Magazine article UN Chronicle

Confronting the 'Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations'

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Confronting the 'Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations'

Article excerpt

A DECADE CAN SEEM LIKE AN ETERNITY in international politics. The world has witnessed many profound changes in the ten years that Kofi Annan led the United Nations as its Secretary-General (from 1997 to 2006). The world body may not be perfect, but there are many good people who love the United Nations and are devoted to it. I fervently believe that the world is a better place because of the United Nations and what it does and how it works.

Sometimes the number of trees can crowd out the view of the forest as a whole. At any given time, the challenges that confront us on a daily basis are so enormous, so grave and overpowering, that we tend to overlook the gains and progress that accumulate over time. It was useful to be reminded of this through the inaugural Human Security Report 2005, which exploded the widely believed myths about wars, deaths caused by conflicts, genocide, terrorism and the United Nations effectiveness.

The number of armed conflicts rose steadily until the end of the cold war and peaked in the early 1990s, but has declined since then. Genocides, international crises, military coups and human rights abuses are down as well. The nature of armed conflicts has also changed; although often brutal, today's wars typically kill fewer people. There has also been a shift in where wars are being fought. More people are being killed in Africa's wars today than in the rest of the world combined. Moreover, violent conflicts in the continent exacerbated the very conditions that gave rise to them in the first place, creating a classic "conflict trap" from which escape is difficult.

The United Nations has played a critical role in driving positive changes. UN efforts manifoldly increased to stop wars from starting (preventive diplomacy), end ongoing conflicts (peacemaking), establish peace operations (peacekeeping) and impose sanctions (which can help pressure warring parties into peace negotiations). Similarly, an earlier study undertaken by the United States-based Rand Corporation comparing United Nations and United States operations also held encouraging news for those within the Organization. Not surprisingly, the United Nations is better at low-profile, small footprint operations, where soft-power assets of international legitimacy and political impartiality compensate for a hard-power deficit. Between them, the two sets of studies document a surprising adaptability on the part of the United Nations with regard to policy innovation and operational success, to cope with a fast-changing world. They contradict the prevailing pessimism about the state of the world and cynicism about the UN performance. This should lead neither to complacency about the number and gravity of the problems that remain to be addressed nor about challenges still confronting the Organization.

However, it is easy to fall into the trap of attributing problems to short-term differences of interests or clash of personalities. There are some significant underlying changes that contribute to its collective difficulties. The very strength of the United Nations--the common meeting house of all the world's countries--is a major source of weakness with respect to efficient decision-making. We know that many of the most intractable problems are global in scope and will most likely require concerted multilateral action that is also global in its reach. But the policy authority and the competence to mobilize the resources needed for tackling the problems remain vested in Member States. This strategic disconnect explains to a certain extent the recurrent difficulties facing the United Nations on many fronts and the oftentimes fitful nature of its responses.

A central challenge that Kofi Annan was not able to meet successfully in every instance, and which will continue to confront his successor, is how to combine the unique legitimacy and international authority of the United Nations with the global reach and power of the United States. …

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