A Pipe Dream? Reforming the United Nations

By Weiss, Thomas G. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

A Pipe Dream? Reforming the United Nations


Weiss, Thomas G., Harvard International Review


The year 2011 marks the beginning of retirement for many baby-boomers. The Beatles once asked: "Will you still need me/Will you still feed me/When I'm sixty-four?" This year the United Nations turns 66 and many think it should have taken early retirement. Withholding US contributions--one-fifth of the overall UN budget and a quarter of its peacekeeping costs--is a Republican perennial. And the new chair of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, began with a battle cry on the first day of commitee work in 2011: "Reform first, pay later."

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Eyes glaze over at the mention of UN reform. Before becoming a minister in the last Labor government in the United Kingdom, Mark Malloch Brown headed the UN Development Programme and was deputy secretary-general under Kofi Annan. He quipped that the United Nations is the only institution where, over coffee or around water coolers, reform is a more popular topic than sex.

To be fair, more adaptation has taken place in the UN system than critics acknowledge. Indeed, the founders would probably not recognize the system whose foundations were laid in 1945. However, while it would be unfair to describe the United Nations as in a state of stasis, it also would be false to suggest that the UN system is more than woefully slow in reforming itself. Why does so little happen? What, if anything, can be done?

The Central Challenge

Why should anyone in Washington or elsewhere care? The short answer is that dramatic transformation of the world organization, and not mere tinkering, is required if we are to address transboundary problems that threaten human survival and dignity. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan frequently speaks of "problems without passports." Many of the most intractable challenges facing humankind are transnational--acid rain does not require a visa to move from one side of a border to another. These problems range from climate change, migration, and pandemics, to terrorism, financial flows, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Effectively addressing any of these threats requires policies and vigorous actions whose scope is not unilateral, bilateral, or even multilateral, but rather global.

Ironically, the policy authority and resources for tackling global problems remain vested individually in the 192 UN member states rather than in the collective body. The fundamental disjuncture between the natures of growing global threats and the current inadequate structures for international problem-solving and decision-making goes a long way toward explaining fitful, tactical, and short-term local responses to threats that require sustained, strategic, and long-term global thinking and action.

The United States resembles most countries in opting in and out of the United Nations when it suits Washington's short term calculations of interests. Selective "a la carte multilateralism," however, is insufficient. More fundamental reforms of multilateral institutions must be made so that they work effectively and in the common interest.

The United Nations' Main Weaknesses

The United Nations too often suffers paralysis. Before prescribing how to fix it, we must understand three underlying causes of its woes.

The first is the enduring concept of the international community as a system of sovereign states--a notion dating back to the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia. "Organized hypocrisy," as former National Security Council director Stephen Krasner reminds us, is either 360 years old or 360 years young. As a result of the grip of sovereignty, the current international system functions in the middle of a growing divide between virtually all of the life-menacing threats facing the planet and the existing structures for international decisions to do something about them. Government officials and so-called realist scholars of international relations agree that narrowly defined vital interests are the only basis on which to make commitments or avoid them.

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