Web Chat: The United Nations and International Cooperation

Brookings expert Bruce Jones answered your questions about the main opportunities and challenges for international cooperation on vital issues such as Iran, Afghanistan, Darfur and climate change in a live web chat moderated by POLITICO’s Seung Min Kim.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:29 Seung Min Kim: Hello everyone and welcome to the chat. Today we have Bruce Jones ready to answer your question about the United Nations and the new session of the General Assembly.

12:29 Seung Min Kim: Welcome Bruce.

12:30 [Comment From John: ] In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, do you envision a restructuring of the financial architecture and a new system of Bretton Woods II? Is the G20 eclipsing the United Nations, or will it fade away?

12:32 Bruce Jones: We’re already watching a restructuring of the financial architecture – with changes to voting rights on the World Bank board, and creation of the Financial Stability Board. The G20 constitutes a major shift in global management towards inclusion of the emerging powers. The big question for the UN is whether it can find the right way to bring the emerging powers into key decision-making roles without alienating the United States and Europe.

12:32 [Comment From Leandro: ] There has been a lot of talk lately within the American media questioning the relevancy of international bodies like the UN, and a fair amount of pressure from the U.S. conservative side to be wary of our involvement there… Do you see any significant changes on that front? Specifically, since the Obama admin came into power?

12:34 Bruce Jones: There’s more continuity than I might have expected – partially because the Bush administration returned to the UN in its second term, having discovered the limits of unilateralism. International institutions often get a bad rap: they are handed tough jobs that powerful states don’t want to tackle, and then those same states are “shocked, shocked” to discover that the UN can’t perform. But international organizations also suffer from weak leadership, diffusion, and lack of strategy.

12:34 [Comment From Kiki: ] Do you have any comments regarding to the U.S., China, Japan’s relations regarding to the disputed Diaoyu island? Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao will not meet with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan because of the escalating conflicts at the UN, what’s your opinion? What role do you think the U.S. is playing on this issue?

12:36 Bruce Jones: These kinds of issues – territorial spats between the established and the rising powers, that start to spin out into major diplomatic rifts – are going to be more and more common in the years to come. A big question for the U.S. is whether it wants to get directly involved, or whether it would like to see some sort of multi-national or multilateral effort to help prevent and manage such crises. A good example is the U.S. force operating under the UN flag on the Korean peninsula. Another is the Somalia Maritime Task Force, which has the U.S. Navy operating together with China, India, Brazil and the Europeans to defend shipping against Somali pirates.

12:37 [Comment From Ronaldo: ] Many describe the UN as a feckless organization. I find it outrageous that countries such as Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe and the despots that rule them are given a platform for their grievances at the UN. To me, they make a mockery of the body.

12:39 Bruce Jones: The upside is that they have to stand in front of the world and defend their policies. It’s hard to imagine anything that more deeply undermined support for Iran than President Ahmedinijad’s absurd rant at the General Assembly last year. Same goes for Chavez. And part of the point of the UN is that everyone is there, good or ill. We could have a narrow body that just had well-behaved states in it – but there wouldn’t be much point. The real question is whether the U.S., Europe and others can offer a compelling argument to the ‘swing voters’ – the 60 or 70 states in the GA that aren’t closely aligned with the U.S. or anyone else – as to why they should support the isolation of Iran, North Korea, Sudan etc. This administration has done a much better job on that front than its predecessor.

12:40 [Comment From Paul: ] Has the UN lost its swagger? Its resolutions don’t seem to have the same impact that they did years ago. Or, that is at least the perception.

