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by Edward Marks

Edward Marks

The author of this assessment of the interaction between the U. S. interest in UN reform and U. S. national interests sets forth a blue print for the advancement of both concerns. A frequent contributor to the pages of this publication, he is a member of the American Diplomacy Publishers’ board.—Ed.

“While it has been conventional wisdom for some time now that the public lacks interest in foreign affairs, public opinion polls and the persistent need for the administration to address foreign policy problems… indicates the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Grabbing the issue of a responsible, bipartisan U.S. Government policy towards the UN… might be an effective way for someone to claim the mantle of responsible leadership in the tradition of all successf ul American presidents.”

The United Nations is no exception to the general rule that every organization needs periodic reform or reorganization. However, little was done about UN reform until the early 1990s, when the end of the Cold War opened up possibilities for change. The sudden popularity of UN peacekeeping created a demand for dramatic change in the UN Secretariat as the number, complexity, and cost of UN peacekeeping operations escalated dramatically. Changing economic conditions, including the dramatic increase in the free flow of private capital, led to declining enthusiasm among Western countries for financing even the existing levels of economic development. The global readjustment of political relations caused many countries to review the pattern of their international relationships in general and their participation in the United Nations in particular. In his last years, Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar was pressured to make significant organizational refor ms. His successor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was elected with a commitment to change (at least in the minds of many of his Western supporters). Boutros-Ghali was not reelected to a second term and American support for his successor, Kofi Annan, was based on the assumption that he would be a more effective reformer.

The Clinton Administration expressed interest in UN reform from the beginning, if only as a corollary to its broader interest in “assertive multilateralism.” The administration’s desire to initiate a more active American multilateral role was not shared by everyone in American public life, however, and a chorus of critics soon renewed attacks on the UN for its alleged corruption, incompetence, and general inefficiency. When Congress had a rude wake-up call when the bill for the expanded peacekeeping program arrived in the mail, it demanded more consultation and involvement in the approval process, and then deliberately allowed arrears to build. Clinton Administration support for UN reform served, at least partially, as a tactical move to preempt the anti-UN moment in Congress. Although the reform campaign—after a somewhat confused start—was well-motivated and had some success, the Administration may have sabotaged its fundamental interest in meaningful multilateralism by focusing on administrative reform of the UN bureaucracy, rather than political reform of the UN system. The critics of the UN are not really interested in reform (would Senator Helms really change his mind about the UN if only its accounts were better kept?), and the Administration’s public support for administrative reform has placed it in bed with Congressional opponents of the UN. As the Clinton Administration ran out its days, the likelihood of meaningful reform of the UN also ran out.

Character of the UN
The argument about UN reform, especially among American critics of that organization, tends to overlook that the UN we as Americans have is the UN we wanted. The United States was a principal founder, and continued to be primus inter pares through the 1950s and then later during the period of the “mature” Cold War. If during the latter period, the growth of the Non-Aligned Movement deprived us of dominance in the UN’s inter-governmental bodies, both the “constitutional” arrangements of the UN charter and power relationships enabled us to ensure that the UN could not do anything serious without our approval.

The UN was designed as the successor to the League of Nations, but with the difference that it would also have a “board of directors” composed of the permanent five members of the Security Council. With the breakup of the Grand Coalition of the Second World War, however, the onset of the Cold War, and the successful independence movements among the former European colonial empires, the UN became the global “talking shop” for a rapidly expanding international community of independent countries.

U.S. Interests
Traditional American nationalists were never very comfortable with the original UN and have come to loath the evolved institution even more, considering it at best a waste of money, if not a threat to American independence. Although the differences between the foreign policies of the various administrations were more than merely cosmetic, they did share some basic assumptions. The United States is essentially a status quo power. While we want to improve the world, to improve human rights and obtain higher standards of living, we wish to do so incrementally and always while ensuring our basic national security. We bulk so large in the world that our interests are multiple, from security through economic and social to sustainable development, and the national interest is always a complex calculation involving time, as well as categories. And despite a current passion in some circles for modernized versions of isolationism or unilateralism, the American public understands, as former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagl eburger put it, “who will think globally if not us?”

