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Q&A: The UN at 60

October 24, 2005

United Nations 60th anniversary

The UN marks the 60th anniversary of its founding this week. Many newspapers in developing countries ran editorials urging a recommitment to the ideals of the UN. But the anniversary was largely ignored in the U.S. and most other rich countries. Celebrations were muted in part because UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's ambitious reform efforts were mostly stymied at the United Nations Summit in mid-September. Although the summit formally recommitted to the Millennium Development Goals, no new commitments were made on financing for development and reform of the Security Council was again delayed amid discord. CGD Research Fellow Stewart Patrick discusses the challenges facing the UN:


Q: How do you see the results of September's UN Summit? Was anything useful achieved?

A: The summit was not the “train wreck” that many people had anticipated, but it was a lost opportunity, particularly when it comes to Security Council reform. The United Nations will keep chugging down the tracks. But it will still be a 1945 steam engine headed along the same path, but it could have been an Acela – or at least a diesel – built for modern times and challenges. The United States contributed to this outcome by remaining curiously disengaged until the last minute – and then submitting a long list of eleventh-hour demands that emboldened a number of spoilers to roll back painstakingly negotiated agreements. Going forward, reforming the Security Council remains critical to improve the legitimacy of the UN in the eyes of the developing world. But it will require more constructive engagement from the United States. The two bright spots of the Summit were decisions to replace the dysfunctional and embarrassing Commission on Human Rights with a new Human Rights Council and to create a new Peacebuilding Commission.


Q: What would the Peace Building Commission do, and why would that matter for development?

A: The Peacebuilding Commission is one of the few bright spots to emerge from the Summit. It would create a standing forum – composed of key member states, international financial institutions, and UN agencies -- to advise the Security Council on efforts to stabilize and reconstruct war-torn societies. Such an entity is urgently needed: Experience shows that nearly one half of all countries emerging from war fall back into violence within five years, so helping countries make a transition to peace is one of the best ways to prevent future conflict. Building peace is a complicated business, however. UN-led peace operations are increasingly multidimensional, involving not only blue-helmeted peacekeepers but also a wide range of humanitarian, political, and development actors. Up to now, the international community's efforts to build sustainable peace has been woefully fragmented, and the attention of the Security Council tends to wander after the initial crisis phase passes. The Peacebuilding Commission would improve the continuity and coherence of international efforts, by advising the Security Council on integrated country strategies, uniting the security and development components of post-conflict operations, and riding herd on the unwieldy collection of UN agencies.


Q: The earthquake in South Asia has once again focused attention on the role of the UN in humanitarian relief. Is the UN properly equipped to do the job that the world expects of it in these situations?

A: No. The United Nations has extremely talented staff both at headquarters and in the field to respond to humanitarian crises and complex emergencies. But it is chronically short of resources. The UN’s Central Emergency Revolving Fund (CERF) – a standing financial facility to respond to unforeseen emergencies – is limited to some $50 million, which is clearly insufficient to cope with one large disaster, much less a number of unanticipated crises occurring simultaneously. For each new emergency – Pakistan being the latest example – UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland must launch a special appeal for donor assistance. What we have seen in the past year is a great unevenness of donor response to such appeals. In the case of Niger for instance, the Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs was sounding the alarm for months before the gravity of the situation – and images on television – compelled member states to act. By that time it was too late to save the lives of many. One compelling proposal on the table, being championed by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and Hillary Benn, head of the Department for International Development, is to create an expanded CERF. Already, six donors have pledged $150 million to this new effort, which will be considered by the UN General Assembly in mid-November. It deserves serious support from the United States.


Q: With rising deficits in the U.S. and the cost of hurricane reconstruction, the Congress is looking for things to cut. Is U.S. funding for the UN likely to be reduced?

A: There is no question that domestic fiscal constraints are leading lawmakers to cast around for opportunities for savings. But cutting back on UN spending would be truly shortsighted, given the modesty of costs and the bang that we get for our buck. To begin with, the amount of money we are talking about is really small. The administration’s current budget request for the UN is about $2.5 billion. Compare that to the $200 billion we have already budgeted for Iraq. In fact, we spent more on U.S. military operations in Iraq last week than we spent on UN peacekeeping all of last year. Moreover, the UN is a pretty good bargain for U.S. taxpayers -- since it allows us to share the bill. Instead of spending 100 cents for every dollar we spend on a variety of global public goods, we can spend about 25 cents and get a dollar of results. And at a time of huge fiscal deficits, we could use this kind of burden sharing.

Beyond the simple issue of cost cutting, there is a worrisome tendency on Capitol Hill for legislators to try to link the fulfillment of our country’s legally assessed financial obligations to UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets to the UN’s meeting a long list of performance benchmarks. During the 1990s, this sledgehammer approach to UN reform squandered enormous international good will -- leading to accusations that the United States was a “deadbeat” – and undermined any positive US-UN agenda.


Q: What impact has John Bolton, President Bush’s ambassador to the UN, had on US-UN relations and on the prospects for the UN becoming a more effective institution for promoting development?

A: Bolton's impact has been mixed at best. On the positive side, he has justifiably insisted on performance and accountability from an institution that remains badly in need of reform, especially when it comes to the UN Secretariat. He has also been a staunch advocate for an effective Human Rights Commission and for the promotion of democracy within a world body that often fails to live up to its founding ideals. On the negative side, Bolton’s unilateral instincts and abrasive negotiating style have sometimes undercut U.S. interests by making it more difficult to achieve diplomatic common ground. A primary example occurred in the run-up to the UN summit, when Bolton – only recently installed as a recess appointment – submitted some 750 changes to a draft document painstakingly negotiated by member state delegations. While many of the proposed changes were reasonable, even worthwhile, the clumsiness of the effort stopped positive momentum on a number of fronts. Only a last-minute intervention by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice allowed negotiators to salvage a final summit document.

Even more pernicious was Bolton's recent suggestion that the United States might consider making all of its contributions to the United Nations "voluntary" – in effect, paying only for those things that it particularly likes. Such an á la carte approach undercuts the entire founding vision of the UN as a forum for diplomatic give and take, in which the pursuit of enlightened self-interest often requires compromises.