Global Policy Forum

The Gangs of New York


By Klaus Brinkbäumer and Georg Mascolo

Der Spiegel
September 26, 2005

The end of the Cold War was supposed to mark the beginning of an era of global politics. Now, 16 years later, about the only thing the 191 member states of the United Nations can agree upon is that poverty is a bad thing. Have global politics become an impossibility?

When US President George W. Bush rolled up First Avenue in his limousine, the United Nations building shimmering bluish-green in the sunlight, Secretary General Kofi Annan stood at the main entrance, smiling amiably. The president wore his usual Stars and Stripes lapel pin while Annan wore, as usual, a hand-made dove of peace on his lapel. Bush, somewhat incongruously, saluted. Then he walked up the steps, smiled and asked Annan, "Has the place blown up since he's been here?"

Bush was referring to John Bolton, his ambassador to the UN, the man who, just before the world body's summit meeting got under way two weeks ago, submitted, on behalf of the United States, a list of 750 alterations to the meeting's final document. The summit was supposed to be an upbeat celebration of the UN's 60th birthday and mark the end of a long and difficult reform process. Instead, the Bolton corrections essentially downgrading the final document to little more than a meaningless sketchpad of world politics.

Annan smiled at the president's quip, but he looked more reserved than pleased. After all, he was exhausted by the effort of bringing the summit to a successful conclusion. Near the end of the ten-day meeting in New York, the secretary general said, "We have come together in a time of great global fear of weapons of mass destruction." But by then he was so hoarse that his words were almost inaudible.

Communication breakdown

He had done his best, as always. After all, a summit of this magnitude is much more than the sum of its many speeches, and more than the failure of a reform effort as well. The UN, perhaps more than any other official body, is a place where the business of politics is practiced on two levels: in the public arena and in behind-the-scenes meetings invisible to the public. When German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer came to New York, his stay shortened to all of nine hours because of the German election, he was hardly noticed as he rushed between meetings with the British, the French and the Iranians. His meeting schedule was hardly out of the ordinary. At this kind of summit, everyone talks to everyone else, in hallways, in back offices, and at official receptions. Without the summit, many conversations -- conversations otherwise too delicate, too complicated -- would never come about. Here in New York, Indians talk to Pakistanis, Iraqis with Israelis, and Kofi Annan is the one who manages to bring them all together.

But this time, at a meeting where the UN should have been celebrating the beginning of its seventh decade, during a summit at which Annan had planned to lead the organization into the modern age and complete his life's work, the channels of communication somehow broke down. In both public and private meetings, nothing seemed to work.

The breakdown can be symbolized by one single moment: when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's new president, entered the UN General Assembly Chamber. A short man, Ahmadinejad waved amiably as he walked up to the podium. Behind him hung the mural depicting the six world continents flanked by two laurel branches. Ahmadinejad opened his speech with the words "In the Name of the God of Mercy, Compassion, Peace, Freedom and Justice." He said that Iran had never planned to build nuclear weapons, and that it would allow no one to deprive the country of its right to use nuclear energy to generate electricity. He never mentioned the name "USA." But he did speak of a country that is the only one which has actually used nuclear weapons and is trying to prevent other countries from acquiring the technology to produce peaceful nuclear energy. In addition to sharply criticizing this unnamed country, he also attacked "the Zionists." His speech was greeted with more than a little applause, and he waved again as he left the podium.

At that moment, every backroom conversation had suddenly become worthless. The Americans immediately tried to forge a new alliance to force Iran to appear before the Security Council. But their efforts failed when the Chinese and the Russians said: not with us.

That, in a nutshell, is the United Nations. The nations of the world, in short, are not united.

Anything but commitment

They fight over Iran. They fight over that other member of Bush's "axis of evil," North Korea, and everyone tries to tout as a success story a document that states that North Korea plans to abandon its military nuclear program and could receive a nuclear power plant in return. But the document is no success. It's non-specific. It contains no procedures, no data, nothing that could possibly commit anyone to anything.

