The United Nations Today: As Good as it Gets?

- by Jamie Arbuckle, for Peacehawks

What’s Wrong With the United Nations, and How to Fix It
By Thomas Weiss,
Polity Press, 292 pp., $19.45, 2009

The UN … is essentially the collective agent of its member states. Many of the UN’s organizational incapacities could be corrected by additional resources from its member states, who devote but a tiny fraction of the resources they spend on national security to collective action under the umbrella of the United Nations.
Peacemaking and Peacekeeping for the New Century, Ottunnu and Doyle, Rowan and Littlefield, New York, 1996

This is an interesting book about the United Nations, and an impressive effort to get beyond the usual procedural and structural tinkering which has characterized and limited most efforts to “improve” the U.N. Thomas Weiss is certainly well qualified to write this book. He combines the skills and the background of a practitioner and a scholar: he served with the U.N. Secretariat for a decade, but has also distinguished himself as an academic for over 25 years, during which he has been a profound student of and a prolific writer, researcher and teacher about, the U.N.

Sir Brian Urqhuhart, in his foreword, tells us that Weiss has come to the “bold and original conclusion” “that world government is the necessary conceptual basis for adequate future management of the major problems of our planet.” Weiss’ solution is actually much more cautious and nuanced – and realistic – than that.

Weiss makes it clear that he considers a preoccupation with sovereignty as a major problem in taking concerted action to confront global challenges: “… treating traditional sovereignty as a cornerstone for the United Nations is a fundamental structural weakness in urgent need of replacement.” He goes on: “The shortcomings of sovereignty and the ill-health of the UN system for the human rights arena can be illustrated with several examples …”. “Westphalian sovereignty impinges directly on more robust action by the United Nations in protecting the human environment.” Weiss concludes that “Westphalian sovereignty is … a chronic ailment for the United Nations, and perhaps a lethal one for the planet …”

But Weiss leaves us under no illusions that sovereignty is any less likely to be the basis for whatever international order may obtain, now or in the near future: “… the state remains essential for national, regional and global problem-solving, and nothing in this book gainsays this stark reality.” And then Weiss turns the corner, and tells us what he really means:

Yet put simply, states and their creations in the form of the current generation of intergovernmental bureaucracies cannot address the transnational problems confronting the world. As a result, and ironically, we have embraced global governance.

Weiss thus distances himself from the chimera* of global government and advocates instead global governance; governance being a more qualitative term, which Weiss defines as

… the totality of institutions, policies, rules, practices, norms, procedures, and initiatives by which states and their citizens try to bring order and predictability to their responses to such universal problems as warfare, poverty, and environmental degradation.

The last two decades in the life of the United Nations have been characterized by almost constant pressure to “reform” the world body: the Security Council, the General Assembly, the veto, the Secretariat, the Office of the Secretary-General, peacekeeping, humanitarian relief, sustainable development, climate change. All have been subject to the most searching scrutiny, lengthy reports have been tabled before august bodies and September bodies: Brahimi, Volcker, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, the Millennium Declaration Goals – all have been received with acclaim, all have been solidly embraced by an overwhelming majority of members. For goodness’sakes, even Newt Gingrich promised “major U.N. reform” – and the needles on those dials have stayed just right where they were.

And the United Nations remains the indispensable body, the conditio sine qua non of whatever international order there is or which may from time to time be brought into existence. Those who try to go without the U.N. – and that usually means the United States – always eventually turn back to it, whether in Kosovo or in Iraq or in Afghanistan, as they inevitably rediscover the limits on force, the need for allies, the skills and the soft power resources needed for post-conflict progress, the need for some authority other than their own. And the United Nations is always there, largely un-reformed, little respected and often blamed for anything and everything that goes wrong – but there after all.

What is it about the United Nations that is so urgently in need of “reform”? Or, in other words, just what is the example to which the U.N. is being held? Is it the United States Congress, where the 28,000 “aides” nearly equal the entire U.N. Secretariat? Weiss makes abundantly clear that he is no defender of the U.S. government; might a successful football team be a better example? Bayern Muenchen, an international power house, finished last year in eighth place in the Bundesliga. When one of their best players told a Munich newspaper why that had happened, he was fined 50,000 Euros by his club for having done so – talk about lessons not learned! Or perhaps the flight crew of a commercial passenger aircraft might be a micro-example of maximal efficiency – except for that crew that overslept their destination last autumn, and had to be wakened by a stewardess to turn back for their landing – they had apparently exhausted themselves trying to understand a recent management directive. Isn’t absolute organizational efficiency somewhere between an oxymoron and a lost cause? We usually don’t expect too much from organizations, and among the skills most of us sooner or later develop is to get things done not because of the organization, but despite it.

