Will the United Nations be reformed?

Will the United Nations be reformed?

Theme: The September 2005 World Summit offered an historic opportunity to reshape the United Nations to better confront a range of global threats and challenges. But the gathering failed to find a solution to the UN’s core problem: the lack of a global consensus on multilateralism.

Summary: The three-day summit marking the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations was intended to address multilateral progress on development goals outlined at the September 2000 Millennium Summit. But 9/11 changed the strategic priorities of the US, the consequences of which greatly weakened the authority of the UN. Fearing irrelevance, Secretary General Kofi Annan launched an ambitious plan to revitalise the embattled UN, in part by conceptualising a ‘grand bargain’ by which the developed world would provide its help in alleviating global poverty in exchange for the developing world’s acceptance of reforms on security, human rights and UN management. But this quid pro quo involves reshuffling global power among the UN’s three principal organs: General Assembly, Security Council and Secretariat. After months of bitter negotiations in which member states were reluctant to make the painful trade-offs needed to reorganise the UN, heads of state attending the 2005 World Summit could only agree to a highly watered-down declaration that eviscerated most of Annan’s boldest proposals for reform. This implies that member states remain deeply divided over the nature of the world’s problems, and that apart from a global order-changing cataclysm, the pace of UN reform will therefore be incremental, not radical.

Analysis: The 2005 World Summit brought presidents, prime ministers and kings from 151 member states to the UN, the largest gathering of world leaders in history. But rather than adopting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s sweeping blueprint to enable the world body to deal with the challenges of a new century, leaders instead signed a diluted 35-page ‘Outcome Document’ that represented the lowest common denominator that all countries could agree upon after six months of highly contentious negotiations.

The most significant parts of the final document are the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission to help countries emerging from conflict and an acceptance by all governments of the collective international responsibility to protect people from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

And after a year of criticism over reported corruption in the UN oil-for-food programme in Iraq, as well as allegations of bribery by UN purchasing officials, negotiators agreed to create an internal ethics office. But they did not give Annan the authority he wanted to make sweeping management changes because his proposals implied strengthening the Secretariat at the expense of the General Assembly; many smaller states objected to losing their power to micro-manage UN business.

Meanwhile, world leaders could not agree on a timeline for expanding the UN Security Council either. Indeed, all plans for adding new members to the Council have reached a stalemate. This is partly because of the rivalries of nations competing for seats, and partly because of the blocking power of the five permanent, veto-wielding members. The final document, while agreeing that the Council should be made more representative, fails to say how.

For the vast majority of countries, the final document was welcome, because up until the evening of the Summit the differences were so wide (some 140 disagreements on 27 unresolved issues) that there was no certainty there would be a deal. Although some analysts believe the agreement was only slightly better than no agreement at all, Annan said the last-minute accord averted a full-blown crisis for the UN. In any case, the deal that finally emerged was little more than a short and general statement pointing out the direction of future change. And reactions to it have been decidedly mixed.

What Went Wrong?
The original focus of the 2005 World Summit was to take action to implement the Millennium Development Goals, as outlined in the declaration by world leaders at their last Summit in 2000. These include cutting poverty in half, ensuring universal primary education and stemming the AIDS pandemic, all by 2015.

But the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 without the imprimatur of the Security Council raised many questions about the authority of the UN. Indeed, Annan was so fearful of an existential crisis that threatened the future relevance of his organisation, that he established a ‘High-Level Panel’ to undertake a fundamental review of the UN’s role in international peace and security. In December 2004 the High-Level Panel delivered a 95-page report titled ‘A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility’ that contains 101 proposals for dealing with six areas identified as being the greatest threats to security: continued poverty and environmental degradation, civil war, conflict between states, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and organised crime.