We pursue our national interests in our own fashion, in accordance with our national character, as do all countries. For all our shortcomings, this means for Americans that both means and ends involve a concern for representative government, human rights and legitimacy. Our own internal national political style calls for accommodation between conflicting interests and groups, and this requires dialogue. For forty-five years the dynamics of the Cold War required us to behave aggressively as the leader of a global coalition. Since the end of the Cold War, as William H. Luers noted in the September/October 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, the United States has been seeking a post-containment strategy for dealing with a changing world. Whatever that strategy turns out to be, it will require American leadership of some sort (just ask most of our friends and allies).

UN Reform
This brings us back to the United Nations, as it is and as it might be, and the subject of reform. As long as the UN remained essentially marginal to American interests and to U.S. foreign policy, reform of the United Nations largely remained of interest to UN “groupies.” These included members of the United Nations Association, other liberal world affairs aficionados, most Scandinavians, and various Third World leaders interested in restricting the global influence of the major powers.

Opposition to and general dissatisfaction with the UN, however, among many elements of the American body politic produced some initiatives by the United States in the 1980s. For example, we left UNESCO in protest against that UN agency’s policies and procedures. We successfully proposed a zero growth budget policy and fostered a new consensus voting practice in the UN’s intergovernmental bodies such as the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In the search for a secretary-general to replace Perez de Cuellar, the United States campaigned for the incl usion of managerial expertise in the list of selection criteria.

With the end of the Cold War, a changed international environment developed which included the effects of globalization, the emergence of non-governmental and civil society organizations, and huge advances in technology. This new environment produced a spurt of interest in an expanded role for the United Nations, and the related question of UN reform and reorganization. At one end of the spectrum of recommendations, the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland) released a major study in the late 1980s calling for significant UN reform emphasizing greater organizational coherence, more resources, greater authority, and more ambitious programs. At the other end, traditional opponents of the UN became alarmed and raised the cry for reform pointed in the other direction, that is, a cutback on the UN’s capabilities and role on the grounds that it was becoming a threat to the “legitimacy of the nation-state.” In making that claim, Senator Jesse Helms in the September-October 1996 issue of Foreign Affairs called for a UN reform program which would “reduce bureaucracy, limit missions, and refine objectives.”

Both movements coincided with the actual expansion of the UN’s activities and roles in the first heady days of the post-Cold War period. Member states called on the UN for greatly expanded peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance operations.

What Does Reform Mean?
UN reform focuses on three fundamental elements of the UN system: the organization’s basic authority and objectives as embodied in the Charter; the composition and role of the Security Council as the “board of directors”, and the procedures and structure of the bureaucracy.

Significant amendment—much less expansion—of the UN’s authority and the role of the Security Council are not instinctively popular with many, West or East, North or South. But changes in international norms regarding human rights in particular have altered attitudes towards the role of the UN. The Covenant on Human Rights, and the resolutions passed at recent UN-sponsored conferences on the environment, women, development, and human rights have expanded expectations.

At the same time, various organizational reforms have resulted in de facto expansion of the organization’s authority. For instance, expanded peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance operations have introduced the UN into the internal political affairs of individual countries—from Cambodia to East Timor—to a degree inconceivable only a few years ago. In Cambodia, a UN peacekeeping success story which has tended to be forgotten in the breast beating over Somalia, the UN in essence introduced the concept of UN governance of a failed or collapsed state by the international community. In Kosovo and East Timor the UN has expanded that concept by installing formal international trusteeship regimes in the territory of recognized sovereign states. De spite official demurrals, the acceptance of the concept of humanitarian intervention based at least partially on the concept of an active human rights role for the UN has clearly expanded the authority of the international organization.

