The UN at 60: Senescence or Renaissance?

When fifty-one nations signed the United Nations Charter in San Francisco sixty years ago this week, they aimed to save the world from the global catastrophes they had endured twice in three decades—major wars between countries. But history has a way of confounding the best-laid plans. As the Cold War and decolonization transformed the world, the UN morphed into a body of 191 member countries with responsibilities ranging from feeding the hungry to protecting the innocent from the ravages of civil wars—responsibilities it is not designed to meet.

From its beginnings, the UN has at best muddled through. Yet its responsibilities continue to grow, as governments look for a handy place to dump global problems. Its peace and security function now has the UN struggling to manage more than 70,000 troops and civilians drawn from 103 countries, deployed in eighteen missions in some of the world's most desperate conflicts: Congo, Liberia, Haiti, Sudan. The UN deals with over 19 million people displaced from their homes by violence or natural disaster. It oversees global efforts to help millions of tsunami victims, and toils to call the world's attention to some twenty "forgotten emergencies" that threaten millions more. And as the United States has recently rediscovered, the UN remains a powerful source of international legitimacy and a vital diplomatic instrument for national governments.

But all this activity depends on a fundamentally unsound institutional base. The UN's fifteen-country Security Council, the only UN body with teeth, gives lopsided power to the victors of World War II. The General Assembly, where all 191 nations theoretically have equal voice, has degenerated into a sclerotic mess of largely pointless debates on a mind-numbing agenda covering every conceivable issue. The fifty-three-member Economic and Social Council is essentially worthless. The Secretariat suffers from a deadwood-ridden staff, extreme micro-management by member states, and an inadequate oversight system that allows plenty of waste, fraud, and abuse.

In response to the UN's evident shortcomings, Secretary General Kofi Annan called upon the members to make 2005 the year of the UN's renaissance. Annan had in mind a grand bargain. The world's rich and powerful would take seriously poor countries' concerns with economic development and would relax their stranglehold on the Security Council. The developing world would take seriously concerns with terrorism, human rights, non-proliferation, and the need for drastic changes in the organization's dysfunctional management structures. That grand bargain was to be adopted at the 2005 UN Summit in September, the largest gathering ever of national leaders.

But the grand bargain collapsed into the politicking and short-sightedness that have long plagued efforts at UN reform. Instead of a long stride forward into the new century, the Summit achieved only baby steps: dissolution of the utterly discredited Human Rights Commission; establishment of a Peacebuilding Commission to create a much-needed central coordinator for post-war reconstruction; and—surprisingly—agreement that governments who fail to meet their "responsibility to protect" their citizens from such basic threats as genocide risk surrendering their cherished sovereignty to an international community that may choose to act on behalf of those citizens.

Having missed one golden opportunity to revitalize the flawed but still essential United Nations, the world now must figure out how to do better. Step one is to assign responsibility where it belongs: overwhelmingly with the member countries. Blaming "the UN" (usually meaning the Secretariat) for all the scandals and failures is like blaming the Kennedy Center if the National Symphony Orchestra has an off night. While there is an institutional responsibility to make sure the roof isn't leaking and the ticket-sellers aren't pocketing the proceeds, it's the musicians who have to perform. At the UN, the players are prone to breaking into fistfights at concert time—if they show up at all.

The member countries have never invested the financial and human resources needed to make the UN work well. Many act like absentee landlords, pocketing rents in the form of cushy jobs for a handful of their nationals but otherwise largely ignoring the institution. A few hard-core opponents of reform—insiders point to Syria, Pakistan, Venezuela, Cuba, Egypt, and Iran—actively subvert attempts to make the UN function efficiently and effectively. The U.S., where Congress goes into periodic fits of rage over revelations of misdeeds such as the oil-for-food scandal, has only fitfully invested in the long-term, patient diplomacy needed to build consensus for meaningful change, and has sometimes shot itself in the foot with bullying tactics like withholding of dues.

The small reforms agreed upon to date may still prove the spark for a real UN renaissance—if a whole lot of people act quickly. Annan must both press forward with internal reforms already underway and propose new steps to the General Assembly before it votes in December on the budget for the next two years. The highly respected president of this year's General Assembly, Swedish ambassador Jan Eliasson, faces an uphill but essential battle to fundamentally change the workings of the dysfunctional Assembly. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton must engage effectively but, given the realities of anti-Americanism, quietly with pro-reform forces in New York, use his great influence with Congress to ensure it supports a productive reform agenda, and prod the Bush Administration to engage governments around the world in the UN reform process. And the member states need to regain control of their own delegations in New York, who too often serve personal interests at the expense of national ones.

If all this is done, the UN may be reborn. If not, the UN will hobble into an arthritic old age. And there are no vigorous young replacements in sight.