Perhaps the United Nations we have today is as good as it gets; as good as it’s going to get.

And once we turn the proposition around – not what’s broken, but what works – then we have a completely different view. For one example:

Chapter VIII of the Charter, “Regional Arrangements”, was written, as was the entire Charter, in 1945, to describe the manner in which the U.N. might cooperate with “regional arrangements or agencies” for the maintenance of international peace and security. However, there was at that time only one regional organization in the entire world, and that was the Arab League. It was to be more than a half-century later that a truly international-regional peacekeeping mission came into existence, when the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was formed, with “pillars” contributed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the European Union (EU), the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE, which proudly proclaimed that it had been founded “as a regional arrangement in the sense of Chapter VIII of the Charter”) and, as adjunct members, NATO (which led and largely manned the Kosovo Force – KFOR). However cautious we might be in calling a peacekeeping mission a success, the cooperation of those “pillars” under that “umbrella” (not to mix a metaphor) was just about all that might have been expected by those ancients who had drafted Chapter VIII in the first place. And, given that degree of cooperation at the “operational level”, there was noticeably less of the usual bickering among the inevitable cat herd of NGOs.

There is in this book very little mention of regional capacities to contribute to crisis management or conflict resolution. In fact, it seems that the United Nations has inherited some of its worst headaches from failed or absent regional efforts, whether in former Yugoslavia or in Africa – it is hard to say whose intervention has been more disastrous: the EU in Yugoslavia or the OAU/AU in Rwanda and in Sudan. But managing regional problems with regional resources and authorities, under a UN mandate, has got to be the eventual way ahead.

Weiss’ discussion of this is pretty much limited to the requirement for “other powers” to – you will stop me if you’ve heard this one before? – do more “burden sharing” vis-à-vis, of course, the United States. Weiss admits that the Europeans have been making progress here. In fact, there has been an ongoing process, since at least the turn of the Century, of Europeans unsnarling themselves from the U.S.-dominated NATO, and transferring assets and capabilities to EU forces. At the same time, the EU members have been professionalizing their armies, providing better soldiers and more flexible response forces.

The picture is of course quite different in Africa, but there as well, a lot is being done to address their problems. For two examples: the Peace Support Operations Centre in Addis-Ababa (which subsumed the former OAU Conflict Prevention Centre in January of this year) is intended to provide strategic planning, mounting and direction to AU forces, and the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana provides individual training to military and civilian staff for peace operations.

Weiss deals rather perfunctorily with another major problem at the UN, and one that is not inherently structural, but is essentially cultural, and this is the shabby state of internal cooperation within the UN, among the specialized agencies of the UN and indeed throughout the international community. But Weiss says that

Eyes glaze over at the mere mention of “coordination” because it amounts to wishful thinking about improved effectiveness without the power of the purse to compel working together.

Weiss cites as the most egregious case of this the wrangling among UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF and Interaction (a conglomerate of NGOs), over the issue of who would exercise principal responsibility for the care of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). All of the above, as Weiss relates, “sensed a threat to their territory.” The problem is larger and more deeply rooted in the culture of the various organs of what we call, optimistically, the international community. All of these “organs”: the specialized agencies, the international organizations, the NGOs and the host governments are eager to assume the mantle of a leading in role in whatever, all are intensely territorial and all are constantly arrayed for turf wars; their common culture is hard wired for conflict – with each other. Another aspect of this problem is a high-level hypocrisy, where cooperation is confessed and professed by the princes of the church, who know full well that nothing of the sort will happen in the field. At the same time, working level staff are always knitting together shaky partnerships which must not be found out in Pristina or Windhoek or Zagreb. Jamie was once sharply reprimanded for unauthorized cooperation with the European Community Monitors in ex-Yugoslavia; Ingrid was once reproved for too-close cooperation with the military in Namibia. The solution to this is going to involve breaking some heads – but that’s not in the culture, either. Maybe it’s no wonder Weiss didn’t spend much time on this one.