A major bureaucratic change in the secretariat was effected by the rationalization and expansion of the political and peacekeeping elements of the central secretariat by the creation of the departments of Political Affairs, Peacekeeping Operations, and Humanitarian Affairs. This triad now constitutes a crisis management system for the secretary-general and the Security Council. The two political departments have rationalized and expanded the organizational capabilities of the UN in the peacekeeping and conflict mediation fields. These include day-to-day executive direction of peacekeeping operations, centralized management of logistical and technical matters, planning, intelligence, and information operations. This real expansion of competence was largely due to the pressure and contributions (money, technical assistance, and personnel) from a small number of countries, most notably the United States. Unfortunately, the progress in this area was compromised by complaints about the number of seconded (and cost-free) military officers from Western countries and fallout from the controversy over the assessment debt policy of the United States. This one step backward was masked by the decline in UN peacekeeping in the late 1990s, but has become an issue once again with a new rise in demand for peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention since 1999. This concern was the subject of the Brahimi Panel report on UN peacekeeping released in August of 2000.

In the economic and social areas of the UN there was another very deliberate attempt to expand UN’s authority. This was launched in the first instance by the Nordic countries in the mid- and late-1980s, driven by a concern that resources for economic development were drying up and that the UN’s poor reputation and performance in that area needed to be reversed, both to get the most out of available resources, as well as to prevent further erosion of support. The Nordic initiative, supported by most Western countries, was an effort to restructure the UN in the economic and social areas, in both the inter-governmental and Secretariat organs. It became linked with the interest in expanded peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance and the consequent need to beef up the UN’s capabilities in these areas.

These various reform initiatives were supported and pushed largely by Western or developed countries. Some delegations from the Group of 77 (Non-Aligned Movement) were also interested in various elements of reform for the same reasons as Western counties, but as a group (they constitute well over two thirds of all UN members) they were cautious. They were worried that UN reform might gore only their oxen (economic development and their long standing demand for an increased transfer of resources without political ties)—this while expanding the possibilities for Western interference in their affairs through expansion of the UN’s authority for peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and support for human rights. Further, many of the Western concerns about the existing UN (management and personnel practices, administration of funds, widely disparate assessment obligations) refer to practices which either did not bother G-77 countries or positively pleased them. The charges that the UN was an inefficient manager of money provided by Western countries (especially the United States), a refuge for unqualified officials from Third World countries, and a generally useless “talking shop” were all viewed quite differently by those countries. UN reform, therefore, like everything at the UN, is a matter of perspective, dialogue, accommodation, and compromise.

As a result, reform in the economic and social area was less successful. Being very concerned about declining public support for official development assistance, donor countries have been seeking significant organizational reform to deal with widespread allegations that UN economic and social development assistance, which is where the Nordics put most of their emphasis and the United States has traditionally put substantial sums, is little more than a slush fund for corrupt leaderships in Third World countries: “taxing the poor in the rich countries for the benefit of the rich in the poor countries.” Tighter control, more transparency, better governance, and more market oriented policies were sought. Not surprisingly, Third World governments were less than enthusiastic about this movement and instead reiterated their long-standing demand that increased transfer of resources—without ties—was owed by the industrialized world. UN reform of the economic and social areas as pushed by the West was seen by them as a ploy merely to cut back on the already insufficient level of assistance.

More was achieved in the general managem ent area with the establishment of an inspector general (Office on Internal Oversight Services) and certain reforms in the budget and personnel areas. This area has received the most media and Congressional attention, as it has been directly tied to the question of the American financial contribution to the UN budget. In 1977 the position of deputy secretary-general was created, something long sought by the United States.

Despite resistance, there has been some “slow and painful” progress in the inter-governmental area, mostly in the centralizing of activities and oversight in the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the trimming of some of their subordinate bodies. Still of limited importance, but potentially promising, is the movement towards greater cooperation between the UN agencies and the Bretton Woods organizations.

It is in the third and most political area—the composition and role of the Security Council—that the least has been achieved . Expansion of the Council became a major topic of discussion in the second half of the 1990s, and the United States among many member states has stated its official support for expansion. However, the general interest in expanding the SC disintegrates into warring factions as soon as specifics are broached. How many permanent new members are to be considered? Will they also have the veto power? Should the present permanent members retain their veto? And finally, who will be the new permanent members? The latter question immediately raises the prospect of regional competitions in every part of the world. Few observers expect any meaningful progress in this area in the foreseeable future.

