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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There's a debate in the United States that we're considering in various activities on the campus: Are we an empire? What kind of an empire are we? Our leaders and some of our intellectuals seem willing to confront this issue, which has been obvious for a while. Once you have enormous power, how do you use it? I want to know what you, as somebody who was a soldier in the British army, make of the notion that the U.S. would self-confidently assume that role; that is, that of an imperial power in the world, but also the world's "sheriff"?

You just had an English historian here, Niall Ferguson, who has been (I think quite wrongly) urging the United States to pick up where the British empire left off. This is a dead duck if ever there was one. For one reason, imperialism as it used to be is a dead concept, because the whole world has woken up to imperialism and they don't like it. Wherever you go, whether it's Iraq or any other part of the world, if you try to exert an imperial grip on things, people are going to oppose you. They will oppose you and oppose you, and oppose you until you get sick of it and go away. So that kind of imperialism is dead.

The United States has no colonies, which Mr. Ferguson rightly thinks are the basis of empire. But you do have a lot of things which are imperial. You have an imperial culture. English, I hate to say, is an imperial language now in the world. You have God knows how many foreign bases -- it's over fifty or sixty, isn't it? It's something enormous. You have a hugely increasing military budget. And you do have now a notion which I think is extremely dangerous, that the United States has the right to make war on anyone it believes may become a threat to the United States, and go after them with war. Now, if everybody else in the world takes that approach, we're going to be back to the jungle in a very short time. There's not a single country in the world that I can think of, except possibly the Scandinavian countries, who don't have some potential threat to them from outside. If everybody were to have a preventive war policy, I don't know where we'd all end up. I don't think you'd all be here. I think this is crazy. I don't think preventive war is empire, though.

What happens when you put these two things together? There is this missionary zeal to remake the world in our image, which is being evidenced in U.S. foreign policy; but, as you just said, the world doesn't want empire anymore. People are conscious of their own national or ethnic identity and what it means when somebody occupies them.

That's right. What the world desperately needs from the most powerful country in history is leadership and a lot of help. That was exactly the idea in 1945, when the UN was founded. It was an organization which the United States believed to be the solution to the future, the solution by which you could deal not only with aggression and war, but you could begin to deal with all the problems like decolonization, lack of development, poverty, disease, the whole thing. [It was] a benign organization in which the United States was unquestionably the leader but obeyed the rules just like everybody else. For a country which was the most powerful country in history in 1945, that was pretty good. I think they were right, and I don't see quite where we got away from the idea. The UN is not without blame in the way things happened; but we can talk about that in a minute.

We'll focus on that problem in a minute. But I want to clarify something, because what you're suggesting in a lot of your writings is that the UN was seen by the U.S. as a place where it could realize its interests by cooperating with the rest of the world. You make the point in one of your articles that even as powerful as the U.S. is, it requires the legitimacy of the world community. It needs to cooperate, not only because it can't do the job alone, but that's the only way that you can win the support and legitimacy that the UN can offer.

We are seeing a remarkable example of that right now in Iraq. You may not remember, but nearly a year ago the UN was pronounced irrelevant by George Bush. But now, because of this problem of legitimacy, the UN appears to be the only group the Iraqis are prepared to go with when it comes to important things like elections, writing a constitution, trying to get the structure of the state put back together again. They're dealing, incidentally, with a remarkable person at the moment, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the former Foreign Minister of Algeria, who has been holding things down in Afghanistan for the last five years, and particularly the last two after 9/11, and is stuck with going to Iraq and doing the same. The leaders in Iraq, some of whom are religious leaders, say when it comes to this kind of thing they want to discuss it with the UN, because that is a legitimate international organization which theoretically represents everybody in the world.

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See the interview with Niall Ferguson (2003)

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