Saving the UN from Itself (and Others)

Saving the UN from Itself (and Others)

Peggy and Julian have started us off with some great opening questions on UN reform. Also in the spirit of tossing our some preliminary comments, I want to begin by asking what it is we are actually debating about.

Criticisms of the UN generally come under two broad categories: means and ends. Critiques of the means of the UN focus on problems such as accountability including, for example, democratic accountability for how soldiers are used in peacekeeping operations and financial accountability in the case of the Oil-for-Food program. These criticisms don’t really question the immediate ends of UN programs or the ultimate ends of the UN itself but rather how these policies are implemented. I take Julian’s criticisms to be largely along these lines.

The other form of criticism– the critique of ends– has had a fairly loud voice (though not necessarily broad following) in recent US politics. These attacks are usually not aimed at the immediate ends of UN policies (say, separating warring factions in Country X) but rather at a sense that the real aim of the UN is to erode away the sovereignty of states in favor of its own prerogatives. Giving someone a veto over our security, so to speak. This argument is really about a distrust of multilateralism out of a fear that multilateralism evenutally becomes “one-worldism.”

These two forms of argument are distinct and yet are too often combined when discussing the UN. Yet, you can be highly critical of the current practices of UN financial accountability, for example, and still find great use in multilateralism as a technique of statecraft. You can also find multilateralism can be a good way– perhaps the only way– to address many transnational problems (AIDS, serious environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, genocide, to name a few) without for a moment thinking that we should cede as much power as possible to supranational bureaucrats.

Julian puts forward a stark question at the end of his post: he asks whether “the UN is such a corrupt and/or worthless institution that it should be scrapped.” He suggests that although “the UN is doing important work and simply [needs] to be improved…” we may also need to reconsider the assumption “among folks like the NYT editorial board and by international law academics who have otherwise shown a fairly knee-jerk defense of the institution.”

I agree that the UN needs fixing. I am sure that this is a topic that we will flesh out in the days and weeks to come. However I also think that multilateralism, though far from perfect, is prudent politics in a whole variety of issues. This is something that I think is lost in the heated rhetoric over Oil-for-Food or whether the UN should have acquiesced to US demands to go to war with Iraq as quickly as possible. Knee-jerk defenses of the UN serve it no good; knee-jerk attacks on multilateralism serve the US no good.

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