Is Cold War rhetoric back at the UN?

When the US and the former Soviet Union were on the verge of a military confrontation over Cuba during the height of the Cold War, the legendary US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson went eyeball-to-eyeball with Soviet envoy Valerian Zorin in the Security Council chamber. As old UN hands would recall, Stevenson aggressively sought a response from Zorin over allegations of Soviet nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba. “Yes or no?” Stevenson demanded, and added the punch line: “And don’t wait for the translation”, as he pressed for an immediate answer from the Russian-speaking envoy.

Zorin turned to Stevenson and said, through a translator: “I am not in an American court of law, and I do not wish to answer the question in the manner of a prosecuting counsel.” Stevenson famously responded he will wait for

an answer “until hell freezes over”. Judging by the recent deadlock in the Security Council — over Kosovo, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), Zimbabwe, Sudan and

most recently Georgia — one wonders whether the days of the Cold War are back in vogue.

The US-Russian political confrontation in the Security Council has been intensified in recent weeks with the Russian invasion of Georgia, and Moscow’s subsequent decision to recognise the breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

When US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sought a response from Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin on whether or not the Russians were bent on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia, Churkin said he had already provided an answer to the question. Maybe, he added rather sarcastically, the US representative had not been listening when Churkin had given his response. “Perhaps he had not had his earpiece on,” he added.

And when US Ambassador Alejandro Wolff recently blasted Russia for its perceived violations of international law and the UN charter during the invasion of Georgia, Churkin hit back with another dose of sarcasm. “Did you find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?...And are you still looking for them?” he asked. Speeches laced

with sarcasm and personal insults are rare in the Council chamber. But is the UN now back to the days of the Cold War?

“The UN is not headed for a new Cold War,” predicts Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalist Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. As US economic, political and diplomatic power has diminished around the world, she argued, military power has become ever more dominant as a viable tool of hegemony. “The threat of US unilateral military power continues to rise not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also with increasing US military bases across the globe, as well as possible new interventions in Iran, in Georgia, in Pakistan and elsewhere,” Bennis said.

“A return to the Cold War era? Not sure whether we can characterise it as such?” says an Asian envoy, who keeps close track of activities in the Security Council. He said it is a fact that the Security Council has not been functioning effectively for some time now. “In my view, the last time it operated effectively was probably during the first Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the then Bush [Sr.] administration worked hard to put together an international coalition to take on Saddam Hussein,” he said.