The John W. Holmes Lecture: Growing the "Third UN" for People-Centered Development-The United Nations, Civil Society, and Beyond

By Coate, Roger A. | Global Governance, April-June 2009 | Go to article overview

The John W. Holmes Lecture: Growing the "Third UN" for People-Centered Development-The United Nations, Civil Society, and Beyond


Coate, Roger A., Global Governance


Three decades ago John Holmes argued that the need for having the kind of "international organizations in which to tackle the inescapably complex economic and social issues in an interdependent world need not be restated." Despite these words, ten years later, when Donald Puchala and I presented the first "State of the United Nations Report" to the second annual meeting of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS), we found an organizational system teetering and tottering on the verge of crisis. (1) There was a void of leadership, as well as a crisis of capacity precipitated largely by the refusal of the United States to fulfill its legal obligation to fund UN agencies; and staff morale was at a historic low. One of the main themes that we explored in that report was the challenge to the UN system--as intergovernmental institutions--of dealing with the plethora of global problems that confront the world and dominate the global agenda and that cannot be solved by governmental or intergovernmental means alone. Now, after twenty more years, the illusive quest continues for new avenues and directions for making global governance more effective for promoting sustainable human security and development.

In this context, this article explores the current state of the debate over United Nations-civil society/private sector relations and why this relationship is critical to the future of the UN system and its success in dealing with the nexus of complex issues that crowd the global agenda. (2) But one cannot understand the nature and implications of this debate without understanding its history and exploring the various assumptions, logic, worldviews, and intellectual and practical biases that underpin the positions within it.

The UN in Holmesian Perspective

The story begins with John Holmes, in whose honor this essay is being written. In his article examining US-UN relations, "A Non-American Perspective," (3) Holmes argued that it was because the UN was founded on "permanent reality rather than legal fictions" that the system has survived and grown. Understanding the nature of the meanings of that reality and the inherent contradictions and tensions encompassed within them is critical for understanding the past and present as well as future possibilities of civil UN-civil society/private sector relations. He challenged that

  the popular perception of the UN as a failed world government must
  be corrected. The problem, of course, always has been that the
  perfervid defenders and malevolent critics have the same
  misunderstanding. They are concerned with structure rather than
  with function. What might correct this misunderstanding is the
  involvement of far more people in the functions for which the UN
  system exists. ... More precise calculation and fewer general
  slogans are required in determining exactly what is advisable and
  possible to expect of the UN system. ... A better perspective is
  gained by starting from the agenda rather than by concerning oneself
  primarily with the preservation or improvement of the structure. (4)

The United Nations, beginning from the 1942 alliance, represented a unique blend of real politic, liberal ideology, idealism, functionalism, and war weariness. John Holmes understood this well. Again quoting Holmes:

  Roosevelt deliberately launched the UN with a conference dealing
  with the practical question of food. The United States was as much
  responsible as any country for seeing that agencies dealing with
  relief, international monetary and financial questions, and civil
  aviation were tackled before San Francisco. The UN in wartime had
  to be created in the abstract, but it was no Wilsonian philosopher's
dream. Then as now there were things to be done, and institutions were
devised or improvised to cope with them. (5)

The UN that Holmes saw and that Don Puchala and I observed and reported on a decade later was one that was being beaten, battered, and abused by its primary creator--the United States. …

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