Cutting across all these areas, the secretary-general appointed a special commission to study UN peacekeeping operations—arguably the central responsibility of the United Nations in the contemporary world. The commission—the Brahimi Panel on UN Peace Operations—produced a well-receive d report in late August 2000 which both outlines internal UN reorganization proposals and, more important, clearly challenges member states to provide the necessary coherent and consistent political will. The Clinton Administration proclaimed its support for the Brahimi report recommendations, but fulfillment of that promise will obviously depend upon the current administration.

U.S. Policy on Reform
The difference between what has been accomplished and what is being sought can be seen by reviewing a spring 1996 U.S. Government compilation of the various reform proposals put forward by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations over the preceding years:

  • General Assembly: cut the agenda in half, restrict resolutions, consolidate and/or eliminate committees such as the Palestinian Committee
  • ECOSOC: create a small executive committee to oversee all UN economic and social bodies and programs; consolidate subordinate bodies; improve collaboration with the Bretton Woods institutions
  • UNCTAD and Regional Commissions: prioritize, rationalize, concentrate, cut back staff and range of programs
  • Development Funds and Programs: reinforce UNDP’S lead role, aiming at ultimate evolution toward a single, integrated UN assistance agency; make appropriate changes in the management of UN development funds
  • Humanitarian Relief: expanded coordination among various agencies and bodies under HA leadership
  • Human Rights: strengthen the role and capabilities of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Center.

Specifically directed towards dealing with the charges of “fraud, mismanagement, and malfeasance” are the U.S. Government proposals for organizational changes in the administration or management area of the secretariat. These included:

  • restructuring and trimming of staff and departments,
  • introducing a “sunset” policy for programs,
  • installing an inspector general system throughout the whole UN system, and
  • creating the post of deputy secretary-general.

In January 2000, the U. S. Department of State issued a fact sheet on UN reform, claiming that “the US drive to reform the UN and affiliated organizations had contributed to a number of concrete achievements representing a solid start toward greater efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability in the UN System.” Specifically these achievements were:

  • a greater dedication to a “more transparent, responsive, and consultative approach to management;”
  • the UN’s budget was cut for the first time ever in the 1996-97 biennium, and the gains continued in subsequent years;
  • a UN internal inspector general’s office was established;
  • the UN’s ability to mount and manage peacekeeping operations was “drastically improved,” and the Security Council “adopted a more rigorous approach to evaluating peacekeeping proposals;”
  • “streamlining efforts are taking hold” in the large specialized agencies;
  • the Secretary-General’s “Track Two” package of management reforms has received UN members’ approval and is being implemented (e.g., around 900 unneeded staff positions have been eliminated).

While all of this activity is undoubtedly worthy, one can still ask whether the question of administrative reform is not a red herring. As the New York Times has pointed out, it seemed at one time that legislators were demanding reform as the price of restoring some part of the United States’ … arrearages. But it became clear that they wished to dispense with these much criticized instruments of American leverage. If so, then did the recent Clinton Administration make a serious tactical error in adopting administrative reform as a central element of its UN policy?

To repeat, the question is one of tactics, not strategic or policy perspective. The Clinton Administration outlined a sensible redefinition of the UN in terms of today’s real needs and real possibilities. That administration called for a focusing of the UN efforts and resources on four core functions:

  • maintaining peace a nd security;
  • ensuring a rapid response to humanitarian emergencies;
  • establishing and monitoring the observance of international legal and technical norms;
  • promoting sustainable development.

While this perspective calls for serious “reengineering” of the UN as an organization, too often this is taken to mean merely “downsizing” or cutting back on people and resources. Downsizing, however, should be an option not a solution, a means not an end.

