November 11, 2003
By Helle C. Dale
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Dale is Deputy Director of The Kathryn and Shelby
Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage
First Appeared in Washington Times
Bringing the United Nations into the 21st century will be a Herculean task.
Helle C. Dale
Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
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