Posted by Suzanne Nossel
At the margins of the Bolton debate, and for those of us who may not last another two weeks of speculating over the names in those mysterious NSC excerpts, an interesting and ultimately more important set of questions has emerged. They deal with whether the UN is important and why, and what UN reform means and should mean. Kudos to Joseph Britt at Belgravia Dispatch for raising this question and to the Washington Post for looking at the disconnect between what Bush and Annan mean when they say reform.
I move that we spend at least part of our time over the next few weeks debating these issues, and throw a few things out to get the ball rolling.
Why is the UN important? I thought Bush gave a good answer to this tonight at the press conference, commenting that UN Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen is doing a good job verifying Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and noting this as an example of the kinds of valuable roles the UN can play.
There are thousands of things just like this that the UN and its agencies do day in and day out: providing food aid in Darfur, coordinating relief and rehabilitation post-tsunami, coordinating elections in Afghanistan, caring for refugees, immunizing children the world over, treating AIDS victims and preventing HIV-AIDS transmission, settling intellectual property disputes, operating peacekeeping missions in parts of the world like Sierra Leone and Congo when no one else is looking and much more. Look at the UN and UN Foundation websites for details. In short the UN performs an array of tasks that no other entity or agency is equipped to do. As Holbrooke used to put it "if it didn't exist you'd have to invent it."
Another key element is that the UN is the only body in the world with near-universal membership. When it comes to building truly global support for a policy initiative - like the attack on Afghanistan right after September 11 - there is no other single place to turn.
Despite its diversity of membership, since its founding 60 years ago the UN has helped advance a set of universal values that also happen to be principles the U.S. holds dear. There's no question the organization has been passive aggressive, hypocritical, and uneven in its application of these ideals, and that's deeply disappointing. But its also clear that concepts like human rights, democracy, and the rule of law have been elevated throughout the world in part because of the UN's role in spotlighting these issues (if the Bush Administration didn't believe this, they wouldn't have proposed that the Democracy Fund they want to create be housed at the UN).
Why Does the UN Need Reform? 2 main reasons:
1) To Become a More Effective Foreign Policy Instrument – The UN's decision-making structures, bureaucracy, and field operations suffer from administrative and political weaknesses that undercut their their effectiveness and reliability. They are bureaucratic, inefficient, slow-moving and subject to infighting. As a result, the UN often falls short. This makes it impossible to advocate a broad UN role in a tough situation, Iraq for example, without worrying about whether the world body is up to the task;
2) To Restore the Organization's Credibility - One need only to look at what's happened to Enron, Fannie Mae and AIG to understand why an organization perceived as corrupt and mismanaged cannot be effective. To play its myriad of important roles, the UN needs to rebuild the trust of its membership, including particularly its largest contributor and host country, the United States.
What is Meant by Reform? Different things to different people.
The Bolton View: When John Bolton served as Assistant Secretary of the State Department's International Organization's bureau, reform mostly meant withholding U.S. dues to the UN in an effort to force through various bureaucratic reforms, like zero-based budgeting and getting the UN staff to make good on their commitment to serve abroad. Some of the specific reform measures advocated made senses, but the steps were for the most part seen as made-in-the-USA demands being foisted on an unwilling membership. The result was scorched-earth -- a reflexive hostility among the membership to even the word reform. By the time I got to the UN the U.S. delegation couldn't chime in at a meeting without being told that before opining we ought to pay our dues "on time, in full, and without conditions."
The Annan View: Since entering office, Annan (the U.S.'s pick, in large part because he was seen as a reformer) has made efforts to modernize the UN's human resource system and, more successfully, to augment the organization's peacekeeping capabilities. But Annan left many of the worst entrenched bureaucrats in place, looked the other way as scandals like oil for food and peacekeeping sexcapades unfolded, and steered clear of the most politically charged issues like seating the likes of Sudan and Libya on the UN's Commission on Human Rights and the persistent bullying of Israel.
Now, partly as a way to try to salvage his tenure after the Iraq fracture and the oil for food debacle, Annan is pushing for far broader reforms. He's finally cleaned house, sweeping away the worst of the apparatchiks. He's called for enlargement of the UN Security Council, a new treaty on terrorism, strengthened counter-proliferation measures and a new Human Rights Council that would exclude rights violators. For more see here.
