Whatever Happened to UN Reform?

Whatever Happened to UN Reform?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m completing a short, popular, non-academic, policy book on US-UN relations.  The genesis of the book, however, was the run-up to the UN reform summit, the General Assembly summit (and accompanying final document) of September 2005.

My editors have been beyond patient in waiting for me to finish this not-very-large project.  But I must say that the one silver lining in my dilatoriness is that enough time has passed to see that the festival-like atmosphere surrounding “UN reform” in 2005 has not really amounted to much over the succeeding couple of years.  I was caught up, like many others, in the hoopla in 2005.  Had I done what I intended at that moment, I would have produced a breathless essay on the perils and promise of UN reform.  Which would have seemed, just a year or so later, let alone today, silly and overwrought.

The September 2005 final document contained a couple of innovations – the organizational commitment to post-conflict rebuilding efforts a notable example.  It did mention responsibility to protect, but did so while qualifying it with a reference to the permission of the Security Council, so in that sense this represented one step forward, two steps back from where the idea stood when NATO acted in Kosovo (at least as far as NATO was concerned, anyway).

The rest of it mostly went nowhere.  Kofi Annan complained bitterly and correctly that he couldn’t get states to focus on anything other than proposed Security Council reforms that were, he observed, destined to go nowhere.  Fascinating even today to see how much fervid press coverage was devoted, in the respective countries concerned, to quixotic national campaigns for a permanent Security Council seat – especially in India, Japan, and Germany – as though India would not be checked by Pakistan, China, and the whole Islamic Conference; Japan by China; and Germany by, well, everyone. Even a definition of terrorism parallel to noncombatant immunity in the laws of war failed to go through, despite Annan’s serious, years-long efforts.  The new Human Rights Council is, in the view of the New York Times editorial page, anyway, as bad or worse than the Human Rights Commission it replaced.

I have monitored movement at the UN on the matters committed for change and reform in the September 2005 final document very closely, before and after the summit.  The UN itself has a web page devoted to UN reform.  The World Federalist has a project on UN reform with a web page that keeps track of many reform issues.  UN Watch keeps particular track of human rights issues at the UN, with some attention to UN reform agendas.  There are lots more.  New York Times Magazine writer James Traub produced a highly readable, if a touch hagiograhic, account of the UN under Kofi Annan, with a very interesting blow by blow account of the UN reform negotiations (seen pretty much from the viewpoint of the senior members of the Secretariat; the book radiates, to my antennae, Mark Malloch Brown as the key source), The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power.  It contrasts nicely (and very considerably) with John Bolton’s take-no-prisoners memoir (radiating, well, John Bolton as the key source) of his time as US ambassador, Surrender is Not an Option: serious students of the subject are well advised to read both books, and the notes and sources carefully.  AEI’s Josh Muravchik produced a short study in 2005, The Future of the United Nations, which is a sharply argued, unapologetically neoconservative polemic and which also includes some very instructive tables on General Assembly voting data as appendices, among other things.  Yale historian Paul Kennedy produced a lengthy study of the UN and global governance in 2006, The Parliament of Man (just coming out in paperback; I have a, gulp, 8,000 word review coming out on the recently published Spanish translation in the Madrid Revista de Libros in the fall, but it is also in Spanish); it, however, is not about UN reform as such, but seems to be a project leftover from the 1990s updated, a discussion of global governance and the UN a little bit as history but, really, more as platonic ideal.

If you want to know what stuff is not reforming, or worse (much worse), you can check with two indispensable sources who do the only investigative reporting on the UN I’m aware of, rather than, say, simply channeling press releases from the Secretariat, Inner City Press and Claudia Rosett.

Overall, however, I believe I can save people much research trouble by simply saying that having monitored it all for a couple of years, since 2003, there has been very little of anything having to do with the 2005 reform exercise that has gone anywhere or done anything. One can argue about where blame for that lies, but that’s the bottom line.  In general, this tends to confirm my general view that the UN, far from being an institution in crisis, is actually remarkably stable – an institution in generally happy equilibrium.  My estimation, for what it’s worth, is that the UN is an organization that is marching – but marching in place.  And that this place-marching within a cul-de-sac is actually a reasonably contented equilibrium.  Even the protests, periodic eruptions about crisis this or crisis that, whines, whimpers, and wails, are mostly built into the longer term, restful equipoise.  Most relevant UN actors, including the US, have approximately the UN they want.

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I’m curious what other views of the Human Rights Council are. Certainly there has been some footdragging — but there have been some limited successes, given that some countries with bad records have been screened out. If the Council has been a colossal failure then I’m not sure what the alternatives are…