12:42 Bruce Jones: I think the issue is different. Without a lot of notice, the UN Security Council has started taking on much tougher issues. Ten years ago, the focus was Rwanda, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia. Important cases in humanitarian terms and in terms of the level of human suffering, but small, diplomatically insignificant cases. Now, the Security Council is pre-occupied with the Middle East, Iran, Sudan, North Korea. Those are much, much tougher cases. So we shouldn’t be surprised that UN action doesn’t have the same force. The other issue is this: U.S. and European influence at the UN is diminishing, and China, India, Brazil and other rising actors aren’t yet using their new influence at the UN to push for action. So the UN is caught in the same transition international politics is: between dominant U.S. power and the emergence of a new coalition for action. Too early to say whether that will happen.

12:43 [Comment From Liam: ] Where do you see the UN in five years? What needs to change to make sure it stays effective?

12:44 Bruce Jones: Two scenarios: in one, the U.S. finds the right accommodation with China, and helps India and Brazil forge new, responsible roles in the UN. Then the UN will be an important platform for cooperation between the major powers on key security issues. Second scenario: none of that happens; relations between the major powers drift into contestation and confrontation; and the UN returns to the kind of deadlock that characterized the organization in the years of U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Major power cooperation is the sine qua non of an effective UN.

12:45 [Comment From Marie: ] What’s Obama’s role in the UN? What’s his relationship with the organization like?

12:47 Bruce Jones: The U.S. has been, is now, and for the foreseeable future will be vastly the most influential country at the UN. The General Assembly isn’t where you see this: in the GA, the U.S. just has one vote, exactly like Swaziland or Burundi. But frankly speaking, the GA is fairly irrelevant to most of what the UN does. Most of what the UN does is authorized by the Security Council, where the U.S. is a dominant actor, or by UN agencies, where the U.S. has a major financial role and deep clout. The U.S. also plays a major role in picking who gets senior jobs at the UN. This was true under Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama. The big difference with Obama is that in his guts, he sees the value of international engagement and the UN. But reality means that he’s mostly preoccupied with domestic issues, not the UN.

12:47 [Comment From Andy: ] Do you think the MDGs are achievable or realistic? It seems that the UN is very focused on those right now, and progress has been mixed. What needs to happen to reach the goals in the allotted timeframe?

12:49 Bruce Jones: Count me an MDG skeptic. The upside of them is that they keep rich countries focused on the development question when there are lots of reasons to be distracted. The downside is the evidence, which suggests that ending war, putting basic good governance in place, and opening your economy to global finance and trade are what actually generate development. None of that is contradicted by the MDGs, but governments tend to focus on development aid to the specific MDG goals, and that misses the bigger point.

12:49 [Comment From Tom: ] I think the biggest problems of the UN is the Security Council and G77 + China, both do not reflect changes of the global architecture. In the the security council, Europeans are over-represented and the current permanent members are sticking to their vested interests. And G77+China is also tightly holding dichotomy between the developed countries and the developing countries which is giving negative influences on climate change negotiations and other development issues. What do you think?

12:51 Bruce Jones: You’re absolutely right on the UNSC; a little less so on the G77. One of the big changes at the UN over the last two years is the erosion of G77 unity. Two reasons: the participation of China, India and Brazil in the G20 simply made too visible the enormous gulf between their interests and those of the poor countries that make up the bulk of the G77; and clever strategy and good politics by the Obama administration – the administration has done a very good job at removing some of the detritus of issues that actually kept the G77 unified and in doing that has helped expose the cracks.

12:51 [Comment From Elizabeth: ] What is your view on the Obama administration’s engagement with the UN Human Rights Council? Has it been successful, or not?

12:53 Bruce Jones: I’m afraid that I’m a Human Rights Council skeptic as well. It’s very hard to find evidence that the HRC (or its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission) made much difference to human rights one way or another. The new administration has won some voting battles at the HRC – whether these translate into improved human rights is a whole other question. That’s not to say the UN doesn’t help human rights – it does, through it’s human rights field missions, through helping to end violent conflicts, by promoting democracy and the rule of law, etc. But it’s on the ground that the UN’s contributions matter, not in voting chambers in Geneva.

12:53 [Comment From Wes: ] And what about Sudan? How are the peacekeeping missions going?