Weiss’ discussion of the state of the international civil service, the Secretariat, or the “Second United Nations” (the first being the member states) touches on a major issue.  If there is one major problem with the Secretariat, it is member states’ – the “First U.N.” – interference in the hiring and employment of Secretariat personnel – the “Second UN”. This is not a complicated issue, and there is a simple solution: the unexceptional enforcement of Article 100 of the Charter, which provides inter alia that

the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or …. authority external to the U.N. … Each Member of the United Nations undertakes to respect the exclusively international character … of … the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.

Were these provisions to be respected and enforced, the problems might be solved rather quickly. But we’re not holding our breaths on this one.

Weiss also provides a most useful review of the scope and the effects of U.S. power, and the challenge to “keep the U.S. in the tent.” The past two decades bear eloquent evidence that appeasing American bullying and blackmail is no solution to that challenge. Some tough love is in order – the international community does Americans no favours when it bows to the Boltons and their ilk, nor does it make it any easier for other friends of the UN to stay their courses. It seems abundantly clear that the Europeans – whose population and wealth make them the only regional block which might rival the US – must support the UN, even at the expense of their bilateral relations with the US. And the UN must, if it is attacked, defend itself, and that defence may include a counter attack. For example, throughout the 1990’s, a period marked by the most serious American government criticism of and interference with the work of the UN, the US was very much in arrears in its financial contributions. This was not accidental; withholding or threatening to withhold contributions has been a frequent tactic of the Americans. Article 19 of the Charter provides that a member two years in arrears in its contributions “shall have no vote in the General Assembly.” Fear of the U.S’. reaction to such a suspension froze everyone in their tracks, but that was scarcely an excuse for doing nothing. We don’t actually see Article 19 suspension as a practicable way ahead, and we suspect that Americans will stay in the tent exclusively on their own terms, and the UN will continue to pull their irons out of the fire. But Article 19 is out there, and it ought not to be forgotten – least of all, by the Americans.

We think it not so surprising that the U.N. has its faults, we think it a miracle that it exists at all. And doesn’t an organization which has survived a Reagan, two Bushes, Newt Gingrich and John Bolton, demonstrate a certain robustness, a degree of flexibility and a considerable measure of survivability? Is it therefore useful to speculate on enlarging the Security Council, restricting the veto, getting the specialized agencies to stop their bickering – or blaming the U.N. because none of the above is even remotely likely to happen?

So we see a much more pragmatic way ahead – the UN is not broken, but it is not without flaws. There are quite a few things about the Charter which have been working well for a very long time – after all, the Charter has been amended only three times since it was first promulgated (and one of those amendments concerned the now-toxic issue of Security Council enlargement). We see the Charter as a toolkit, with which some of those flaws might be fixed; for examples:

•Regional capacities are vital, and everywhere need support and enhancement. Chapter VIII of the Charter provides the architecture and the goals.

• The Secretariat must be freed from interference by member states and their governments, and that means Article 100 must be enforced at any costs.

• Bullying and blackmail by powerful members must be resisted by the less powerful. Especially the blackmailers must be reminded from time to time of the provisions of Article 19 of the Charter.

The United Nations is, as Ottunnu and Doyle have said, “essentially the collective agent of its member states.” We would go further than that: the UN is the mirror of the cultures and societies – the civilization – from which it is sprung. While we consider ourselves optimists, we are compelled by our experiences to be realists. We do not therefore expect in the foreseeable future that the member states nor “the peoples” will become collectively more altruistic, less selfish, longer sighted. We have then to work with a United Nations which is probably “as good as it gets” – and we need to consider carefully how to ensure that it stays good enough.

Despite some flaws, this is a very useful book about the United Nations, and it might be the book to read if you were only to read one book about the UN this year. And perhaps you might fairly judge – you always judge fairly – that we have here told you more about the book we wish had been written, instead of describing the one Weiss did write. All right, then: we do wish someone would write a book which could be entitled,

What’s Right about the United Nations, and How to Keep it That Way.

* The chimera was a monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. John Bolton probably couldn’t have described it better.

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