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Chasing Votes at the U.N.

March 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: For a discussion of the politics and policy behind the unusual diplomatic struggle underway at the United Nations, we are joined by John Ruggie, assistant secretary-general of the U.N. from 1997 to 2001. He’s now a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Arturo Valenzuela, professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University; he was deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs in the first Clinton term and served on the National Security Council. He was born in Chile. And Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for West, Central, and East Africa at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. He is a citizen of Cameroon. John Ruggie, Colin Powell said today that he is within striking distance, what he said yesterday, he was in striking distance of getting the nine votes he needs. Give us an overview. What is it that these countries, these undecided nations are hoping for?

JOHN RUGGIE: Well, different countries are hoping for different things. I don’t know how the secretary exactly defines striking distance. But he is still a ways away from the magical number of nine votes. Chile, for example, has made it very clear that they can’t support the resolution as it now stands because the time frame is too short, and the criteria that Saddam Hussein would have to fulfill to meet its requirements are so unclear, essentially what it comes down to is after this period of time Saddam would be in the clear if the U.S. and the U. K. say he’s in the clear, but otherwise not.

So Chile has asked for clearer benchmarks in return for supporting the resolution. Some of the African countries care about the same kinds of issues, but also have more specific requests for assistance from the United States in order to come along on this vote. The fundamental challenge, however, is, Gwen, that we’re at this point because think of the Security Council as a grand jury, the DA has brought the case to the grand jury and hasn’t yet managed to convince the grand jury, and has had to resort now to other means of exercising influence. That’s what it’s come down to.

GWEN IFILL: On the other means, means depending entirely on smaller, often poorer countries to make this decision. How did it come to this point that the five powerful nations that usually control the Security Council with a veto can — now have to depend on small poorer nations to decide such an important issue?

JOHN RUGGIE: Well, it is very ironic. If you had walked down the corridors of the United Nations about a month ago and asked ambassadors randomly, what do you think the ultimate vote is going to be on this resolution when it comes up for a vote and will the U.S. get nine votes without a veto, I believe nine out of ten would have said yes, the U.S. will get its nine votes and no, there will not be any vetoes, although there will be posturing and there will be some abstentions.

What’s happened between then and now is of course, as the prospect of war comes closer, some people may get cold feet. But I think we also need to learn a lesson from this, that the United States hasn’t handled the case as well as it could have in the United Nations. The president has made it clear that the U.S. is going in no matter what anybody says. So a backlash of sorts has been triggered at the United Nations, so where countries feel that essentially they’re being used as a doormat for the U.S. and they resent that.

If the Security Council is going to be asked to deliberate on this, there has to be a certain open-mindedness about the timing and about the conditions for calling it quits. If on the other hand the president simply wants a Security Council legitimization for the sake of Tony Blair and his domestic political problems, that’s a very different story, and these countries are not interested in providing that service unless they are convinced of the substance of the case.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Valenzuela, let’s talk about these countries, and specifically in your case I want to ask you about Mexico and Chile — both countries which have friendly relationships with the United States, had hoped to have friendlier on trade and immigration issues. What is it specifically that the United States could say to those two countries to get them to agree?

ARTURO VALENZUELA: Well, what the United States is trying to do is to persuade the countries that in fact there is a compelling need to disarm Saddam Hussein and that there are security issues that they ought to be worried about and also that they ought to be worried about the future of the U. N. as an organization, that if the United Nations had not come through on this sort of thing, if its resolutions are consistently flouted, then of course that is a detriment of the U.N. system.

The countries, of course, have opted for a different approach. Both Mexico and Chile prefer multilateralism, both of them have said they want a peaceful resolution of the issues, both of them would like to see the U. N. process move forward and they sort of kept a middle position in some ways between the French and the United States on this. And neither country really wanted to be exactly where it is right now. They both feel very much besieged by the major powers, they’re wondering why they have to make the decision and the major powers haven’t been able to come up with their own solution to the problem. And that’s where they stand today.

GWEN IFILL: But can they use the situation for leverage? Do they have any leverage or does the U.S. have any leverage over them, whether it’s about policy issues which are outstanding or just about who you want to be your friend in the long run to influence the outcome?

ARTURO VALENZUELA: Well, I think there’s been a lot of speculation that the leverage the United States might be bringing to bear on all of these countries, and I think there’s no question that the United States does make clear in certain kinds of ways that in fact there may be some costs for countries that go along with the United States’ position.

I would like to say, however, that with both Chile and Mexico, the United States would make a very serious mistake if it started to talk in terms of quid pro quos, because both countries really believe in these issues in terms of principle, these are not small countries that can necessarily be bought off. In fact, it would be a very significant mistake made if, say, with Chile the U.S. said, well, we’re not going to go along with a free trade agreement that is about to be ratified in the Senate, or that they hope will be ratified in the Senate, if you don’t vote for this.

