70 and Counting, Whither the UN?

The UN has faced a barrage of criticism and scandal lately. But with a new leadership contest ongoing, is there an opportunity to rekindle our collective optimism in multilateral organizations?

By Thomas G. Weiss

Tagged United Nations

A tourist navigating the security barriers separating New York City from the iconic UN headquarters on First Avenue innocently asks, “How many people work here?” The tour guide snidely replies, “About half.” Yet that widespread impression about the ineptitude of the world organization’s bureaucracy and politicized deliberations is often met with another assertion: “If the UN did not exist, we would have to reinvent it.” If it weren’t around, the thinking goes, another agency would necessarily have to be erected in its place.

So which is it? Is the UN a wasteful drain on global resources or is it, despite its failings, essential? As the annual parade of presidents, prime ministers, princes, and pundits arrives for the 71st session of the General Assembly, it is worth reflecting on that question, especially since we are also approaching the end of the drawn-out selection process for the organization’s next secretary-general. The Security Council’s four straw polls have resulted in two general assertions (the two “G’s”) about the race so far: geography—supposedly it is Eastern Europe’s turn; and gender—for the first time half of the 12 declared candidates are women, although they are currently all running behind their male counterparts. The front-runner is António Guterres, a Portuguese male who was prime minister and headed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

On January 1st, 2017, the ninth secretary-general, whoever she or he is, will benefit briefly from member states’ good will. The opportunity for significant change is normally enhanced during a “honeymoon,” in other words, during the first year of a mandate. Those in senior leadership positions customarily tender resignations, providing the incoming secretary-general with the chance to make adjustments rapidly, either through new blood or reappointments. Although Ban Ki-moon failed to seize the opportunity, both Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan instituted sweeping staffing and management changes in 1992, 1997, and 2002.

Calls to dramatically revamp UN architecture, of course, are not new. For instance, Robert Jackson famously gave up on streamlining the UN development system, which he dubbed a “pre-historic monster.” Countless unsuccessful attempts have been tabled since his 1969 “Capacity Study,” which Margaret Joan Anstee described as “the ‘Bible’ of UN reform because its precepts are lauded by everyone but put into effect by no one.”

However, not only was 2015 the 70th anniversary of the signing and entry into force of the UN Charter; it was also a banner year for multilateral norms with adoptions of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals. It was notable, as well, for new and ambitious reform proposals—from both the Independent Commission on Multilateralism and the Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance; and for three blockbuster reviews of UN peace operations: the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, the Advisory Group of Experts on Peacebuilding, and the Global Study on resolution 1325 (on the Women, Peace and Security agenda). The proverbial bottom-line was clear: Dramatic changes are imperative both at headquarters and in the field if the world organization is to respond to the twenty-first century’s complex threats. They arrive at the 11th hour of the outgoing secretary-general’s mandate but will be in his successor’s in-box.

While last year’s 70th anniversary may have been celebrated with champagne flutes, the planet still confronts a growing list of life-threatening challenges ranging from the proliferation of WMDs to dangerous pandemics, from terrorism to climate change, from mass atrocities to poverty.

To state the obvious: The United Nations often fails at addressing these kinds of challenges—and it achieves less than the visions of its founders. One reason is that the organization’s goals are too visionary, or at least go far beyond where most governments are prepared to go. The adage continues to ring true: States get the international organizations they deserve.

However, another explanation is that the UN’s shortcomings result from waste, inefficiency, and weak personnel who accomplish less and act with less imagination than they could and should. The UN’s organizational chart refers to a “system,” which implies coherence and cohesion, but has more in common with feudalism than anything more modern. Frequent use is also made of the term “family,” a folksy but more accurate image because, like many such units, the UN family is dysfunctional.

The overlapping jurisdictions of UN bodies, the lack of coordination among their activities, and the absence of centralized financing for the system as a whole make turf battles more attractive than sensible collaboration. The UN’s various moving parts too often work at cross purposes. The system’s entities pursue fundraising to expand mandates, stake out territory, and pursue mission creep. Fundamental change, coherence, and cooperation are not in the bureaucracy’s interest; inertia and unproductive competition are. Consolidation is anathema as officials rationalize complexity and respond to incentives from donors. Moreover, they act within institutional structures whose design would have challenged even cartoonist Rube Goldberg. Individual organizations focusing on related areas are often located in different cities than their relevant UN partners, operating, ostensibly, apart. An almost universal chorus sings the atonal tune praising atomization and autonomy.

The General Assembly is the main concert hall for this cacophony. Recalling the UN’s lofty ideals and achievements is a poor defense for ineffectiveness. We could and should have a better United Nations. This result would be facilitated, for one, with less interference from governments in recruitment and promotion, including for the position of secretary-general, and for other senior positions. Today, it would help if greater use were made of objective and up-to-date techniques for attracting, selecting, appointing, promoting, and retaining the best and the brightest from the widest and most diverse possible pool of candidates.

One such international civil servant was Brian Urquhart, who was the second UN staff member recruited in 1946, after surviving combat in World War II. As the 71st session of the General Assembly opens, it is worth considering who he had in mind when he referred to the “remarkable generation of leaders and public servants” who led during, and after, the world cataclysm. These pragmatic idealists were “more concerned about the future of humanity than the outcome of the next election.” Unfortunately, major and minor powers alike are headed by myopic leaders who no longer have any such vision.

Let’s hope that the next UN secretary-general does. The selection—which will probably take place in October after the Security Council’s next straw poll, on September 26th—offers a chance to rekindle our collective optimism about multilateral cooperation. She or he must appreciate the flaws in the structure and staffing of the dysfunctional UN family, of course, but, more importantly, also have the determination and guts to undertake the Sisyphean tasks of reform that have routinely been ignored such as consolidating funds and programs, or getting rid of bureaucratic dead-wood, or actually implementing a zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation by peacekeepers.

In doing so, however, we must remember: The UN could very well have gone the way of the defunct League of Nations. It has not. Those fighting Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan did not content themselves with rolling back history to the feeble international structures of 1913; rather they created a successor that finessed some weaknesses and built on the strengths of its predecessor. Members of the First UN (member states), the Second UN (staff), and the Third UN (civil society and the private sector) have, together, ensured the continued existence, if not the robust health, of today’s world organization.

Many could, nonetheless, imagine a planet without this messy UN. Yet such a world would be more bereft, less just, more polluted, less stable, more repressive, and less humane than the one to which the United Nations aspires and, at its best, contributes.

For example, would the world really be a better place if Syria still possessed chemical weapons? Would the worldwide plight of women really be improved without efforts to publicize gender inequality since the Commission on the Status of Women began deliberations in 1946? Would we really be closer to halting climate change without the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Would the Ebola pandemic really have been less severe without the World Health Organization? Would the world’s troubled spots really be less violent without 110,000 blue helmets on the ground during periods of armed conflict? Would the 65 million forcibly displaced persons really be better off without the UNHCR? And the list goes on.

We are not starting from scratch. Some of today’s global problems ironically reflect past multilateral successes—for instance, more states as a result of decolonization; more globalization as a result of trade liberalization; more overlapping institutions as a result of interdependence; and more environmental degradation as a result of growth. Of course, the United Nations could have been better—performed its work with more competence and greater acumen—and it could have done more.

But there is still time. A world without the UN is neither plausible nor desirable. A world with a more creative and effective UN, however, is both.

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Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and a 2016 Andrew Carnegie Fellow exploring a counterfactual for his upcoming book, Would the World Be Better Without the UN? His most recent books are What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It (2016) and Humanitarian Intervention (2016).

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