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February 19, 2006

10 Signs UN Reform is Alive
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

I spent this weekend at a conference organized by the Stanley Foundation on UN Reform.  Stanley is deeply valued at the UN for convening in-depth, substantive sessions that are small enough to allow participants to engage and actually reach decisions.   David Shorr, an occasional guest-blogger here, has masterminded these UN events in recent years.  This weekend he and Stanley Foundation President Dick Stanley focused on the nuts and bolts of how to streamline the thousands of UN mandates that have accumulated over the years.   

They convened a group including a dozen UN ambassadors from major countries (none with mustaches), a handful of their deputies, a few top Secretariat and US government officials, one academic and one blogger.   For me it was a chance to delve back into reform issues 5 years after completing negotiations at the US Mission to the UN to reform the organization's financial system in 2001.   Here are 10 reasons why the weekend left me somewhat heartened on prospects for UN reform:

1.  With the spotlight gone, important hard work is actually getting done - Many of us despaired last Fall when the UN's historic reform summit ended with a whimper.  With world leaders missing the chance to endorse an ambitious program, reform seemed bound to die.  But it hasn't.  Wading through thousands of UN mandates to decide what to kill is tedious, daunting and vitally necessary.  The UN deserves major kudos for plunging into this head-on.   There's also hope of major progress on a reformed Human Rights Council as soon as this week.

2.  The top people in the UN Secretariat are seized with reform - The UN seems to have woken up, smelled the Kofi, and realized that it needs turn itself around or risk extinction.  The UN's best people are now focused on reform which, just 5 years ago, was n unsexy backwater that highflyers avoided at all costs.  When I asked whether a certain charismatic, high-ranking UN official was involved in the reform effort, the answer was "everyone is."

3.  Member States are engaged in reform at a higher level than ever - To see a group of top ambassadors devote a holiday weekend to the intricacies of criteria for retiring outdated UN mandates was impressive.  In 2000-01, ambassadors would step in only at the literal midnight hour; usually Christmas Eve when failure to reach decisions meant spoiled holidays and no budget for the new year.  The dominance of low-level, less accountable delegates bedeviled many a reform debate.   Having ambassadors around the table is a huge improvement.

4.  Key member states now care about how the UN is perceived (especially on the Hill and by the US public) - When I served at the US Mission, other delegations took offense if we brought up the expectations and demands of Congress or the US public about UN reform.  Our domestic political dramas were no concern of theirs.  Now, delegations from around the world - including developing countries - speak of the need to demonstrate publicly that the organization is changing, and to adduce tangible evidence that old habits are being broken.   This is a potentially big breakthrough.

5.  Mistrust of the US is forcing the American delegation to make compromises - There was lots of talk about suspicion and polarization at the UN being at an all-time high.  This is countries' polite way of saying they're mad as hell at us.  Countries demanded so-called confidence building measures by the US as a precondition for their willingness to engage on a reform agenda that, on its surface, means making the UN more focused and efficient, but that many countries fear is a veil for cost-cutting and shortchanging developing countries' priorities.  The US knows its radioactive and needs to show flexibility to get others to play ball.

6.  Expectations of the US are so low, that simply being reasonable goes a long way - Many UN members have come to expect what they consider the worst from the US - rigid, self-interested positions put forward by fiat, rather than with an effort to persuade.  The irony is that when an American delegate is thoughtful, flexible, and broad-minded, it has a powerful disarming effect.  Sighs of relief are heard, others compromise too, and everyone starts to feel good.   This may be an unexpected windfall from America's image having hit rock bottom; call it the sweet charity of low expectations.

7.  John Bolton is not the only person representing the US - US representation at the UN is always a team effort.   There are too many issues and way too many delegations to allow anyone to be effective single-handedly.   There are other American officials pushing hard toward agreement on a reformed human rights Council and digging into the details on questions like mandate review. 

8.  Everyone now tacitly acknowledges that hardball conditions are, at least for now, the only way to achieve reform - When I was at USUN linking US funding for the UN to reform was viewed as plain unconscionable.  Five years later, a surprising number of delegates privately concede that the organization won't reform without a financial gun to its head.  This is not an indictment of the UN, it is a function of the organization's emphasis on consensus.  Since virtually every aspect of the status quo implicates someone's vested interest (a position here, a grant there), the disinterested need a powerful imperative to roll their allies.  Its equally clear that the US must be realistic, sensitive and calibrated in how it applies conditions:  giving the UN a chance to act before negative consequences kick in; proffering legitimate conditions that that a majority can understand if not support; and going all-out diplomatically to earn support for the preconditions it attaches.