12:55 Bruce Jones: The Sudan mission is a rolling disaster. Now, Sudan is tough (see my comment above about the UNSC taking on tougher challenges). Ending violence in Sudan is several orders of magnitude harder than ending war in Burundi or Liberia or East Timor. And I think U.S. strategy there has been flawed too: too willing to believe promises made by Sudanese President Bashir, not firm enough.

12:55 [Comment From Cecile: ] The UN has been claiming over the last few years that it is increasingly working on – and coordinating – ‘Rule of Law’ issues. Yet, effective results are hampered by a lack of coordination among different departments and agencies, and also by a lack of political will. How can the UN effectively tackle such big challenges as the reinforcement of the Rule of Law?

12:57 Bruce Jones: This is one of the biggest challenges facing the organization. The UN spent most of the last two decades working on humanitarian crises and the rule of law in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. In the next two decades, I think the focus will be on rule of law – to deal with counter-terrorism, organized crime, state failure, human rights violations, etc. Whether that role falls to the UN or to some other arrangement remains to be seen. My own proposal is that a new entity, a UN High Commissioner for the Rule of Law, be established to pull together all of the various bits of the UN that work on these issues – to get over the coordination problems, mobilize political support, and create a board of committed member states.

12:57 [Comment From Gary: ] Has the UN been able to make any progress on climate change since Copenhagen?

12:58 Bruce Jones: Not really. But in truth, I don’t think the main movement on climate will come from the UN – it will come from the big economies, probably negotiating through the Major Economies Forum (MEF.) When the U.S., China, India, Brazil, Europe, and Japan make a deal, then we’ll see real movement at the UN; not before.

12:58 [Comment From Yan: ] Does the UN’s structure accurately reflect today’s world order?

1:00 Bruce Jones: No, not at all. Europe is over-represented in the Security Council, and India and Brazil under-represented. The only exception is China: it was a fortuitous foresight that led the post-war creators of the UN to give China a permanent seat in the Security Council. That means that the most fraught change in global order – the rise of China – is already reflected in the UN. But for the rest, there’s a lot of work to do to shift arrangements to reflect changes in world order.

1:00 [Comment From Elizabeth: ] What is your view on the argument that the UN should move to a system of entirely voluntary funding?

1:01 Bruce Jones: I don’t see a direct correlation between success/failure and mandatory/voluntary funding. There are voluntarily funded agencies that do very good work, and some that do absolutely useless work – somehow, they still get lots of money. And some bits of the UN that have mandated funding (such as peacekeeping operations) still make major contributions. So I don’t think that shift would help much.

1:01 [Comment From Larry: ] Do you ever envision the G20 replacing functions of the UN?

1:02 Bruce Jones: Some of them, potentially yes. On transnational threats like counter-terrorism and organized crime, the G8 set a precedent of taking important decisions that might have been taken at the UN but weren’t. The G20 could do more on this – I think it should. Even then, though, the G20 will have to refer its decisions to an operational body for implementation – that could be the IMF or the World Bank, it could also be the UN.

1:02 [Comment From Mike: ] During Obama’s address to the GA last year, he focused on “setting a new tone” for U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Do you think his policies and actions over the past year have been in line with his speech last year?

1:04 Bruce Jones: Broadly, yes. He’s deepened U.S. cooperation and engagement with India; with African states; and with China. The major exception last year was Brazil and Turkey – the U.S. clashes with these two states (who right now have temporary seats in the UN Security Council) over Iran. Iran could still prove to be the crisis that leads to a major erosion in U.S. relations with the emerging powers – but so far, the administration has been managing that issue in a way that deepens cooperation from Russia, China and others.

1:04 [Comment From Dan: ] What are some of the UN’s big successes over the past year or two? Have there really been any?

1:04 Bruce Jones: It’s been a pretty bleak couple of years….

