeping effort in the aftermath of the Iraqi war. What would be the justification for this and under whose authority could this take place? And if we can’t define the situation in Iraq, how can we take part? HvB states that the fundamental question of the legitimacy of the Iraqi war has remained unanswered and the reasons previously given have turned out to be unsubstantiated. The justification given by the US shifted from a need for regime change to the elimination of weapons of mass destruction to a war of liberation as soon as it became apparent that no weapons of mass destruction were actually to be found in Iraq.

Audience: How strongly are the panel members against war? If 190 members would vote for a war, even against the US, would they support war?

DC: We were against war in Iraq. But then we talked to Iraqis who had been tortured, who had been raped, lost family members and we see the grey areas. The problem is that in America everything is black or white, there are no shades of grey. Why did this require a war? Since Rumsfeld said they had sophisticated weapons that could pinpoint a button on Saddam’s jacket, why couldn’t they use these sophisticated weapons instead of bombing Iraq on such a massive scale?

HvB: No, we are not against war per se. We were against this war. Without a doubt, there was a need for humanitarian intervention, but there was no UN resolution to legitimize this war. If Iraq had weapons of mass destruction it didn’t make sense to bomb from afar, since the US claims to have such sophisticated weaponry. This war should not have been fought. Can you get rid of a dictator through war? That question was not even discussed in Holland. The report of the ‘Project for a New American Century’ legitimizes pre-emptive strikes as a means to ensure homeland security and even though almost everything in this report has been adopted into the official National Security Strategy of the US, the Dutch government refused to discuss the contents of the report, stating that it did not constitute official US policy.

DL: War is part of UN’s system of security. Sanctions are to be enforced when necessary. That made some people uncomfortable but it’s part of the game. With regard to the goal of the Iraqi war: At first they spoke of regime change. It wasn’t until September 2002 that the Bush administration spoke of disarmament. Or was it a stage in the war against terrorism, or as matter of national security…? The PNAC states that ‘maintaining military superiority is a main point’. Jessie Helms has stated that the US will never concede any part of its sovereignty, that nobody can judge the internal affairs of the US. This position is not uniquely Republican. Clinton said similar things back in 1992. The PNAC is like a business plan and the Bush administration that has strong links with corporate America has done this to move things along. The US doesn’t care about anybody that disagrees with them. It is only concerned with their own interests. We have to accept that the US is the only superpower. What is the alternative? International Law: since the US is the sole superpower, does that entitle them to do anything they want?

Audience: Why don’t you believe in European power?

HvB:  A return to bipolar power balance, a cold-war type of situation is not a solution.

DC: In the end, the people will speak out for justice. That’s what will finally bring change. I would love to have more political parties in America, more representation.  

DL: The US has adopted a more cautious policy regarding Syria, Iran and North Korea. Powell indicated he will follow diplomatic channels. But there will be more steps against terrorism. The war on Iraq was seen as step 2 in the war on terrorism.

LP: But do we have to accept America as our new world leader?

HvB: America is turning away from its international agreements on environment and many arenas of cooperation. The US has tried to reform NATO the way it did with UN and they may try with Europe.

DC: 90% (80% red.) of the people voted in the Netherlands. In the US only 39% turned out to vote. There must be less apathy for things to change.

Audience: Not long ago Holland had a foreign policy. What happened? Why the silence? We should be concerned. Have we given up our right to a foreign policy?

HvB: We are obliged to have one, a vision on what’s going on in the world. But if we want to know, we call Colin Powell. Should we look for a European Foreign Policy? We have the right to our own opinion.

Audience: What are politicians doing about this? What is your vision?

HvB: We don’t believe in European Foreign Policy – the differences are too great, it would take years – I don’t believe in forming a European counterbalance to the US.

Audience: This means abstaining.

HvB: I believe in international cooperation through the institutions that have been established like the UN. A strong EU army is not the answer. We must stand up and say what we believe. We need more European interdependence. The SP alone can’t change that.

Audience: The US depends on European trade for its wealth. Why is the SP against European alliance?

HvB: There is no European Foreign Policy. It would be optimistic but I fear we will follow the British. So far the US and the UK have dominated NATO. 

Audience: I think that real change has to come from the people, a kind of ‘people power’. A great number of people in the world already can feel that war isn’t going to solve anything, that it will not bring the kind of justice that the world needs, that America’s agenda is not going to solve the world’s problems.

Denis Campbell: When you connect the dots between what the neo-conservatives are saying, it’s frightening. You have to communicate with others. We have to connect the dots. We can’t pretend this isn’t happening.

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