Taking the U.N. Seriously

The much anticipated report of the U.N. High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, being released today, will be met with all the usual diplomatic rhetoric.

Accolades for the commission’s dedication, hard work and punctuality, grandiose statements on the importance of the task, and a call to action for the United Nations to better coordinate global security in the 21st century.

Then, without strong engagement by the leading powers, starting with the United States, the report will wind up on dusty bookshelves or in recycling bins in equal number. This is a shame, for genuine opportunities to make the hobbling U.N. more useful are rare, and while not perfect, the panel has sketched a road map the Bush administration should take as an invitation to re-engage with the international community for America’s benefit.

The report wisely defines security broadly, and calls for the United Nations to deepen its capacity to contribute to counterterrorism, nonproliferation and state-building—all top U.S. priorities. Indeed, the nuclear black market of A.Q. Khan, the al Qaeda network’s global capability and the reconstruction of Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous African states cannot be managed alone. To improve responsiveness to humanitarian emergencies, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) should be streamlined into a legislative body like the Security Council, addressing and mandating greater support for public health and environmental scarcity in areas of dire need.

The panel also addresses the burning issue of the unilateral or preemptive use of force. Though many Americans may bristle at any attempts to curtail freedom of action, agreeing to some internationally agreed standards actually works to the U.S. interest. By placing collective responsibility on the Security Council to enforce the resolutions it legislates, it will be the U.N., rather than the U.S., which should act preemptively to retain credibility. Indeed, the panel endorses the idea of Security Council approval of preventive military action in cases of “clear and present danger” such as against terrorist groups on the verge of acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration demanded this throughout the 17 resolutions against Saddam Hussein, and should now support resolutions such as 1540, which called upon states to cooperate fully in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and related technologies.

Thus it is in America’s best interest to come up with a Security Council that can make decisions when most urgently needed and with the capacity and will to enforce its decisions. As America’s continuing saga in Iraq shows, the alternative to such collective action can be disastrous.

But for the Security Council to be authoritative, it must also be legitimate. Whatever reform is undertaken (or, indeed, is not) on this sensitive and central body is likely to last for at least a decade. So it should anticipate the emerging international order rather than locking in entrenched biases.

The prospects for such an agreement don’t look good, however. Already in September, Brazil, Japan, India and Germany formed a “G-4” to declare their importance and right to permanent Security Council seats, claiming they “have the will and capacity to take on major responsibilities with regard to the maintenance of international peace and security.” Then the bickering began: Pakistan would never accept India, Argentina and Mexico are as important as Brazil, and Italy as deserving as Germany. South Africa should also have a permanent seat, but then why not Nigeria or Egypt? This chorus can be expected to repeat itself ad nauseam, further forestalling necessary reform and giving diplomacy a bad name.

Looking at the current state of Afghanistan, Sudan and Congo, it is hard to see anyone demonstrating true leadership and responsibility.

While these countries wait and suffer, the posturing continues at the United Nations. If the Bush administration does not lead in building consensus around practical reform, its rhetoric about re-engaging with the United Nations will remain empty.

Instead, as leaders increasingly realize that developing countries will have to take greater responsibility for their own security, the U.S. should support a permanent seat for the African Union at the high table.

With waning interest in unilateral interventions, even humanitarian ones, regional organizations deserve a far more significant role in the architecture of international security. In the years to come, in Darfur, Somalia and beyond, it is the African Union, not the U.N. or any single African state, which will be looked to for stabilizing Africa’s fragile states.

What the U.N. or any great power can do—if they care to—is provide vital logistics and other support to the African Union. Thus far only the U.S. and the European Union have made any meaningful contribution to their effort.

The Iraq experience taught just how significant the Security Council can be for relations with America’s closest allies, the Europeans, who collectively contribute enormous resources to global peace through peacekeepers and development aid.

As Europeans move to adopt a single constitution, they must make good on their decades-old pledge to speak with one voice. Consolidating Europe’s seat would not only create space for a more fairly balanced Security Council, it would also improve coordination in trans-Atlantic diplomacy: Henry Kissinger’s successors would finally know whom to call for Europe’s position.

Next year is the United Nations’ 60th anniversary. Each opportunity missed to spur the world organization’s evolution brings it closer to disrepair and demise. For Americans, maintaining special status within a body of diminishing relevance and utility should bring no smug consolation.

Multilateralism may seem an increasingly thick alphabet soup of overlapping and competing organizations. But with the enormous resources being spent in Iraq, the U.S. needs real international action in diffusing other hotspots. Ignoring this chance to seize a consensus on U.N. reform will surely mean even greater future costs and harm to American interests.