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Logrolling on the East River

In the backrooms of the United Nations this week, world leaders weren't only asking if they should help the Americans in Iraq. Rather, a more world-shaping question was being whispered: Who needs the other more - the US or the UN?

Postwar Iraq has opened a game of diplomatic chicken along the East River. If the UN once again rejects a Bush request for help in his campaign against terrorism, it risks alienating its most powerful member, its primary founder, its host country, and perhaps its legitimacy as "the international community."

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President Bush, however, risks not winning what remains of the UN's own cloak of legitimacy and thus more support from other nations (and from many voters, come election time) if he doesn't let the UN help shape Iraq and the war on terrorism.

Tony Blair saw this coming soon after Sept. 11. The British prime minister and the pivot between the US and Europe threw his lot in with Mr. Bush to avoid the world's only superpower - vulnerable and scared - becoming more isolated as it defended itself and its interests.

And in his speech this week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the UN must "face up squarely to the concerns that make some states feel uniquely vulnerable, and thus drive them to take unilateral action." Rather than ignore US concerns, Mr. Annan said: "We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed effectively through collective action."

Germany and Russia, and perhaps France, have also slowly reduced their demands for a firm UN hand in Iraq, in part because they risk losing their strong voice at a UN that would be weakened if the US sulks away and forms other versions of the "international community."

The fact that Bush asked the UN for help at all - albeit on his terms - was perhaps enough. And his speech portrayed the UN as indispensible in what it does best: running elections, rebuilding nations, and curbing global problems.

But Bush was insistent that the UN accept two planks of his terrorist campaign: a need for preemptive war on terrorists and their backers, and a need to quickly bring democracy to the Middle East.

Annan hinted that the UN itself needs radical reform to survive this clash. The Security Council's power balance can no longer reflect that of the 1945 world. And Bush cited the broadest common interests that the UN and US share: "Both recognize a moral law that stands above men and nations, which must be defended and enforced by men and nations."

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As before the Iraq war, this debate will define a new world balance. At the least, the US and the UN are still talking to each other.