The Bush Administration View: What do President Bush and Condi Rice mean when they talk about the need for UN reform (as they do unfailingly when stressing how vital it is that Bolton be confirmed)? To find out I went to the USUN website and read a speech given on April 7 by Shirin Tahir-Kheli, whom Rice appointed her Senior Adviser on UN Reform within days of Bolton's nomination.
The speech supports most of the important ideas contained in Annan's reform report, including the terrorism treaty, the revamped Human Rights Council, the creation of a new Peacebuilding Commission and the strengthening of UN non-proliferation instruments. Tahir-Kheli sidesteps a series of other issues, like demands for more development aid and a call for reform of the UN Security Council (she says the U.S. supports such reform, but offers no view on a formula).
In short, while the brouhaha over Bolton unfolds, Condi has her woman quietly advocating a reasoned reform agenda. But what's virtually missing from Tahir-Kehli's speech is any concept of a reform agenda that goes beyond what Annan advocates. The one exception is a reference to a UN Democracy Fund, an idea Bush first floated last fall.
For all their criticism of Annan and their outraged calls for wide reform, the Administration's vision for change dovetails very closely with the Secretary-General's. It's also worth noting that despite the White House's sense of urgency to get Bolton to NYC to start reforming, Tahir-Kheli made clear that Bush rejects Annan's proposal to try to agree on a package this September, and thinks the reform process should not be subject to "artificial deadlines." If reform can wait, why the pressure last week to ram through Bolton?
Remarkably, despite all the ink and angst over the oil for food affair, the only reference to managerial accountability in Tahir-Kheli's remarks is a short paragraph recommending the strengthening of the UN's office of internal oversight.
The Nossel View: One of my very first posts on Democracy Arsenal was devoted to urging the Bush Administration to back key elements of the Annan reform package. They've now done so and I applaud it. But the reform effort needs to go farther in several respects:
Oversight: The office Bush wants to strengthen has always been relatively toothless and that's unlikely to change even with more resources or new leadership. The UN needs an independent, outside audit function akin to what US private companies have. It needs to hold individual managers personally responsible for strict accountability, a la Sarbanes-Oxley. Managers also need viable whistleblower protection against meddling Member States, and the Member States themselves should be called to account when they play a role in misdeeds. This won't be easy to accomplish, but it is essential to keeping hands out of the till andsustaining the UN's credibility long-term.
We should take a hard look at what's going on now with defections from the Volcker Commission and figure out once and for all how the UN can credibly be investigated. The organization cannot afford another big scandal, and preventing one will require major structural and cultural change. It's surprising that the Administration has not come up with more concrete proposals here.
Safety and Security: The UN's inability to deploy last year in Iraq due to lack of adequate safety contributed to widespread loss of life as the anti-U.S. insurgency escalated. The UN is the intervenor of last resort in many of the world's worst spots, and needs commitments of adequately trained and equipped troops to enable the organization to deploy wherever it is needed.
Early Retirements: One of the best proposals contained in Annan's reform package would offer generous early retirement packages to large numbers of UN personnel, clearing the way for the organization to be invigorated by a diverse staff not stuck in old mindsets. The Administration should jump on this.
Overlap, Duplication and Obsolescence: The UN has a multitude of offices tasked with similar roles. The functions of the Political Affairs Department and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations often coincide, as do those of UNDP and the UN's various economic organs. Many of these offices provide comfortable NY-based resting places for former ambassadors and the like. In tandem with the buy-out effort, offices that have outlived their usefulness should be shut down.
The reform effort should also go beyond the Secretariat itself, and encompass efforts undertaken within the membership to enable the organization to mature and realize its potential. Most important are these:
- Remedying Israel's isolation at the UN once and for all (I have an article coming out soon in Dissent that talks about why and how to get this done);
- Starting to unravel the UN's regional group structure by picking off countries that no longer have a policy interest in siding with a one-dimensional developing world bloc (for more see Retail Diplomacy - the section on unlocking bloc politics). The Bush Administration wants to do this, but its relationships are too frayed to try right now.