Delivered October 16, 2007
The title of this lecture is an interesting starting point for a
discussion. I think the answer differs depending on who you ask. My
answer would be that no one "leads" the U.N. Certainly, the
Secretary-General does not lead the organization. Not even
former Secretary-General Kofi Annan--described as a "secular
pope" and the "conscience of the world" by his admirers--was able
to force the organization in a direction it was unwilling to go.
Current Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is unlikely to be more
successful than Annan.
Not even permanent members of the Security Council, clearly the
most powerful individual nations in the U.N., can force the
organization to adopt their agenda.
Based on my observations, the U.N. has 192 leaders--the
member states--which means that it has no leader. Any organization
of 192 generals and no privates is going to experience
gridlock, but the U.N. exacerbates the problem by ignoring
differences among nations.
This is most clearly illustrated by the fact that each member
state has one vote in the General Assembly, despite vast
differences in military power, population, geographical size,
economic strength, and financial contributions to the organization.
Under the parameters established by its charter, U.N. member
states are granted equal standing and privileges in the
organization regardless of these real world disparities.
The U.N. operates under the theory that each member state abides
by the founding principles of the organization and shares an equal
desire to confront and overcome problems facing the world. This
theory is evidently false.
The organization includes many members who do not respect the
fundamental rights of their people. Disparate levels of
development, geographic size, location, power, and other
characteristics ensure that members will disagree about the
priority and urgency of various issues.
On matters that it cares about, each member state seeks to
"lead" the U.N. to adopt its position. On matters of substance,
some member states inevitably oppose this effort. The chaos of
conflicting priorities and demands in the U.N. does not, in
contrast to markets, transform into a spontaneous order
leading to "a more efficient allocation of societal resources than
any design could achieve," to borrow a phrase from Friedrich von
Hayek. The result is often sly maneuvering and low-level conflict
that undermines bold initiatives, increases inefficiency, blocks
change, and virtually assures a lowest-common-denominator
Leadership in this context requires coalitions of member states
to move an agenda. The group with the most votes dominates and, by
default, "leads" the organization. The most powerful and
influential coalitions in the United Nations are the
Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Non-Aligned
Movement, and the Group of 77.
Let me briefly describe each group:
- The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was
established in 1969 to "strengthen solidarity and cooperation among
Islamic States in the political, economic, cultural, scientific and
social fields." The OIC is also strongly focused in its
opposition to Israel and includes in its charter a pledge in
"support of the struggle of the people of Palestine, to help
them regain their rights and liberate their land."
- The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was founded in 1961 to
ensure "the national independence, sovereignty, territorial
integrity and security of non-aligned countries" in their "struggle
against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, Zionism,
and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination,
interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc
politics." Ostensibly, the NAM sought to distance
members from the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold
War. In reality, most NAM members were sympathetic, if not aligned,
with the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War brought an end to
the original stated purpose of the NAM. In recent years, it has
become most notable as a vehicle to disparage American
policies--led by Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Venezuela, and
current NAM chairman Cuba.
- The Group of 77 (G-77) was established in 1964 by 77
developing countries. The G-77 seeks to coordinate, articulate, and
promote the economic interests of developing countries by
leveraging their "joint negotiating capacity on all major
international economic issues within the United Nations system." The
G-77 offers resolutions and decisions in the General Assembly,
its committees, and various U.N. bodies and specialized agencies.
It also produces joint declarations and statements on U.N.
Under General Assembly rules, most decisions are made by simple
majority. Decisions on important matters, such as admitting
new members or approving the budget, require approval by a
two-thirds majority. Looking at the numbers, it is very easy to see
how these groups can use the leverage of their numbers to push or
block various resolutions and reforms.
- The G-77 now has 130 members and represents more than 67
percent of the General Assembly.
- The NAM has 118 members and represents about 61 percent of the
- The OIC has 57 members and represents more than 29 percent of
the General Assembly.
If these groups vote as a bloc, the membership of the G-77 and
the NAM alone are sufficient to pass resolutions in the General
I have described the OIC, the NAM, and the G-77 as distinct
entities, but in fact they overlap in terms of membership.
Unsurprisingly, the groups also share agendas. For instance, all
three groups are hostile to Israel, oppose unilateral economic
sanctions, demand increased economic transfers from developed
countries, and resist critical U.N. reforms to increase
accountability, oversight, and efficiency. Therefore, while the OIC
lacks the numbers of the G-77 and the NAM, because most of its
members are also members of these groups, the OIC can use those
groups to advance its agenda.
There is also a strong tendency in the U.N. for regions to vote
together as blocs. The OIC asserts its agenda through its strong
position in the African and Asian regional groups. Members of the
OIC represent a majority of the African regional group and just
under half of the Asian regional group. The OIC uses its strong
position in these groups to encourage them to support its agenda
and also to get them to support regional candidates for various
positions on U.N. bodies.
Let me provide a couple of examples of how these groups drive
their agendas in the U.N.