1:05 [Comment From Andrew: ] You hear a lot of people clamoring for U.S. leadership on UNSC reform, but in my opinion differences within the UN’s general membership on number of seats, veto powers, etc. are really what’s hampering progress. 1) Do you think the U.S. needs to lead on UNSC reform? and 2) what are the prospects for UNSC reform with a 2011 UNSC of Brazil, India, South Africa, Nigeria and Germany? Will this help or hurt reform do you think?

1:07 Bruce Jones: If the U.S. really wanted UNSC reform, it could drive it through. But of course, the U.S. doesn’t really want UNSC reform. It might concede to reform, but it certainly isn’t going to drive it. In my mind, that’s a mistake: if the U.S. took up the mantle of leadership on this, it could drive through a set of reforms that make sense for the U.S. but also revitalize the legitimacy of the UN. As I noted above, China’s already on the UNSC reform – bringing India on is a net plus for the U.S.; bringing Brazil on, perhaps more questionable, but certainly manageable with the right negotiations. As to whether having Brazil, India, South Africa, Nigeria and Germany on will help: depends on them. No question that Brazil hurt its case for UNSC membership – badly – by its performance on Iran, whatever you think of the substance of its position.

1:07 [Comment From Mark: ] How do we retool our concepts and instruments of diplomacy, defense, and foreign aid to cope better with weak and failing states?

1:10 Bruce Jones: This is a place where there’s a lot of room for the U.S. to build new patterns of cooperation with the emerging powers. India, Brazil, South Africa – these countries have (a) no interest in seeing state collapse in their regions, (b) relationships of influence with some of the countries in question and (c) good, relevant experience of developing stability out of conflict/poverty that is relevant for weak and failing states. One of my biggest criticisms of the U.S. (and Europe) is that so far, they’ve been very defensive about seeing these countries start to participate in the development business. We should be working closely with them. Our own approaches have largely failed: we actually have quite a lot to learn from India, Brazil and South Africa – we need to get off our high moral horse on development and start working with them on stabilizing weak states.

1:11 [Comment From Mike: ] What do you consider some of the main stumbling blocks that could cause difficulties for the UN this year?

1:11 Bruce Jones: Iran, Iran, Iran. Oh, and the Sudanese referendum – which will probably launch the country back into a major war and highlight the total dysfunctionality of the UN’s largest peacekeeping operation.

1:12 [Comment From Kiki: ] When talking about the MDG, it is said that poverty has fallen but progress has been uneven. The goal of halving world poverty is likely to be met in 2015 but it’s largely because of robust economic growth in China and India. What’s your opinion toward this?

1:13 Bruce Jones: Yep, growth in India and China account for the lion’s share of progress towards meeting the MDGs. There are some important new success stories, like Ethiopia – but see my earlier comment (which applies to Ethiopia) about ending conflict, establishing stable governance and opening up to international trade. Much more important than development assistance.

1:13 [Comment From Wes: ] What do you expect the GA will do or say about Iran?

1:13 Bruce Jones: Nothing at all. It’s an issue for the UN Security Council, which is where crisis and security issues are handled.

1:13 [Comment From Guest: ] Last year, a Norwegian diplomat stated in a leaked memo that “people in the circles of Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton are very negative to Ban.” Do you believe this still to be the case, and if so, will Ban be able to convince enough P5 and elected members to nominate him for a second term? What has Ban accomplished in the past year to remedy this view of him?

1:14 Bruce Jones: There are mixed views inside the Administration. Some see him as useful; others as useless, but pliant. The sad thing is that the ‘useless but pliant’ view may be enough to make the U.S. turn a blind eye to his weaknesses and vote for a second term. Sigh.

1:15 [Comment From Terry: ] I read that North Korea is preparing to hand the reigns over to a new leader. How will the UN react to this change?

