Power and paradox in the United Nations

Mariano Aguirre
7 November 2006

At the end of 2006 Kofi Annan will conclude his term as secretary-general of the United Nations and will be replaced by Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean career diplomat and politician (most recently minister of foreign affairs and trade) who generates little enthusiasm within or outside the organisation. Each time a new secretary-general is appointed, the debate on the future and reform of the organisation resumes. But whatever the new secretary-general's performance, an administrative or political reform is not possible, for two reasons: no member of the Security Council is in favour of it, and even if they were the likelihood of the council's five members agreeing which reforms should be undertaken is remote.

The United Nations has been weakened in the first decade of the 21st century. Kofi Annan's attempt to recast the organisation with a series of reforms was in part a response to this. The proposals were embodied in the report of the high-level panel he commissioned, In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all, published in March 2005 and presented to the sixtieth-anniversary meeting of the general assembly in September of that year.

The last year has seen some strengthening in Annan's position and that of the UN. This, however, is less owed to the secretary-general's own initiatives than to events in the real world. After several years when his hands seemed tied in almost every crisis, Annan has been able or is now in a position to facilitate progress in three areas of the "greater middle east":

  • Iran, where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is in the midst of negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear-research programmes
  • Iraq, where the United States and Britain might soon turn towards the United Nations as part of a withdrawal strategy
  • Israel/Lebanon, where the UN has been closely involved in overseeing the agreement that ended the war of July-August 2006.

Mariano Aguirre is a journalist and writer on international relations. He is co-director of the peace & security and human-rights programmes of the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride) in Madrid

Among Mariano Aguirre's articles on openDemocracy:

"America underneath New York"
(November 2004)

"The many cities of Buenos Aires" (February 2005)

"Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff"
(July 2005)

"The Hurricane and the Empire"
(September 2005)

"Haiti: living on the edge"
(February 2006)

"Bush's security strategy: defend the nation, change the world" (March 2006)

An important influence on this relatively favourable moment for the United Nations is the United States's failure and loss of legitimacy in Iraq. The UN was marginalised in 2002-03 by Washington and London (as well as their allies such as Spain and Australia), but the outcome in Iraq has now made a similar pattern where Iran is concerned extremely unlikely. The post-Iraq environment also adds authority to Kofi Annan's more outspoken stance on the need to talk to all states and actors in the middle east in order to create the dynamics for a lasting settlement.

Moreover, both the secretary-general and other UN bodies adopted positions that were clearly critical of Israel's war against Lebanon. Again, the evident failure of the powerful Israeli army to defeat Hizbollah (and the absence of any meaningful diplomatic alternative from the European Union) created the space for the United Nations to play the main role in carving out an agreement.

David Rieff considers that, despite all problems and weaknesses, "the UN's future is perfectly viable because no one has a good alternative to propose" and that "even the most die-hard unilateralists" will end up calling at the door of the next secretary-general (see David Rieff, "The place is a mess, but it beats Plan B", Los Angeles Times, 17 September 2006).

Great responsibilities, little power

At the heart of understanding the United Nations is the paradox that it both exists and does not exist beyond its members.

On the one hand, the organisation as a whole has played a crucial, consolidating role in a number of fields:

  • promotion and development of public international law
  • defence of the universality of human rights
  • dissemination of new ideas about peace and security
  • advocacy of plans against poverty
  • protection of the environment.

All this suggests that the organisation has a high level of maturity and autonomy.

On the other hand, in terms of focused action the UN's dependence on the will of the more powerful states is manifest. These states are concentrated in a Security Council that is failing to adjust to new, international, multi-polar trends - as well as to the rise of such powers as China, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and India.

These two sides of the UN - its approach to key subjects in the international society and its lack of political power to decide thereon - come together in the office of a secretary-general that (in the words of former under-secretary-general Brian Urquhart) has "great responsibility and expectations, but little power" (see "The Next Secretary General", Foreign Affairs, September-October 2006).

The UN also lives the tension between the general interests of the international community and the particular interests of the member-states. This is elaborated in a new book by Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations, which advocates a series of important intermediate reforms. (This British historian has a broad knowledge of the institution; in 1993-95, he carried out - with a team from Yale University - a crucial study on the future of the UN commissioned by the Ford Foundation).

Kennedy explains the historical conditions under which the UN was created and how its founding charter already considers the tension between what each powerful state wants and what the international community can do. Contradictions arose from the beginning between the particular interests of each state and the leaders and diplomats of the post-war generation who foresaw the need for a multilateral system. It is precisely the secretary-general who is given the difficult mission to reconcile the interests of multiple actors, to define and defend the general interest in matters as varied as genocide or global trade, to ensure the observance of international law and to measure its power with a Security Council that is driven by the selfish interests of its members.

An incomplete reform

Kofi Annan has been UN secretary-general during a period in which the UN has been under strong pressure - from the United States and Britain in relation to their attack on Iraq in 2003, from allegations of corruption (especially over the "oil-for-food" programme), and from the polarisation of north-south relations as a result of budget management. At the same time, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsened and radical Islamist terrorism became an international issue.

The UN has seen itself forced to define terrorism, set limits to security without attacking freedoms, and carry on peacekeeping and state-building missions in Haiti, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while delegating to Nato a difficult mission in Afghanistan. It also set up the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council, so far the only results of the reforms Kofi Annan outlined in September 2005.

In the end, the UN is the only body able to manage complex crises, especially when the great powers make mistakes or fail to get involved. Kennedy identifies the rise of new regional powers, the environmental crisis, international terrorism and the institutional weakness of a series of states as essential tasks for the UN. Other crucial questions are the defence of human rights and the environment, and an improvement of the understanding of global difference, of other peoples and cultures.

However, it will not be possible to undertake major reforms; the American right demands a dismantling of the organisation, while neither Europe, China, nor Russia is unwilling to consolidate it sufficiently. Kennedy considers that the only option left is to make progress through gradual changes.

Among these are:

  • including other states in the responsibilities of the Security Council
  • creating an intelligence and early-warning system to prevent global crises and threats,
  • increasing the coordination between UN agencies to respond to state-building challenges
  • putting military forces of intervention at the service of the secretary-general
  • improving the quality of peacekeeping operations.

The author further asks what the United Nations can do in the economic and social areas that other actors are not able to. If a key aim is to reduce poverty in more than sixty countries around the world, then the Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) should be made operational and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should mobilise in this direction, reminding their executives that other regional powers are gaining weight and will change direction shortly.

These are some practical changes that could be adopted by countries in different continents as specific ways to support a multilateral system. The situation is a complex one because the the international system is witnessing a return both to unilateralism and to economic nationalism and particularist identities. If a contradiction of the United Nations today is that it has a lot to do but little power, maybe its future will be contradictory as well: faced constantly with the prospect of its own ineffectiveness, but responding with practical changes in basic operational matters focused on the goal of improving the functioning of international society.

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