A bunch of cocktail-swilling foreigners

The United Nations is viewed with contempt in the US and only one role is envisaged for it: as a rub

The things one does for one's country. The other day I found myself called in to help brief a group of MPs who were in Washington to discover the thinking of the Bush administration. I was shocked by the degree to which they had assimilated the current wisdom in Britain about what will unfold in a postwar Iraq. Tories and Labour members alike, they had swallowed the Blair line that following a vicious war that required 300,000 troops, has left more than a hundred British and US servicemen and women dead, cost $70bn and killed thousands of Iraqis, the United Nations would be brought in to run a postwar Iraq and that a "road map" to peace between Palestine and Israel would be followed assiduously.

These two pillars may be Tony Blair's hastily cobbled-together, retrospective rationales for the Iraq invasion, but there is precious little talk of either in Washington. True, I am told that President Bush privately told a visiting delegation of Arab leaders that he would pursue peace in the Middle East "even if it costs me the election [next year]". But it is almost impossible to see the administration hawks now known as "neoconservatives" making any genuine moves towards trimming back Israel's power. Israel, after all, receives fully one-third of all US overseas bilateral aid; while Yasser Arafat is widely seen here in much the same light as Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

And what of the UN? The MPs I talked to all believed that it had a crucial role to play in future in Iraq. But, if Blair sticks to his line on the UN, the UK and US governments really will diverge over the ruins of postwar Iraq. The UN is widely viewed with contempt in America, as an effete band of cocktail-swigging, meddling (and usually black) foreigners who would dare to tell the US how some part of the world should be dealt with. It was not until after the atrocities of 11 September 2001, after all, that the US government paid up nearly $1bn in UN dues that Congress had deliberately withheld. The suspicion and paranoia over foreigners and the UN was neatly summed up by an American website I recently found, featuring the United Nations crest and motto against the organisation's light blue background, and with a crucial third sentence added: "Welcome. It's your world. We just want to own you."

The British MPs should have listened more carefully to Dubbya when he appeared briefly alongside Blair at Hillsborough Castle (the venue was listed in White House schedules simply as "Belfast, Ireland"): "We're committed to working with international institutions - including the United Nations - which will have a vital role to play in this task [of rebuilding Iraq]," he said. And what was that vital role? "An agent to help people live - freely. That's a vital role. That means food, that means medicine, that means aid, that means a place where people can give their contributions, that means suggesting people for the IIA, the Interim Iraq Authority, that means, er, being a party to the progress being made in Iraq."

The logic of the neoconservative view is that if only all the people of the world understood America and its values, they would all want to become American in style and outlook. Their vision is a revolutionary one: to export the American way of life to the rest of the world. But this vision does not allow for anti-American countries and governments to spring up in democratic societies. That, the logic dictates, is impossible. Never mind that a democratic Chile elected a pro-Soviet leader - at that point, the CIA moved in to replace Salvador Allende with Augusto Pinochet. From Guatemala and Chile to Iran, the US has hitherto been happy with those dictators it places in power. I have even heard the deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, for example, argue that it was all right for the Philippine government to throw out US troops stationed in that country, because that was democracy in action.

These theories, in any case, actually fall at the first hurdle with America's deliberate sidelining of the UN in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq; the UN, according to the neoconservative diktats, can have only what even Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, now says will be "an endorsing role to play in an interim authority to give it legitimacy". In other words, the US expects the UN to rubber-stamp whatever it chooses to do in Iraq - and also, naturally, to spearhead (as well as pay for) meeting the mounting humanitarian needs in Iraq. Jacques Chirac, confronting new US policies rather than trying to sidle alongside them like Blair, says that France would veto any UN resolution that would "legitimise the military intervention" and "give the belligerents the power to administer Iraq". Germany, too, is insisting on a role for the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Interestingly, the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, also talks of the US and UK as "belligerents", whom he expects to pick up the bill under UN supervision in Iraq: what has unfolded in Iraq, he believes, is a man-made disaster rather than the natural ones to which the UN routinely rushes. Astonishingly, Wolfowitz meanwhile says that there will be American-style "town hall meetings" in Iraq, chaired by General Tommy Franks - and that only Britain, Australia and Poland will participate in them along with the US. Wolfowitz really is a revolutionary if we take his rhetoric seriously, but again it falls at the first hurdle of logic.

That is, that the UN is already the nearest we have to world democracy in action now, with nearly 200 sovereign countries as members, representing the 95 per cent of the world's population who are not American. The United Nations was, lest we forget, the brainchild of Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Roosevelt's idealism saw to it that 50 countries signed the UN Charter in San Francisco on 26 June 1945. The signatories, now swollen nearly fourfold, agreed to collective security and not to go to war unilaterally. There is also a rebuilding process that has been agreed upon, known in the UN as post-conflict peace-building.

But the Bush administration - led by Donald Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and co - tortuously justify their anti-UN attitude on the grounds that, like old Europe and the cold war, it is part of the old order. The administration hawks, naturally, argue that it is irrelevant that one country is overwhelmingly more powerful than all the others, even though - as any neutral onlooker can see - this actually dictates everything. What if the people of Iraq, after General Franks's cosy town hall meetings, elect a government hell-bent on attacking America with anthrax, smallpox, or nuclear weapons? Then the US is entitled to take unilateral action against that country again to defend itself, and to hell with the UN. So much for imposing democracy around the world. We are back, logically, to the Old America.

The point the hawks cannot accept is that the US clearly needs international co-operation of the many kinds the UN provides. The current Sars epidemic, for example, is being closely monitored and supervised by a team led by an American doctor from the World Health Organisation, which is a UN body. In the field of terrorism, too, America desperately needs international co-operation (France and Germany have already been conspicuously co-operative). Fighting Aids is another clear case where countries must co-operate with one another. So how does America refashion world power in a way that reflects its overwhelming power? In a word, it does what it wants to do while imposing its notions of democracy on countries whether the people of those countries want it or not. It is disingenuousness at its most audacious.

So, whatever Tony Blair and those visiting British MPs may think, the US believes it does not need the political offices of the UN any more, in any circumstances. Condoleezza Rice, Dubbya's national security adviser, recently met Annan to tell him what the UN's role in postwar Iraq would be. The meeting, I hear, did not go well; Rice is a leading neoconservative herself, and is determined that America will not be pushed around by any or all of the other members of the UN.

That's the news from Washington in April 2003. Happy Easter.