How Not to Reform the United Nations

By Luck, Edward C. | Global Governance, October-December 2005 | Go to article overview

How Not to Reform the United Nations


Luck, Edward C., Global Governance


Midway through the most ambitious reform drive in United Nations history, it is high time to revisit and hopefully relearn some of the more painful lessons of past reform campaigns. None of this is rocket science--or string theory, to be more contemporary. The past six decades have seen dozens of reform efforts, most following recurring patterns and producing largely predictable results. As of midsummer 2005, things are not going well, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Two years ago, the effort started off on the wrong foot when Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with a puzzling disregard for the history and politics of the world organization, called for a "radical" overhauling of intergovernmental machinery, beginning with the Security Council. (1)

Now, fortunately, member states have retaken the reins and, in their methodical, plodding, but purposeful fashion, are building a consensus on a few modest and sensible renovations. In the process, they have demonstrated both that it is their organization after all and that they are not so displeased with the current structure. The results will fall far short of the historic transformation proposed by the secretary-general. Compared to past efforts, however, the product should appear reasonably respectable.

Typically, there are six steps to a cycle of UN reform. First, the secretary-general and a chorus of earnest national leaders bemoan the state of the organization, assert that profound changes in the global situation demand sweeping renovations, and call for fresh approaches and bold initiatives. As Annan warned the General Assembly, "Excellencies, we have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded." (2) Presumably the gross overstatement was for dramatic effect.

Second, some sort of blue-ribbon commission is assembled to add substantive depth to the instincts of the political leaders. In this case, the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (HLP) acquitted itself better than most of its predecessors, though its draft of 101 recommendations proved to be a mixed lot in terms of practicality and desirability. (3) It fared far better than two such exercises encouraged by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who found their conclusions to be unpalatable. (4)

Third, once the eminent ones have articulated their vision, the secretary-general translates their ideas into digestible policy steps for consideration by the membership. How far and on what issues the secretary-general can be an effective advocate is a political judgment. Generally his role fades over the course of a transition period from secretariat to state leadership. This year, given the secretary-general's personal and political liabilities, this shift has been remarkably quick and decisive. Once again, the secretary-general proposes and the General Assembly disposes.

Fourth, the member states become fully engaged as decision points approach and the implications for their national interests become clear. For most, their conservative instincts and fear of change come to the surface. Big and small states alike begin to fret that their relative positions in the UN, built through years of practice and maneuver, could be affected by unpredictable renovations. As long as their corners of the body are well defended, they may continue to mouth rhetoric about sweeping change and historic opportunities, but the hunt for modest measures capable of attracting consensus begins in earnest. As of midsummer 2005, General Assembly President Jean Ping and his small army of facilitators are deeply engaged in this critical phase of the enterprise, though differences remain on the shape and status of the summit document.

Fifth, some kind of culminating event is convened. Sometimes this will coincide with one of the UN's major anniversaries, though remarkably little reform has actually ever been accomplished during these commemorative years. …

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