9.  Annan needs redemption - Kofi Annan has 10 more months in office.  Capping a tenure wracked by division and scandal, Annan badly needs a victory and a legacy.   He wants it to be effective international intervention in Darfur and, if that's achievable, its tough to argue with.  But either instead of or in addition to trying to overcome the paralysis that has reigned in the Security Council on Darfur for more than two years, Annan should recognize that steps like doing away with thousands of mandates to enable the UN to focus on what matters most and what it does best may help prevent and respond better to future Darfurs.

10.  There's a chance to put in place the right leader to take reform far forward - Annan can point the UN toward the promised land, but its too late for him to see the organization get there.  Meanwhile, discussions on a successor have begun.   Amb. Richard Holbrooke has an excellent piece on the selection process.  The organization desperately needs a strong, creative chief who is capable of rallying the membership and unafraid of taking risks that will help advance the organization's mission.   Paradoxically, what the UN needs is not so much a good manager, but a great leader that can put in place great managers, but also cajole and corral a wily membership into heeding their counsel.


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While I would personally rally behind a candidate for next UNSG as you describe, I'm doubtful the US (and other states) would allow it. A "strong, creative chief", "unafraid of taking risks that will help advance the organization's mission" and able to "cajole and corral a wily membership into heeding their counsel"?

Can you say Bolton's nightmare?

U.S. policy has for decades been that the UN Charter states the full extent of the the UNSG role - "chief administrative officer." Member states are entirely responsible for policy creation and implementation. Creative or courage leaders need not apply, nor should those (like Boutros-Ghali) who believe they are empowered to cajole member states or the organization to their bidding.

Just a note from Michael Kraig, Director of Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation.

I was not at the UN Issues meeting in person, so I was deeply gratified to see Susan's great piece. And I would answer the skepticism with one simple point: the usual has happened, in that the neo-cons and the Bush Adm. in general has knocked heads together successfully and now a potential victory is lined up. They did this in Iraq in 2002; Hans Blix and the IAEA were empowered and supported by the most important of US allies and much of the Developing World as well. Also, our pressure on Arafat in various ways, and our pressure on Syria in response to Hariri, have yielded results that are certainly beyond my wildest dreams: democratic elections in Palestine and a whipped Syrian hierarchy getting out of dodge and letting Lebanon finally breath a little.

The problem comes, as the above intervention shows, in accepting the word "yes." And this problem has endlessly repeated itself: we aren't happy with Syrian exit from Lebanon, we want instead (as Flynt Leverett has called it) "regime change on the cheap" - even though it is entirely unclear what chaos would follow in the wake of a total regime collapse in Damascus. And, we aren't happy with the results of elections in Palestine; we wanted a very pliable negotiating partner who would concede to most Israeli demands. And on and on.

The ugly apparition of total success is rearing itself again: Bolton has gotten almost exactly what he wanted, that is, a bunch of foreign delegates and Secretariat officials who are now deeply and sincerely committed to reform.

The question that is begged is straightforward: will we take yes for an answer? Or do we want a 100% engineered outcome where compromise means giving the US exactly what it wants, and any other compromise is viewed as beyond the pale?

-Michael Kraig

Michael Kraig again on a quick addendum to my previous entry:

I have to credit former Atlantic Council President, the Honorable Christopher Makins, for the quip that "this Administration doesn't know how to take 'yes' for an answer," which he opined during a DC metro ride on the way back from a briefing on Capitol Hill that we co-sponsored with his organization. I just wanted to give credit where credit is due, because Christopher was a great partner of TSF for many years, and a tremendous source of intelligence to us on European thinking -- and I will sorely miss him.

-Michael Kraig

This type of misdirected diplomacy is exactly what Americans distrust most. Americans show more interest in the long-term development of the U.S. and must develop alternative methods of dealing with other nations than through the U.N. The U.N. has outlived its usefulness and efforts to "strengthen" it should be strongly resisted while other organizations like the O.A.S. made more visible. Most Americans I know, have no interest in seeing the U.N. succeed, and infact, American participation in the U.N. has never been popular with the American public and forced upon the American people by an elite minority.

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