Sir Brian Urquhart Interview (2004): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The United Nations After 9/11: Conversation with Sir Brian Urquhart, Former Under Secretary General of the United Nations; February 23, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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The U.S. and the United Nations

In one of your many essays in the last decade, you quote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as saying: "The isolationist impulse has risen from the grave" -- he's talking about the United States -- "and it has taken the form of a new unilateralism."

This is a hotly disputed statement, and I've gotten into a lot of trouble with that, because the new unilateralists say they're not isolationists, they're just exceptionalists and unilateralists. I'm not quite sure what the difference is; I think it's a different shape of isolationism. It is the idea that the United States is a totally exceptional country, which, though it makes the rules, should not be bound by them.

I don't know whether you followed the sad history of the International Criminal Court, which is a new organization designed to deal with runaway maniacs like Saddam Hussein. The United States, at least the current administration, has denounced the Court, and has strong-armed all the countries of the world to exempt United States citizens from actions in the International Criminal Court. The likelihood of a United States citizen coming before the International Criminal Court is virtually zero, because of the nature of the charter of the Court. But I must say, if they wanted to invade Iraq, it would have been a very good idea to have indicted Saddam Hussein in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, which God knows he's committed. Maybe that would have been a slightly more reliable basis for going to war.

At another point in the same essay you quoted Reinhold Niebuhr, and this may get at the other aspect of the way we are in the world today. Niebuhr wrote: "Americans see themselves as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection."

I think it's undoubtedly true, don't you?

Oh, yes, definitely.

I look around the world and I see all sorts of tutors, young and old. I think there's nothing wrong with this idea. But to be a good tutor you have to get it right, that's my only qualification. But I don't see there's anything necessarily wrong with that. This country has an exceptional history, unlike any other country, so why shouldn't it have a tutorial ambition? I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

So is the issue the terms upon which it chooses to lead the world? Is that the problem now, as opposed to that postwar generation?

It's partly a problem of attitude and partly a problem of policy. The attitude (I have to say this of the current administration) towards other countries is wrong, and has had the most horrendous repercussions as a result. From being the most respected and admired country in the world, if you look at the various opinion polls which the Pew organization and other people have done, the change in attitude in other countries is really terrible. That is because they are often treated as fools and babies. Nobody likes to be treated as a fool and a baby and an idiot, and possibly a criminal as well.

There's a whole accusatory attitude, which I don't think is sensible. It applies particularly to the United Nations. It's seems to me very odd when you couldn't get a majority in the Security Council and you couldn't get any kind of majority in the General Assembly for going to war in Iraq, that it should be said that the United Nations had "failed the test." It seemed to me they rather won the test, and they had done something quite sensible. And at the same time you are preaching democracy, and the democratization of the world.

It's the attitude that's the problem. You have to respect other people, you have to respect other religions, other societies, other ways of doing things; and then you can probably get everybody's attention, because this is still the most powerful country in history. There's never been anything like it. But to make that really have an effect, you have to have the right attitude to other people. For example, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman at the end of the war. The U.S. was the only nuclear power in the world. It was the only country that had fought in the war which hadn't had its infrastructure virtually destroyed in the war. It was immeasurably the most powerful country in the world, relatively far more powerful than it is now. And everybody absolutely respected it, except, of course, Joe Stalin, who had a different idea about running the world and didn't like it.

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