Transforming the United Nations System: Designs for a Workable World

By Andregg, Michael | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Transforming the United Nations System: Designs for a Workable World


Andregg, Michael, Comparative Civilizations Review


Joseph E. Schwartzberg, Transforming the United Nations System: Designs for a Workable World. Tokyo, Japan: United Nations University Press, 2013.

This was among the last books published by the UN University Press before it went out of business due to chronic funding shortages at the United Nations. That is testament both to this book's importance to the UN system, and to the profound challenges that the UN faces today fulfilling its ideal missions with an organizational structure created in 1945 by the major powers that won the largest and costliest war in human history.

That noted, Professor Schwartzberg (an emeritus geographer at the University of Minnesota who has devoted his life to promoting fairer, and more functional forms of international governance) did the best any scholar could to address both obvious flaws in the current system. It would include the five vetoes on the Security Council, and more obscure problems such as how tiny island and municipal nations like Nauru, Monaco and Singapore have the same weight in General Assembly voting as great powers like China and the USA.

He starts with the General Assembly where he introduces his most comprehensive reform idea, a weighted voting system to replace the archaic one state one vote principle in place today. Simply expressed, Dr. Schwartzberg suggests adding measures of national populations and state contributions to the UN budget to one state one vote, and grouping the world into regions. Populations and budgets obviously change every year, so this would be a dynamic way of scoring actual votes on issues under consideration. That is complicated, but it would also match much more closely the actual power of states to influence events at the UN and elsewhere.

Then, Schwartzberg suggests creating an entirely new body of parliamentarians selected by nation-states, a World Parliamentary Assembly whose fundamental and ultimate purpose would be representing people instead of just nation-states. Schwartzberg envisions a three-step process going from an advisory body with MPs selected by existing governments to a body with real powers elected by actual people of the world, according to the one person one vote principle. That would be change of a truly transformational nature at the UN. If, of course, the dominant powers of the existing UN would allow and fund this new World Parliamentary Assembly. Which they probably will not unless battered by new existential threats. Those come.

Prof. Schwartzberg is well aware of such obstacles, which he notes explicitly in many chapters and in great detail. But he is not deterred from asking how things could be made better anyway. His fourth chapter deals with that pesky veto in the UN Security Council, which alone is empowered to act on life-and-death security challenges. But since the five permanent members of that Council all have vetoes (the USA, China, Russia, Great Britain and France) little if anything can be done about dozens of conflicts and issues that bedevil the world, from Chinese expansions in the South China Sea to nuclear issues involving Iran and Israel to what to do about Syria, if any one of those five legacy nations with vetoes objects. They often do. Meanwhile, much of the world wonders why Britain and France still have such power, when much larger countries in the 21st century like Japan, Brazil, India and Germany are excluded.

Schwartzberg is very thorough. He marches on through weaknesses in environmental protection (Ch. 5 on reforming ECOSOC) human rights (Ch. 6 to create a credible human rights system instead of the sad and sometimes morbid joke that now exists) and reform of the international judicial system (Ch. …

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