1:17 Bruce Jones: Good question. The UN basically doesn’t react to internal leadership changes in sovereign states, and for all of its colossal dysfunctionalities, North Korea is still a sovereign state. Will the Security Council start preparing for potential crises with North Korea? Not really: a big weakness of the UN is that because it’s a collective body, it doesn’t really do much by way of anticipating or preparing for crises, it’s mostly reactive. Then again, that could be said about most national governments too. The risks in North Korea are real and incredibly high. There are even credible scenarios where the U.S. has to invoke the use of nuclear weapons to deter a North Korean attack on South Korea, which would be devastating, if short-lived. I’m quite afraid of this one.

1:18 [Comment From Gary: ] Can you talk a bit about what the value of the initial GA meetings are this week?

1:20 Bruce Jones: There are three basic values: – smaller countries, that have no real voice in international affairs, get to stand on a big stage and say what they think – some of what they think is pretty annoying, but they have every right to think it as sovereign states, and the act of saying it loud is an important affirmation of sovereignty for these countries;
– because everyone is saying out loud what they think about major global issues, the GA serves as a kind of barometer of the global mood on key issues;
– most importantly, the fact that lots of world leaders are gather in one place means that they can meet with one another on the sidelines – the most important work of the GA isn’t the formal speeches or decisions, it’s the meetings that happen in the corridors and side rooms – often between people who really aren’t supposed to be meeting (like Israelis and Arabs, etc)

1:20 [Comment From Kiki: ] Obama will meet with ASEAN leaders on the 24th to call for the peaceful settlement of South China Sea, but according to AP, Beijing “angrily reacted by saying Washington was interfering in an Asian regional issue.” What’s your opinion of viewing the reasons that why Washington is still have its hands on the issue after China told the U.S. to “keep out of the South China Sea dispute?”

1:22 Bruce Jones: The U.S. has no choice but to engage; the South China Seas may be an Asian regional issue, but Asia is a region of global significance. China would like to see its influence extended in ASEAN and on Asian security issues, but there’s going to be a lot of push back – from Japan (see their ongoing dispute), South Korea, Australia, and the U.S.. Look for this to be an ongoing source of contention – but see my ideas above for how to think about multi-national dispute resolution on naval issues.

1:22 [Comment From Randy: ] How does the UN ensure security at these meetings?

1:23 Bruce Jones: It doesn’t, the FBI does. The United States is responsible for security for UN meetings on its own soil. The UN has some of its own body guards, security guards, etc – but they are a minor presence compared to FBI, NYPD, etc.

1:23 [Comment From kirk: ] How does the Obama administration’s relationship with the UN differ from the Bush (43) administration’s?

1:25 Bruce Jones: The Obama administration has done several things differently: it’s forged a good relationship with India at the UN, which is vital for splitting the G77 (see comment above); it’s built excellent relationships with the African states, which is vital for winning votes; and it’s got a good relationship with the Secretariat, which is vital for influencing UN political and peacekeeping strategies. Lots of credit for this to Ambassador Susan Rice.

1:25 [Comment From MarcU.S.: ] Any idea what Obama will say in his address to the GA?

1:26 Bruce Jones: No, but I’ll hazard a guess: he’ll talk about U.S. leadership in a changed global system; he’ll explain why U.S. leadership still matters; he’ll say some things aimed at a domestic audience about what the U.S. gets out of the UN and some further things about where the UN is weak. I wouldn’t be shocked if there was a hint at openness about UNSC reform – reading the tea leaves on this one (particularly in Under-Secretary Burns’ trip to Delhi), the administration seems to be opening on this slightly. There wouldn’t be more than a hint, though. Expect tough language on Iran and Sudan as well.

1:27 [Comment From carlos] ] Mr. Jones, It is the U.S. government really working with the UN? I mean after all the talk about going back to multilateralism. How would you rate this nexus today?

1:27 Bruce Jones: Yes, very closely. So did the last administration actually – in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, the DRC. The UN only works when the U.S. works closely with it – which this administration is certainly doing.