Based on the findings of the High-Level Panel, in March 2005 Annan presented his own report titled ‘In Larger Freedom: Development, Security and Human Rights for All’ which goes one step further by conceptualising a ‘grand bargain’ by which the developed world would provide its help in alleviating global poverty in exchange for the developing world’s acceptance of substantial reforms on security, human rights and UN management. By calling on UN member states to ‘take decisive action’ before the September 2005 World Summit, Annan’s report is also infused with a greater sense of urgency than is that of the High-Level Panel. Indeed, he described the Summit as a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to take bold decisions in the areas of development, security, human rights and reform of the United Nations’.

After the intervention in Iraq, however, much of the international debate about the future of the UN revolves around the question of US power and influence in an American-dominated ‘unipolar’ world. Annan’s deputy, Shashi Tharoor, has suggested that ‘the exercise of American power may well be the central issue in world politics today’. Indeed, both the High-Level Panel document and Annan’s report include proposals that set out to contain the use of US military force, which is also the not-so-hidden subtext behind Annan’s urgent push to expand the Security Council; many countries increasingly resentful of American power believe that an expanded Security Council would serve as a counter-weight to the US.

Almost all member states agree that the current make-up of the Security Council is anachronistic and unrepresentative. But apart from the addition of four non-permanent members in 1963, bringing total membership to 15, it has eluded all reform. Brazil, Germany, India and Japan formed an alliance, dubbed the G-4, to press jointly for permanent seats. But their hopes were dashed when they failed to get the backing of the 53-member African Union, vital for winning the two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly required for a Charter amendment. (For an exhaustive analysis of the debate surrounding reform of the Security Council, see Soeren Kern, ‘Why Changing the Security Council Threatens Broader UN Reform’, ARI nr 106/2005, 29/7/2005.)

But almost from the beginning the US began sending clear messages that it would not go along with Annan’s definition of reform, seeking instead to de-link expansion and reform. US officials repeatedly warned Annan that expanding the Security Council was just one piece of overall UN reform, and that his insistence on securing agreement on expanding the Council before the September Summit threatened to derail his innovative proposals for reforms in other areas: streamlining institutions, operations and management practices.

Addressing the General Assembly on 12 July, Shirin Tahir-Kheli, a senior advisor to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said: ‘Whether Democrats or Republicans, American Senators –like officials of our Executive Branch– will be looking to see if Security Council enlargement is part of a broader package of needed reforms and whether it makes the Council more or less effective in discharging its important duties’. She continued: ‘Let me be as clear as possible, the US does not think any proposal to expand the Security Council, including one based on our own ideas, should be voted upon at this stage’.

Echoing US concerns, Chinese Ambassador to the UN Wang Guangya said his country was ‘opposed to setting an artificial time frame for reform’. He continued: ‘Should the United Nations be dragged into a divisive fight over the reform of the Security Council, the original purpose of this reform would be totally defeated; such an outcome would neither bode well for the upholding of the authority of the Security Council nor for the reform of the United Nations as a whole’. Meanwhile, Russia’s UN Ambassador, Andrei Denisov, said Moscow rejected ‘any dilution of the power of the five and their veto rights’.

Predictably, the debate over how to expand the Security Council has been deeply divisive; it has stimulated regional rivalries and provoked mutual recriminations among member states that cast a pall on the entire reform process. At one point, Annan felt compelled to ask members of the General Assembly to ‘calm down’. An editorial in Austria’s Der Standard said: ‘In the debate on reforms, there is nothing left for Kofi Annan but to watch how the United Nations are behaving rather as enemy nations’.

The debate has also ignited tensions over contributions to the UN budget. In an interview with the Financial Times on 18 October, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said that Japan will be ‘proactively involved’ in talks next year to renegotiate contributions to the UN, strongly implying that Tokyo will seek a substantial cut to its fees for the 2007-09 period. Although he denied that there was any ‘direct link’ between his government’s more assertive stance on UN dues and its unhappiness at opposition to its ambition for a permanent seat on the Security Council, he did say it was hard to explain to the Japanese public why it should pay more than its fair share if the country’s ambition for a bigger role was being thwarted.

The debate over expanding the Security Council is now at a stalemate. Indeed, the new American ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, said in October: ‘Our prediction would be that this latest effort at changing the composition of the Security Council is not going to succeed’.