Undermining the Human Rights
After years of disappointment, Secretary-General Kofi Annan
characterized the U.N. Commission on Human Rights as a "shadow on
the reputation of the United Nations" and called for it to be
replaced. The General Assembly opposed efforts by the U.S. to have
the new Human Rights Council apply membership criteria to keep
human rights abusers from undermining its agenda (as they had with
the Commission). Critically, the new Council shifted proportional
representation of regions from the Commission to the Council,
giving Africa and Asia a joint majority. This has dramatically
increased the influence of groups like the Non-Aligned
Movement and the OIC.
In its first year, the Council voted to end scrutiny of human
rights practices in Belarus, Cuba, Iran, and Uzbekistan--all of
which have long records of human rights abuses. Specifically, in
March 2007 the Council discontinued consideration of the human
rights situations in Iran and Uzbekistan under the 1503
procedure. Country-specific experts focused on Belarus
and Cuba were eliminated in June 2007, despite extensive
evidence of ongoing violations. Not coincidentally, all four of
these countries are members of the NAM.
The OIC held 17 seats on the Council in 2006, more than the
one-third (16 seats of 47 total seats) required to call a special
session. The Council--led by the OIC--repeatedly singled out Israel
for censure, despite ignoring far worse human rights
situations around the world. Another example is the OIC effort
to constrain freedom of expression through the Council. After a
Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in
2005, the OIC led an effort to persuade the commission, and
then the Council, to adopt a resolution against the defamation
Annan's Reform Agenda
One of the most frustrating priorities of the G-77 has been to
block reform of the U.N. In the wake of numerous U.N. scandals, the
U.S. and other major donors worked with former Secretary-General
Annan to develop a U.N. reform agenda. The General Assembly
approved a broad reform agenda in 2005 and asked the
Secretary-General to submit detailed proposals to implement the
reforms. Most of Annan's reform proposals were, however, blocked by
To put teeth behind the reform effort, the U.S. led a campaign
to cap the U.N. assessed regular budget at $950 million, with the
remaining budget to be authorized if the reforms were adopted. The
G-77 opposed the reforms. Compounding the problem, the G-77 led an
effort to approve a U.N. budget beyond the $950 million cap,
despite making little progress on U.N. reform in June 2006, thus
removing a major incentive for reform. Most of the reforms
have yet to be adopted, including key reforms like reviewing U.N.
mandates, strengthening U.N. oversight bodies, and reviewing
U.N. practices to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
A recent example is Singapore's effort to eliminate the
U.N.'s Procurement Task Force, which was set up in 2006 in response
to rampant problems of fraud and corruption in U.N. procurement. In
its first 18 months, the Task Force identified multiple instances
of fraud, corruption, waste, and mismanagement at the United
Nations Headquarters and in peacekeeping missions--in cases with an
aggregate value in excess of $610 million.
Despite its success, Singapore is leading an effort by the G-77
to deny funding for the task force, which runs out this year.
Singapore is upset about an investigation and allegations made
against Assistant Secretary-General Andrew Toh, who headed the U.N.
Office of Central Support Services, which includes the procurement
division. Toh is from Singapore.
Some of you might be wondering why the G-77, the NAM, or the OIC
might want to block efforts to improve accountability and
transparency, improve oversight, and more efficiently allocate
resources within the U.N. system. It is peculiar, because these
countries are, by and large, among the biggest beneficiaries
and focus of U.N. efforts. You would think they would be advocates
for improved U.N. operations. But they are not.
There is one overriding reason for this.
The Free-Rider Problem
The one-country, one-vote structure of the General Assembly
creates a free-rider problem in which countries that pay little to
the U.N. drive its financial decisions. Under U.N. rules, budgetary
decisions and related reforms require approval of two-thirds of the
General Assembly. Consider the following:
- The combined assessment of the 128 least-assessed
countries--two-thirds of the General Assembly--is a paltry 0.919
percent of the regular budget and a minuscule 0.232 percent of
the peacekeeping budget.
- The members of the G-77 are assessed a combined 8.8
percent of the regular budget and 5.2 percent of the peacekeeping
- The members of the NAM are assessed a combined 4.9 percent
of the regular budget and 1.8 percent of the peacekeeping
- The members of the OIC are assessed a combined 3 percent
of the regular budget and 1.2 percent of the peacekeeping
- By contrast, the top eight contributors are assessed 71.1
percent of the regular budget and 77.6 percent of the
peacekeeping budget in 2007.
- The U.S. alone is assessed 22 percent of the regular
budget and over 26 percent of the peacekeeping budget.
- The percentages do not convey the disparities.
Consider that in 2006 the U.S. paid $439 million to the U.N.
regular budget and over $1.3 billion to the peacekeeping budget
(for the fiscal year ending in June 2007). The 54 countries
assessed the lowest rate of 0.001 percent of the regular budget
each paid less than $21,000 a year --$439 million versus $21,000.
