New United Nations: Continuous Change and Reform: ... the UN Hopes to Secure for Itself a Central Place in the Future of Multilateral Diplomacy

By Ruggie, John Gerard | Behind the Headlines, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

New United Nations: Continuous Change and Reform: ... the UN Hopes to Secure for Itself a Central Place in the Future of Multilateral Diplomacy


Ruggie, John Gerard, Behind the Headlines


My aim in this brief article is to put into perspective the current process of reform and renewal that is transforming the United Nations. Critics of the UN all too often equate reform with downsizing: cuts in budgets, staff size, and programmes. And indeed the UN has instituted such changes within the last year: the current budget is lower than that of the last biennium; posts have been eliminated; and secretariat units have been consolidated.

But reform has to be seen as more than the sum of its cuts. It has to express a commitment to making the UN as effective as we know how. And the process must be guided by a vision of the world's needs, today and tomorrow. That is how the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, views the challenge of reform.

We live in an era of realignment. Fundamental forces are reshaping our societies and our lives, thrusting new challenges onto the international agenda and providing the primary impetus for and the context of ongoing UN reforms.

The end of the cold war is one such force. Nearly a decade after the Berlin wall came down, the world is still struggling to undo the social, economic, and political distortions of superpower rivalry. Cases in point include interethnic conflicts in central Asia and the former Yugoslavia and instability in former proxy battlegrounds of Africa and Asia. With nuclear tests in India and Pakistan this year, the nuclear weapons equilibrium has entered a new and potentially destabilizing phase.

Globalization is a second fundamental force reshaping the world today. It is perhaps the most profound source of international transformation since the industrial revolution. The globalization of finance and production has generated a sustained period of economic expansion and created vast new opportunities for some. But some globalization also poses risks - an obvious instance being the tightly coupled and largely unregulated international financial markets that have battered east and Southeast Asian economies in recent months. Also, the benefits of globalization still reach relatively few developing countries - less than four per cent of direct foreign investment goes to Africa, for example, and twelve countries account for 80 per cent of all investment flows to the developing world.

Globalization rests on and is sustained by yet a third transformative force: the remarkable revolution in information technology. It has unfolded most extensively in the industrialized world, but also holds enormous potential for developing countries in areas ranging from education to medicine, from agricultural production to more effective public sector management.

Fourth is the intensification of global environmental interdependencies. Environmental degradation is the quintessential problem without a passport, transcending the power of any single state to redress on its own.

Fifth, there is a growing trend towards democratization in the world. Some 120 countries now hold generally free and fair elections, the highest total in history. The social, economic, and political benefits of basing systems of rule on the principle of the will of the people have resulted in both greater peace and greater prosperity, though the transition to democracy is often slow and at times fraught with difficulty and conflict. Moreover, elections are only the beginning of the process; and holding the second election is as important, if not more so, than holding the first.

The growing influence of civil society is another factor that has transformed the way the world works: women's associations, human rights groups, humanitarian organizations, parliamentarians, the business community, and others. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become indispensable to the execution at the field level of UN projects in human rights, humanitarian affairs, peace-building, environment, and development. And business is deeply engaged with the UN in a variety of technical areas, such as standard setting, and increasingly at the policy level as well. …

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