UN Reform and US Interests
As the founding country, host nation and its most influential member, the US is essential to the success of the UN. Indeed, the UN cannot function effectively without an interested and committed US. As a consequence, UN reform cannot properly be understood apart from the dynamics of American domestic politics. (For an in-depth analysis of US-UN relations, please see Soeren Kern, ‘Can the United Nations be Reformed?’, ARI nr 200/2004, 23/12/2004.)

In this context, the 2005 World Summit was deeply affected by widespread confusion of American intentions and distrust of US motives. Indeed, many UN observers were left with the impression that John Bolton played a spoiler role among the would-be Summit dealmakers. US President George W. Bush installed Bolton, a prominent White House hard-liner and a tough critic of the UN, to serve as head of the US mission to the UN through a so-called recess appointment on 1 August, after the US Senate refused to ratify his nomination.

Within weeks of his appointment, and less than one month before the Summit, a combative Bolton proposed hundreds of amendments to the draft reform package. Especially divisive were attempts by Bolton to eliminate from the final document all mention of the Millennium Development Goals the US backed in 2000, as well as all references to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol, three international agreements rejected by the White House.

Indeed, Bolton’s deletions to the text opened the door for a number of other countries –Algeria, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan and Venezuela– to adopt similar hard-line tactics and negotiations quickly became mired in dissension, including protracted wrangling over procedure and process. In the end the US was unable to secure support for the majority of its reform priorities, and the White House said it was especially disappointed at the document’s lack of detail on overhauling the UN’s scandal-ridden management apparatus.

In any case, many analysts believe there is a benefit for the US in a reduced document because it no longer makes specific references to the international accords the White House does not support. Bolton was also able to remove from the text a provision establishing international guidelines for the use of military force. Some UN observers say the Bush Administration probably did get enough of what it wanted to keep it interested in the international body. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns seemed to confirm this when he said: ‘This is not the end of the reform effort. This is the beginning of a permanent reform effort to strengthen the UN’.

In fact, a series of public statements by White House officials in recent months implies that the second-term Bush Administration is committed to reforming the UN, even if it intends to pursue those reforms incrementally. Anne Patterson, the acting permanent representative to the UN before Bolton arrived, outlined a UN reform agenda in August 2005 that called on the US to play a leading role in remaking the international institution into a more effective partner for American foreign policy. Indeed, recent opinion polls show that a majority of Americans recognise that the US needs the UN in order to be effective in the world.

And to the surprise of many, Bush also struck a strikingly conciliatory tone while addressing the General Assembly in September 2005, praising the ‘vital work and great ideals of this institution’ and its efforts to take the ‘first steps’ toward managerial and structural reform. Bush then listed a series of UN-sponsored initiatives to help promote human dignity and prosperity, saying the US has a ‘moral duty’ to combat not only terrorism, but also the poverty and oppression and hopelessness that give rise to it. Bush even lingered to participate for the first time in a session of the Security Council and then joined other world leaders for a meal.

But the White House is under intense pressure from an angry US Congress. Indeed, criticism of the UN on Capitol Hill is at an all-time high, and many members of Bush’s conservative political base believe the UN is hopelessly corrupt and unaccountable. They argue that the UN is dominated by countries that do not have a vested financial interest in an efficient organisation; in fact, just eight countries pay almost 75% of the budget. The issue that most stoked the anger of members of Congress in both parties was the perceived heavy-handed effort by Annan to thwart congressional probes into the UN oil-for-food scandal. Congress has also held hearings about sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. In December 2004, 60 members of Congress called on Annan to resign from his UN post.

That same month, Congress called for the establishment of a task force to study the UN’s failures and to recommend reforms. The 12-member bi-partisan task force, chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, released their findings in a June 2005 reported titled ‘American Interests and UN Reform’. The report was well received on Capitol Hill, but shortly thereafter, on 29 June, the US House of Representatives approved the UN Reform Act of 2005, a tough UN reform bill that would have the US withhold 50% of its regular UN dues unless the organisation adopts specific reforms.

