I trimmed it, full article here"Excellencies, we have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded."
So said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to the General Assembly in September.
Kofi Annan is appointing a panel to examine the UN's role
One could say cynically that there has never been a time when the UN has not been at a fork in the road. It was so in 1950 when North Korea invaded the South and the United States immediately called on the Security Council to act. The Council did act, but only because Russia was boycotting it at the time in a row over the representation of China, one of the most unwise diplomatic moves ever. The Russians made sure they were never absent again. Throughout the Cold War, the Security Council became a cockpit for confrontation, never more so than in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 when US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson produced photographs of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
In the new world disorder produced by the end of the Cold War, the UN failed to act decisively in a number of crises. In Bosnia, blue helmeted soldiers were reduced to guard duties and the then Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali lectured the besieged people of Sarajevo that there were worse places in the world. In the crisis over Kosovo, Russian opposition prevented any UN action and so it was Nato which waged war against Serbia. And so on.
There have been successes. Cambodia and East Timor were put back together under UN leadership. Liberia is now being helped. There was also the war to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.
There was little unity over the war in Iraq
However that unity over Iraq has now degenerated into the present standoff and to Kofi Annan's warning.
His point can be summed up in one word - unilateralism. "According to this argument," he said in the UN speech, "states are not obliged to wait until there is agreement in the Security Council. Instead they reserve the right to act unilaterally, or in ad hoc coalitions. This logic represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last 58 years."
He did not mention the United States. He did not have to. And what he meant was clear enough. If the United States started acting unilaterally, then others would as well and we would be back to square one.
It is important to note, however, that he did not actually attack the principle of pre-emption, one of the cornerstones of the Bush doctrine.
He said: "It is not enough to denounce unilateralism, unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some states feel uniquely vulnerable, since it is those concerns that drive them to take unilateral action. We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed effectively through collective action."
That is an important distinction and it defines the choice which he thinks lies ahead - the fork in the road. Either the UN collectively addresses the threats (whether from international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction or whatever) or individual countries will take action themselves.
Indeed, the former British UN ambassador Lord Hannay points out that the UN Charter already allows for pre-emptive action. Article 39 of Chapter VII ( the enforcement chapter of the charter) says: "The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken..."
"He was not saying that pre-emption is wrong but that unilateralism is a recipe for anarchy. And he was telling others to grow up and look around them. said Lord Hannay. "Weapons of mass destruction cannot be ignored or they could fall into the hands of some pretty odd people. This desperate desire to refight the war over Iraq will not help," he said. "The secretary general is right to say that there is a crisis. But people are so submerged by anger, rage and anti-Americanism that they cannot let go."
Lord Hannay believes that the key to the future is a "better understanding between the permanent five members of the Council" - the US, Russia, China, UK and France. "Enlarging the Security Council is a good idea, but would it change much? No."
Another British UN watcher, Sir Adam Roberts, professor of International Relations at Balliol College, Oxford, agrees that the problems created by Iraq would not be solved simply by enlarging the Council.
It is desirable for the Security Council to enlarge to respond to the huge changes in the world but it will be harder for it to take decisions "It is questionable to link the disaster over Iraq to the issues of reform," he says. "It is a problem of the permanent five, not of reform. They have to address the security issues and there are signs that the United States is moving. It has realised that it cannot manage Iraq on its own."
He said: "It is desirable for the Security Council to enlarge to respond to the huge changes in the world but it will be harder for it to take decisions."
The view that enlarging the Security Council would not help much is perhaps very much a Western one. Others think that wider membership would reduce tensions by producing a wider view.
India, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt all have a claim to be permanent Council members, though realistically the veto would probably remain only with the current five. Germany and Japan are also strongly in line.
Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha said in a BBC interview that the Council did not "reflect the reality of the 21st Century."
My own personal opinion is that the UN is too divided, trying to get agreements from a wide variety of cultures and perspectives is always hard and add to that the fact that every country wants to maintain good relations with its neighbours and often has complex relations with various other nations through shared history, culture or various agreements; and the situation becomes unworkable. IMO they will never be in agreement about pre-emptive movement or even the use of decisive military intervention against any country, adding more members to the Security council will add some semblance of fair representation, (ie it would be good PR), but I think it would only be detrimental to the already fairly low effectiveness of the council. I personally think the UN security council is only useful as a peacekeeping force after the fighting is already finished. (ie only having to deal with militia and small threats)