November 11, 2003

November 11, 2003 | Commentary on International Organizations

Cleaning Out the U.N. Stables

Who would not like to be an eminent person? Yet, when you consider the task before the 16 "Eminent Persons," appointed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to study United Nations reform, some people may not want to be considered. Bringing the United Nations into the 21st century will be a Herculean task.

Mr. Annan's group -- which includes former U.S. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and former Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen -- follows in the eminent footsteps of a similar 12-member group, appointed a decade ago by previous Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali to perform exactly the same job. That group's report barely saw the light of day.

Nevertheless, U.N. reform is in the air, spurred by the total failure of the U.N. Security Council to reach agreement on Iraq. The debacle proved beyond doubt that the United Nations is unwilling enforce its own resolutions and that the Security Council has no way of transcending existing political divisions between its members.

The American case for U.N. reform was made by President Bush himself speaking to the U.N. General Assembly in September. It was recently reiterated by Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Kim Holmes in a well-received speech before the Council on Foreign Relations. And last week, Mr. Holmes elaborated the Bush approach to the United Nations in a speech given in Chicago at a conference on the "Viability of International Regimes and Institutions" hosted by the McCormick Tribune Foundation and the Heritage Foundation.

The Bush administration believes that the United Nations is still useful, said Mr. Holmes. The Security Council should be a forum, a vehicle for debate to settle international differences. While agencies such as the World Food program and UNICEF do good work, he noted, "the United Nations has its limitations." The organization is beset by waste, fraud and abuse, too many programs, and a rotation system that occasionally produces appalling countries like Libya and Iraq to head the U.N. Human Rights Commission or the Committee on Disarmament.

Among other problems that need to be addressed, Mr. Holmes said, is the fact that the General Assembly is ineffectual and dominated by certain agendas. Last year, for instance, 25 percent of the General Assembly resolutions focused on Israel. The United Nations has too many dictatorships. And the Economic and Social Council gobbles up two thirds of total U.N. expenditures, but has only 53 members. The Bush administration, however, will not seek Security Council reform.

Now, there is a good case to be made for rethinking the anachronistic institution of the Security Council with its five permanent veto members, "one superpower, one emerging power, and three collapsed powers," as former American U.N. Ambassador Richard Williamson describes them. But asking the permanent five to vote their own privileges out of existence may not be very realistic.

The most difficult issues relating to U.N. reform, said Yale historian Paul Kennedy, are those that smack of limiting national sovereignty. "UNICEF, for instance, is not controversial because it does not affect national sovereignty," he said, nor are the other agencies of the United Nations that do not challenge national sovereignty.

Americans in particular are not at all comfortable with the surrender of sovereignty, nor are the Russians or the Chinese. The Europeans find this less of a problem, being used to pooling national sovereignty within the European Union. (If the EU ever becomes a super state, we'll see if they feel differently.)

Therefore, focusing U.N. reform on improving the humanitarian agencies that have general support does makes make more sense in the sort term. Or perhaps reforming the Human Rights Commission could be a place to start; it would certainly indicate whether the will exists.

Some might argue that we would be better off with a dysfunctional United Nations that the United States can ignore in its foreign policy. We can certainly ignore the U.N. now, and when national security is at stake, the United States has every right to do so. Yet, in terms of international public opinion, the cost is high.

The United Nations has 191 member nations, every country on earth, and most of them consider it their most important international forum. Whenever the United States turns its back on the U.N. process, many countries take great offense, to the point where a recent international survey identified the United States to be one of the greatest threats to international peace, along with North Korea and Iran.

Now, this is totally absurd, but it cannot be ignored. Engaging the United Nations on some level may well be wise damage limitation.

Helle Dale is Deputy Director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First Appeared in Washington Times