The ‘radical surgery’ reform bill, which is the culmination of years of frustration with the failure of the UN to undertake needed reforms in everything from internal management to peacekeeping, seeks to have the UN adopt 39 reforms, and threatens, if the reforms are not adopted within two years, to withhold half of US dues, which amount to roughly one-quarter of the United Nations’ operating funds. The bill also asks the UN to streamline its budget and programmes with redundant missions, enhance its accountability by creating an independent oversight board and whistle-blower protection, and impose a uniform code of conduct for its peacekeeping forces.

The second-term Bush Administration, however, has been vehemently opposed to congressional attacks on the UN. The White House on 16 June issued a statement in which it called on Congress to ‘reconsider this legislation’. The statement indicated that the White House ‘strongly supports reform of the United Nations, including greater accountability, oversight, and results-based budgeting’, but it specifically objected to ‘the bill’s certification requirements which could result in a 50 percent reduction in the United States assessed contributions to the UN’. The statement concluded, ‘The Administration would look forward to working with Congress to develop the kind of bicameral effort that will lead to meaningful UN reform’.

Because the no-nonsense Bolton is highly regarded in the US House of Representatives (despite a bruising confirmation battle in the US Senate), his aggressive tactics at the UN, therefore, are part of a White House strategy aimed at heading off further congressional attacks on the UN, including efforts to hold back UN dues. Appearing before the House International Relations Committee on 28 September, Bolton said he would seek to strike a fresh deal to increase oversight of UN bookkeeping. And two weeks later, in a speech to London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs on 14 October, Bolton said he was primarily concerned with the UN’s effectiveness, and was not interested in undermining it. But he also admitted that UN reform would take longer than one year. ‘I would be reluctant to provide targets on so limited a basis of six months, nine months, or 12 months. I think this is going to take longer’, he said.

Some analysts believe the US will remain engaged in the UN only in so much as it furthers American interests, while others say that because for many countries the UN remains the standard of international legitimacy, the US has no choice but to stick with the UN if it wants to get cooperation in furthering what it sees as its own interests. Indeed, the Bush Administration’s approach to 9/11 and to Iraq did indicate a preference for involving the UN.

In any case, the UN often fails operationally because most member states do not share common values, national interests or approaches. Indeed, UN reform is not just about better management practices, but also concerns the conduct of member governments, many of which have no interest in a well-functioning UN bureaucracy. And no matter how many, if any, states eventually are added to the Security Council, it will likely remain deadlocked on critical issues. A divided Security Council –as was the case with Iraq– leads to ineffective global leadership.

Therefore, because bilateral frameworks or ‘coalitions of the willing’ are often more effective options than going through the UN, Washington will probably continue to focus on other international institutions whose members are more like-minded, or which are not encumbered by universal membership. (Examples include the Proliferation Security Initiative and the new Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.) Indeed, the US National Security Strategy dated September 2002 is clear about Washington’s view of the multilateral process: ‘We will be prepared to act apart when our interests and unique responsibilities require’. Multilateralism, therefore, will continue to be a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

In this context, perhaps the greatest test yet for the future of the UN will be over Iran. The Bush Administration is leading the drive to bring Iran before the Security Council as quickly as possible. But if multilateralism fails to restrain Iranian nuclear ambitions, the US is likely to bypass the UN as it did in the case of Iraq. This, in turn, could have disastrous consequences for the UN by rendering it irrelevant.

Conclusion: The 2005 UN World Summit was designed to breathe new life into multilateralism. But UN member states could not agree on an ambitious reform agenda that in its essence involved a redistribution of global power and influence. Indeed, the degree of consensus required to radically modernise the UN is inconceivable in the absence of a global cataclysm. The ‘Outcome Document’ therefore represents the lowest common denominator that all countries could agree upon as a starting point for UN reform. As a result, future changes to the UN will be incremental, not radical.

Soeren Kern
Senior Analyst, US and Transatlantic Dialogue, Elcano Royal Institute