Nevertheless, this position could constitute the beginning of a more serious effort to redefine the UN for today. Unfortunately, the such efforts fall short in several ways. First of all, while the above recommendations make obvious good sense to the U.S. Government and certain other Western or developed (rich) countries. It is sadly deficient in meeting the needs of much of the Third World. Sustainable development is viewed by many of them as a rich country cop-out on serious expansion of Official Development Assistance (ODA), and there are too many implications for what they view as interference in their internal affairs contained in the first three points. That these Third World concerns may not be fully justified is beside the point; as long as they have them they can and will obstruct serious reform of the UN. For them, the U.S. position smacks a bit too much of the old “What’s good for General Motors…” perspective.

Secondly, the tactical ploy of leading the charge on organizational reform only encouraged U.S. opponents of the UN. While the Congressional attitude towards paying our contributions to the UN is obviously not solely due to this situation, certainly the Clinton Administration’s trumpeting of UN character flaws makes the Congressional attitude more understandable, at least to the general public. The cry that we will pay our arrears only after the UN is reformed is superficially attractive. The late Administration’s approach was that the Helms-Biden Act was a successful bit of executive-administrative cooperation that would save as well as reform the UN. Many believe, however, it was a bad bargain to buy off Senator Helm’s opposition to the appointment of Madeleine Albright to the position of Secretary of State in exchange for effective control of U.S. policy towards the UN. Many observers found the Helms-Biden compromise a seriously flawed agreement in several ways; it focuses on the wrong, or at least secondary, questions. In August 2000, the UN Association of the United States published a critical analysis of Helms-Biden. It pointed out the essential requirement that the legislation conditions the availability of funds (the ostensible primary purpose of the compromise) on the UN complying with a series of U.S. Government-determined benchmarks, and even then raised a number of issues that “ultimately could jeopardize further America’s standing in international organizations,” as well as threaten th e viability of UN programs such as peacekeeping. Among the Association’s concerns were:

  • The plan does not provide nearly enough funding to cover America’s total indebtedness.
  • The plan would require the UN to consign any unpaid balances to a special account that would not count against potential loss of U.S. votes in the General Assembly, an exception unavailable to other countries.
  • Of the more than three dozen conditions contained in the plan, many were already impossible to achieve as crucial deadlines had passed.
  • In return for the promised partial p[payment of arrears, the plan would impose new conditions that could lead to a new round of arrears;
  • The plan imposed limits on U.S. assessments to all international organizations, regardless of developments.
  • The plan failed to distinguish between administrative reforms which can be implemented by the secretary-general and those that must be approved by member states;
  • Several of the plan’s provisions are vague (e.g., “certification of the maintenance of unabridged US sovereignty in the UN”), yet failure to certify any of the more than three dozen conditions could lead to a suspension of all arrears’ payments.

Not surprisingly, many of the other members of the UN looked somewhat askance as we demanded reform on our conditions while withholding a significant amount of our assessments. There is a natural reaction on the part of many UN members to argue that our financial obligations are independent of questions of reform; that we have no right to hold our contributions hostage to our view of reform. Who is right or wrong in this argument is beside the point: reform requires cooperation.

In any case, as the year 2000 and the Clinton Administration both came to a close, the essential elements of Helms-Biden had not be implemented. The U.S. Government remains in arrears on its assessment, even in terms of its own estimates. This development only increases the feeling among many nations that the United States is not even serious on the subject of reform, but rather is using it as an excuse not to pay. To paraphrase Jessica Mathews in the New York Times, the United States specifies financial and management reforms in the UN as the price of support and, when they are adopted, moves the goal posts farther back.

The Brahimi report on UN peacekeeping, referred to earlier, asks the question about U.S. intentions in a more subtle manner. While the body of the report outlines a comprehensive series of recommendations for reorganization and strengthening of the UN’s capability to perform peacekeeping missions, the essential message calls upon Security Council members to adopt greater responsibility with respect to peacekeeping mandates and resources. Given the prominence of the United States in the Security Council (not to mention the current assessment problem), this message is obviously directed primarily to Washington.