So in that sense, these countries do have some leverage and they’re showing that leverage now by suggesting that they may not be willing to go along with the resolution that the United States has tabled right now and may want more time. In fact they’ve looked towards the Canadian proposal, that nobody has paid any attention to, which is to give more time for this process, but at the same time as John Ruggie said, put some specific benchmarks down.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Fomunyoh, John Ruggie also just said that if you had walked down the hallways of the United Nations a week or so ago, no one would have said that this was going to fall into the hands of these three African nations: Guinea, Cameroon and Angola – that they would have so much power. Do they feel – do representatives from those countries feel as stressed as they do in Mexico and Chile, as Mr. Valenzuela was just pointing out, that they are put in this position?

CHRISTOPHER FOMUNYOH: I would say they probably feel more stressed than anyone else, because we have to keep in mind that these are small countries on a relative basis, but also that they are caught in the middle of not just the super powers, but also decisions that have already been made at the multilateral level.

You may remember that about a month ago the African heads of state met in Addis Ababa and the African Union actually took a position with regards to the crisis in Iraq, going more towards laying emphasis on the inspections. And two weeks after that, in the France-African summit that took place in Paris, there was actually a joint declaration that was signed at the end saying that there was an alternative to war, and all three African countries participated in both meetings in Addis and in Paris.

So at some point they are already on record as having participated in these joint declarations in favor of giving more time and laying more emphasis on the inspections. But on the other hand they have to make decisions as independent countries. And I think that’s a very difficult position to be in, especially for the countries of Angola, Cameroon and Guinea.

GWEN IFILL: But Guinea and Cameroon, in particular, their ties to France, or colonial ties to France are presumably still strong. Do they find themselves between a rock and a hard place between the generosity that the United States can offer for their needs, whether it be influx of refugees to Guinea or whether it be any other kinds of relief that Cameroon might require? Or do they feel that they might be more predicated to lean toward France?

CHRISTOPHER FOMUNYOH: Well, I can imagine that they must be hearing from the French, you know, an emphasis on the old relationships and the fact that on a bilateral basis France may have given more aid to these countries than the United States in the past. But also, you know, there’s a track record in the case of Guinea, for example, a country which in 1958 was the first and only African colony to thumb its nose at Gen. DeGaulle and to ask for independence immediately. And so maybe as a matter of personal pride the Guineans may want to take themselves out of that equation, but each one of those three countries is going to be weighing these relationships very carefully.

Even in the case of Angola, you know that for a very long time while Angola was – during the Angolan civil war that the government of the day coming from the MPLA Party was in war against UNITA, which was backed by South Africa on the apartheid and by the United States. But the government of Angola has been eagerly working with its relationship with the U.S. hoping to improve it on a regular basis, and this may be one opportunity for them to actually make the leap and improve their relationship as opposed to staying in the realm of French influence.

GWEN IFILL: You both suggest that all five of these countries have already suggested they prefer not to go to war, that they are leaning a way from the U.S. resolution, yet the decision hasn’t been made yet. What are they waiting for?

ARTURO VALENZUELA: Well, I think that both Mexico and Chile probably would have preferred for the U.S. to withdraw the resolution and not have to vote on any resolution whatsoever. At least the Chileans, the Mexicans have wavered a bit more on this, the Chileans have made clear that they don’t want the 17 March resolution and they want that modified.

CHRISTOPHER FOMUNYOH: I think the African countries are hoping that the superpowers would get into some kind of compromise, and that it would be a decision that they would carry along without having been the ones that would cast the deciding vote — maybe some kind of compromise that would have everyone go along, as the initial Resolution 1441.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Ruggie, of course, one of the big questions is whether any of the nations, the big nations — those have veto power who oppose the United States on this, whether they will use their veto. France has said they would use their veto, Russia has suggested it would oppose even though it hasn’t used the “v” word. Do you think, does it matter, all this positioning and all this wooing matter if in the end any one of the nations can veto it, what’s the point?

JOHN RUGGIE: If the United States doesn’t get nine votes, then the other countries don’t need to exercise the veto. They don’t have to lay it on the line. The resolution would just die on its own. I do want to, if I may add to something that our colleagues have said, I don’t think we should feel sorry for the smaller countries. They chose to run for the Security Council and with membership on the Security Council comes certain responsibilities and they’re now being asked to live up to those responsibilities. These are tough choices, and they need now to play the role for which they campaigned and for which they sought election.

But I think the bottom line here is that the United States, if the United States and the United Kingdom were to extend the deadline and move on including clearer benchmarks of what it is that Iraq has to do, personally, I feel the votes are still there, and threats of vetoes could be headed off as well.

GWEN IFILL: Prof. Ruggie, Prof. Valenzuela, Mr. Fomunyoh, thank you very much for joining us.