The 35 countries assessed the lowest rate of 0.0001 percent of the
peacekeeping budget each paid just over $5,000--$1.3 billion versus
Nearly all of these countries are in the G-77 and the NAM, and
as such are able to greatly influence or block efforts to reform
the U.N. to reduce waste, corruption, and inefficiency.
These vast disparities in budgetary responsibilities
undermine incentives for most members to ensure that resources are
used efficiently and as intended. Why would these nations ruffle
feathers? It is easy for them to support the status quo or
support an increase in the budget if the cost is
inconsequential to them.
Implications for the U.S.
Supporters of the U.N. often blame U.S. policy, or particular
Ambassadors in the case of John Bolton, for the difficulties
of advancing U.S. priorities in the U.N. The voting peculiarities
and the very real differences in policy objectives belie this
belief. The differences are fundamental and substantial--most
pointedly about what the U.N. is and what role it should assume
internationally. Many influential countries in the U.N.,
particularly in groups like the G-77 and the NAM, see the U.N. as a
vehicle for enhancing their influence to balance the U.S.
What does this mean for the U.S.?
For one, it helps clarify why the U.S. has found it so difficult
to successfully advance its agenda in the organization. When an
organization like the NAM specifically identifies opposing U.S.
policies and balancing against U.S. power as one of its key
purposes and objectives, even benign proposals by
the U.S. become targets for obstruction. A more accommodating
approach in the U.N. generally results in the U.S. compromising on
issues of importance, while getting little reciprocation from
groups like the G-77, the NAM, or the OIC.
Second, the U.S. should be extremely wary of placing more
authority, resources, and support behind U.N. initiatives, legal
vehicles, or bodies as its ability to limit undesirable outcomes in
the organization is weak.
Third, the U.S. should seek to enhance accountability in
the U.N. system through transparency, oversight, and voluntary
financing of U.N. activities. Transparency will better inform U.S.
policymakers about the activities of the organization--a necessary
step in stopping undesirable activities. Oversight by independent
U.N. investigators and auditors helps expose corruption,
politicization, mismanagement, and inefficiency without the U.S.
having to directly intervene. Direct financing of U.N. activities,
ideally achieved by moving assessed funding to voluntary funding,
allows the U.S. to support or withdraw financial support as
Finally, the U.S. should stop treating the U.N. as if it were a
benign organization sympathetic to U.S. interests. The organization
is a political body and many of the other member states are opposed
to key U.S. policies and objectives. They use the institution to
undermine those policies. The U.S. needs to approach the U.N. as it
would as a single, albeit powerful, member of a legislature.
Specifically, the U.S. needs to build coalitions that agree on
fundamental principles and to take advantage of differences between
members of coalitions such as the G-77 and the NAM. For instance,
India is a key member of the NAM, but has little in common with
virulent anti-American countries like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela.
The U.S. needs to cultivate its relationship with India on those
issues on which it is likely to differ with other NAM members.
The U.S. should use its influence and resources to reward and
support nations for siding with the U.S. rather than alternative
coalitions or regional groups. Conversely, it should plainly
express its disappointment in its bilateral relationship and in
multilateral organizations when a nation adopts a counterproductive
position in the U.N. These undesirable actions should influence
future assistance and cooperation. In other words, the U.S.
should be holding nations more accountable for their actions in the
U.N. in the overall diplomatic relationship.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay
Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for
Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
The author would like to thank Heritage Foundation intern Nicole
Morgret for her assistance with this material. These remarks were
delivered at the American Enterprise Institute.
involves confidential proceedings to encourage government
cooperation. See Brett D. Schaefer, "The United Nations Human
Rights Council: A Disastrous First Year," Heritage Foundation
Backgrounder No. 2038, June 1, 2007, at
General Assembly, "Report of the Office of Internal Oversight
Services on the Activities of the Procurement Task Force for the
18-Month Period Ended 30 June 2007," Summary, General Assembly
Document A/62/272*, October 5, 2007.
James Bandler and Steve Stecklow, "U.N.
Antifraud Unit Is in Jeopardy: Singapore, A Major Force In Voting
Bloc, Seeks to Shut Procurement Watchdog," The Wall Street
Journal, October 8, 2007, p. A3.
In the 2006 NAM summit, the group condemned
"all manifestations of unilateralism and attempts to exercise
hegemonic domination in international relations" and accused the
U.S. of committing "a form of psychological and political
terrorism" for naming countries as state sponsors of terrorism. The
document specifically calls on the U.S. to change many of its
policies. No other country is singled out in this manner. The NAM's
Plan of Action aims to "promote and work towards creating a
multi-polar world through the strengthening of multilateralism
through the U.N. and the multilateral processes, which are
indispensable in promoting and preserving the interests of
Non-Aligned Countries." Combined, it is clear that the NAM sees the
U.N. as the preferred battleground to confront the U.S. and as a
vehicle for weakening it.