The general American public has not been seriously enough engaged on the issue of the UN and its role in American foreign policy. The country’s leadership elite has bought on too quickly to the argument that the public does not care, despite the persistent evidence of public opinion polls to the contrary. In any case, American history is replete with evidence the public is often not engaged until asked to be so. It has not yet been seriously asked; and that means more than the equivalent of one Saturday morning Presidential radio talk.

Where this leaves us all at the moment is hard to tell. Reform is on the agenda, and some progress is being made. But significant reform requires more than grudging formal agreement from the other members of the global organization and that is proving hard enough to get.

What is To Be Done?
Reform of the UN may be viewed as a passing question of little real interest. But the world’s problems keep occurring, and the United States often discovers it cannot opt out: Haiti, Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone are only samples. Obviously each administration must deal with these problems as they occur, and will wish to be equipped – militarily, politically, and financially – for unilateral action when necessary. But equally obviously, it would be desirable to have the option of multilateral action in cooperation with other countries. NATO is the most prominent example of this type of capability, developed in another era, but proving to be of continued utility today and possibly tomorrow.

Working with and through the United Nations falls into that category of potential options, but only if both the UN’s image and its capability are refurbished. That refurbishment remains ostensibly the objective of U.S. reform efforts in the UN, but in pursuit of its reform program the U. S. Government has joined in trashing the UN, thereby lending aid and comfort to its political opponents and the UN’s ideological enemies. The failure to achieve meaningful reform through the end of 2000 was at least partially due to the Clinton Administration’s “devil’s bargain” with Senator Jesse Helms. The administration traded control over UN policy to him in exchange for his support for senatorial consent to the nomination of Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State (plus some T-Shi rts with cozy photos of the two). The Brahimi Panel Report on UN Peace Operations offers a new opportunity to review, revise, and reinvigorate the U. S. role in the United Nations. A failure to reinvigorate the UN will produce one clear result: a diminution of U. S. Government policy options in the future. A review of broader reform tactics for consideration by the current administration might also be in order.

To be effective, national strategic policy and tactical political concerns must be combined. This would require, however, the sort of bipartisan consensus which so characterized much of the long period from 1941 to 1990. The arrival of the Bush Administration offers an excellent opportunity to seek such an agreement, if only one limited to the relatively narrow question of the United Nations. While it has been conventional wisdom for some time now that the public lacks interest in foreign affairs, public opinion polls and the persistent need for the administration to address foreign policy problems – from the Middle East to Haiti through Bosnia to China, with occasional stops in Korea and other points – indicates the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Grabbing the issue of a responsible, bipartisan U.S. Government policy towards the UN (a persistently popular institution in American public opinion polls) just might be an effective way for someone to claim the mantle of responsible leadership in the tradition of all successful American presidents.

The first step in formulating a bipartisan, publicly supported policy towards the UN is the presentation to the public of the reasons why such a policy is desirable. The arguments are many and need not be repeated in detail here. They can be summed up in the following major points:

  • Nothing that can seriously affect the United States can occur in the United Nations system against American opposition.
  • At the same time, most American initiatives – from the Gulf War to attempting to control the internal traffic in narcotics – are adopted by the UN system.
  • The United States finances twenty-five per cent (thirty per cent for peacekeeping) of the activities of this organization, which means obviously that the rest of the world pays seventy-five per cent.In the private sector this is called leverage, and considered to be a good thing.

The presentation of a support policy must be thorough, sober, and persistent. It must include a vision of the UN we wish to see develop, focusing on the future. It must be explicitly tied to U.S. national interests and to ongoing problems such as Haiti, Bosnia, and Korea, as well as the new transnational threats such as narcotics, crime, migration, and the spread of violence against civilians. It must be based on the clear understanding that support for the UN is based on a sober calculation of how to best pursue American’s real national interests over the long term. The adoption of such a national policy towards the UN would quickly resolve the funding problem. Public opinion polls consistently reveal broad (if not deep) public support for the UN and a willingness to finance it. In fact, the public seriously overestimates the actual amount of American money which goes to the UN.

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