Presidents Roosevelt and Truman were smart operators. They knew that the hegemony of the United States could not be sustained without the active compliance of other nations. So they set out, before and after the end of the Second World War, to design a global political system which permitted the other powers to believe that they were part of the governing project.
When Franklin Roosevelt negotiated the charter of the United Nations, he demanded that the United States should have the power to block any decisions the UN sought to make. But he also permitted the other victors of the war and their foremost allies - the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, China and France - to wield the same veto.
After Harry Dexter White, Roosevelt's negotiator at the Bretton Woods talks in 1944, had imposed on the world two bodies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whose underlying purpose was to sustain the financial power of US, he appeased the other powerful nations by granting them a substantial share of the vote. Rather less publicly, he ensured that both institutions required an 85% majority to pass major resolutions, and that the US would cast 17% of the votes in the IMF, and 18% of the votes in the World Bank.
Harry Truman struggled to install a global trade regime which would permit the continuing growth of the US economy without alienating the nations upon whom that growth depended. He tried to persuade Congress to approve an International Trade Organisation which allowed less developed countries to protect their infant industries, transferred technology to poorer nations and prevented corporations from forming global monopolies. Congress blocked it. But, until the crisis in Seattle in 1999, , when the poor nations were forced to reject the outrageous proposals inserted by the US and the European Union, successive administrations seemed to understand the need to allow the leaders of other countries at least to pretend to their people that they were helping to set the global trade rules.
The system designed in the 1940s, whose ultimate objective was to ensure that the United States remained the pre-eminent global power, appeared, until very recently, to be unchallengeable. There was no constitutional means of restraining the US: it could veto any attempt to cancel its veto. Yet this system was not sufficiently offensive to other powerful governments to force them to confront it. They knew that there was less to be lost by accepting their small share of power and supporting the status quo than by upsetting it and bringing down the wrath of the superpower. It seemed, until March 2003, that we were stuck with US hegemony.
But the men who govern the United States today are greedy. They cannot understand why they should grant concessions to anyone. They want unmediated global power, and they want it now. To obtain it, they are prepared to destroy the institutions whose purpose was to sustain their dominion. They have challenged the payments the United States must make to the IMF and the World Bank. They have threatened the survival of the World Trade Organisation, by imposing tariffs on steel and granting massive new subsidies to corporate farmers. And, to prosecute a war whose overriding purpose was to stamp their authority upon the world, they have crippled the United Nations. Much has been written over the past few weeks about how much smarter George Bush is than we permitted ourselves to believe. But it is clear that his administration has none of the refined understanding of the mechanics of power that the founders of the existing world order possessed. In no respect has he made this more evident than in his assault upon the United States's principal instrument of international power: the Security Council.
By going to war without the council's authorisation, and against the wishes of three of its permanent members and most of its temporary members, Bush's administration appears to have ceased even to pretend to play by the rules. As a result, the Security Council may have lost both its residual authority and its power of restraint. This leaves the leaders of other nations with just two options.