Friday, October 07, 2005

The End of the UN?

With killer hurricanes, terrorist bombings and soaring oil prices in the news, the recent UN World Summit hasn't been able to compete - the more so since it appeared to accomplish nothing. Far from being business as usual for the UN, however, the failure to push through substantial reform may have long-term consequences that will leave Katrina as a footnote to history. According to Assistant Secretary-General Ramesh Thakur, who gave a lecture at Melbourne Uni before the World Summit, an outcome such as last month's means the beginning of the end for the United Nations. "The Iraq war we can survive," said Thakur, but not a failure to grasp what he described as the UN's last chance for reform, especially of the Security Council. If he's right, the UN is in the process of becoming George Bush's one accurate prediction: an irrelevant organisation, fading from history's stage with barely a whimper.

From the media commentary, you'd think anyone right of centre believes this to be a good outcome, and one long overdue. The coverage of the World Summit and the overshadowing oil-for-food scandal has been a metaphor for the UN's fate to be judged by its failures alone. People rarely reflect that the relatively benign functioning of the international system since 1945, despite the tensions of bipolarity, the quadrupling of nation-states and (more recently) unchecked US power, may have something to do with an overarching global institution. The UN is a cornerstone of the 'grand strategic bargain' on which the current world order was built - a bargain underpinned by the international rule of law and participatory decision-making, not limitless military power. Consider this recent assessment by the Rand Corporation, that quintessential product of the US military-industrial complex -

The cost of UN nation-building tends to look quite modest compared with the cost of larger and more demanding U.S.-led operations. At present, the United States is spending some $4.5 billion per month to support its military operations in Iraq. This is more than the United Nations spends to run all 17 of its current peacekeeping missions for a year. This is not to suggest that the United Nations could perform the U.S. mission in Iraq more cheaply, or perform it at all. It is to underline that there are 17 other places where the United States will probably not have to intervene because UN troops are doing so at a tiny fraction of the cost of U.S.-led operations.

Since 1945 the UN has conducted 56 peacekeeping operations, most of which have been success stories. It has provided the coordinating machinery for bodies such as the IAEA and WTO, not to mention agencies and programmes of its own that promote global cultural heritage and quality of life, such as UNESCO, UNICEF, the WHO and the World Food Programme. The UN has served as a vehicle for advancing the global human rights movement and the international rule of law, sponsoring treaties like the ICCPR and the Torture Convention, evolving a vast reporting network for worldwide human rights abuses and mandating ad hoc tribunals to punish war crimes and crimes against humanity. In short the UN has provided a measure of international governance, however limited, a role that the events of the past four years have shown individual states, no matter how powerful, to be incapable of fulfilling. It's a matter of horses for courses, as the generation of US policymakers who created the United Nations understood.

When states attempt to work through the UN properly - as the first Bush administration did in 1990-1 - the organisation functions more or less as its architects intended. When they starve the UN of funds, prostitute its processes to national foreign policy aims and block necessary structural reform, it obviously becomes dysfunctional. Washington's failure to support the bid for a Security Council seat by Japan -its closest ally bar Britain and Australia, and certainly its most important one - is the latest proof that the UN's core problem is not corrupt bureaucracies, but the self-interest of member states and in particular that of the Security Council's permanent five members. If states treat the UN as a forum for zero-sum competition, the body can't effectively promote the international public interest.

That the UN badly needs systemic reform is not in dispute; the Secretary-General himself has said as much, in a report released in March as a reform blueprint for the World Summit. For just one example, take Annan's proposal to shift the UN's policing of human rights from the state-dominated Commission on Human Rights to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a bureaucratic office which has produced far better outcomes in recent years than the CHR. It will prove a tragedy of historic proportions if, at a point when the UN's leadership is finally showing the mettle to deal with its internal problems, it is crucified on Koffi Annan's personal failings and the Bush administration's ideological agenda. The UN is the fulcrum of the current international system, which aspires to transcend naked power politics; the neocons attack the UN because they want to dismantle that system in its entirety, in favour of a world order explicitly based on US military power, a project whose sun is already setting in Iraq. The UN may have accumulated a chequered record over six decades, but it's preferable to the results that four years of American unilateralism has delivered so far.


Bluffmaster said...
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David Fettling said...

Would you believe I've just spent the day writing on much the same topic - the UN and its place in the world order - and thought I'd cruise around the blogs for some relief?

You're spot-on, I think, to paint the UN version of the international order - admittedly slow progress on resolving 'cross-border issues' like poverty and climate change, and slowly, grindingly advancing human rights and the rule of law - as a vision fundamentally opposed to the vision of overwhelming US power advanced by the Bush administration.

For this reason 'the generation of US policy-makers' who created the UN are interesting to the whole debate. My understanding is that, while the original concept for a world body was advanced by slightly pie-in-the-sky idealists like Eleanor Roosevelt, the realists in power, (including her husband), recognised the whole thing could only work as part of a great power-mediated arrangement. Hence the Security Council etc.

BUT, that said, they did think, unlike the Bush administration, that the UN could advance those just and noble aims for the world. They just realised the UN had to do that by operating as an instrument of the major powers.

So my point is that the UN is devised to and is capable of advancing its idealistic objectives, but to do so it is reliant on primarily American leadership. More than anything else, the UN is failing because America won't step into the ring.

Long comment I know. Sorry about that.

John Lee said...

I'd say the fundamental concept behind the UN is placing controls on the international exercise of power. Hence the UN Charter's vesting of responsibility for global peace and security, including decisions on the legitimate use of force, in a collegial body (the Security Council). Those who label this an obsolete concession to bipolarity should remember that in the post-1945 years, the US was in many ways more powerful than it is today; it was already a global hegemon, with the USSR best characterised as a 'challenger state' rather than an equal competitor.

interesting that you tag FDR as a realist. Many on the right would say he was too blue-eyed on many issues, e.g. the potential for cooperation with the USSR, not recognising the alliance against Nazism for what it was - 'a temporary confluence of interest'.

incidentally Eleanor was the first chair of the Commission on Human Rights, the body that Annan has said is now discrediting the entire UN organisation. I happen to be writing a 5000w essay on its reform at the moment, may stick up extracts once it's done