If serious multilateralism is to be a viable option to unilateral action in international security, then the organizations, institutions, and individuals involved in multilateralism must present themselves as credible and honest alternatives by which states can secure their security at lower costs than they could on their own. Yesterday, Mohammed ElBaradei, the executive director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, displayed why so many people are so skeptical of the ability of the UN and its related institutions to provide real international security. In the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear tests and in the midst of Iran ramping up its own enrichment programs, did ElBaradei warn these countries about their flagrant violations of international law, institutional commitments, and international norms? Of course not. To the contrary, ElBarabdei warned that sanctions could empower hardliners in both countries, stated that he does not believe Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and argued that North Korea's nuclear test was a "cry for help."
This is so absurd as to almost be unbelievable. The UN Security Council which oversees the IAEA has condemned the actions of both states, passed sanctions against North Korea, warned Iran not to continue its path, and has clearly expressed the will of the international community that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will be not be acceptable and will not be tolerated. If states are going to put their trust to any degree in international institutions to preserve international security, those institutions must step up to the plate in the face of threats. The more the UN refuses to enforce its own laws and punish states like Iran and North Korea that break their own legal commitments, the less any state will look to the UN as a guarantor of international peace.
Regardless of one's opinion of the invasion of Iraq, a large part of President Bush's reluctance to wait (not that waiting would have altered the outcome) on the UN inspections was a lack of faith that the UN would do anything meaningful to punish Iraq. Time and time again, from silence, if not almost cooperation, in the face of genocide, to a failure to even be able to condemn states that illegally develop WMD, the unwillingness of the UN and other international institutions to chastise and punish undermines the efficacy of those institutions. ElBaradei's comments are both dangerous and foolhardy, and undermine the very mission he purports to be advancing.