They fight over disarmament. It's been nine years since it was accepted, and still the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is not in force. They fight over human rights, poverty and who gets which jobs. And, of course, they fight over the composition of the United Nations Security Council, a body that mirrors a pre-1945 world, a body that only its own members take seriously, and only when it happens to legitimize their own interests.

"It's a disgrace," said Annan. He was referring just to the passages on nuclear policy in the final document passed by the assembly, but his uncharacteristic loss of composure spoke volumes. In 1992, then Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali wrote, in his "Agenda for Peace," that the "immense ideological barrier" of the Cold War had fallen, a barrier that for decades "gave rise to distrust and hostility." He added that "an opportunity has been regained to achieve the great objectives of the Charter -- a United Nations capable of maintaining international peace and security, of securing justice and human rights." It was to be a new era. It was a dream.

It didn't work.

The United Nations gets in its own way, because it still includes five veto powers but has no common idea, no values or goals that apply to all members. And that, in fact, is why there is really no such thing as a functioning international community. Indeed, "international community" is little more than one of those phrases Secretary General Annan constantly uses. And when he uses it, there is something imploring about the term, something desperate and naí¯ve. "You never get what you want here, and what you do get, you get too late." This is how Gunter Pleuger, Germany's ambassador to the UN, describes the United Nations environment.

Of course, groups with common goals do come together now and then, groups that claim to act on behalf of mankind. But everything that happens at the UN is imbued with self-interest, the United States being a case in point. Why wage war in Iraq on the one hand but offer aid to North Korea on the other? And why the Rwandan massacres, why the genocide in Congo, in Sudan? Whenever these atrocities happen, the powers that be in New York spend weeks in the Security Council debating over whether they can be defined as reaching the standard of "genocide," or whether they are merely "indications of genocide." Usually it's the latter. "Indications of genocide" means that no one needs to send troops, that aid organizations are considered sufficient.

The gangs of New York

The truth is that a morally-oriented international community did not exist before the Asian tsunami in 2004. Then it existed for three months. Why? Because it was the first disaster that affected everyone. But after those three months of solidarity, everything returned to normal. Crises are usually local, far away from a city like New York, a place where tickets to Fashion Week are high on diplomats' lists of priorities. Writer and feminist Susan Sontag once wrote that citizens of the modern age have learned to be cynical when confronted by earnestness and that there are those who do their utmost to avoid emotion. In his book "Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda," former American diplomat Michael Barnett writes of "moral amnesia and the distortion of ethical principles," in short, what he calls the "UN syndrome." What he is referring to is the refusal of those involved to feel responsible.

There is no doubt that nuclear proliferation is a threat to the world, but the members of the UN are doing nothing about it. It also should have been obvious to those in New York that the Security Council, the organization's most important instrument, must be reformed. It's too small. Africa has no votes on the Council. But this is the kind of issue that concerns only those who want something, never those who already have it. The alliances within the UN are like youth gangs, each of them convinced that it is in the right.

The Security Council Chamber has all the charm of a Soviet hotel. The room is so cold that a French delegate, seeking to make a statement, once appeared wrapped in a scarf. Important issues are rarely decided at the horseshoe-shaped table at the center of the room. The truly important negotiations take place in the conference room next door, a room guarded by UN police officers. The chairs in the room were donated by the Germans -- and they wanted the right to permanently take a place in one of them.

It didn't work. The Italians accused the Germans -- in a roundabout way, of course -- of using aid money to buy votes. But German diplomats say that Chancellor Gerhard Schrí¶der's promise to increase development aid to 0.7 percent of German GDP has nothing to do with the Security Council. In fact, under a UN program ambitiously dubbed the "Millennium Development Goals," which aims to cut poverty in half by 2015, all donor nations are called upon to achieve the same benchmark of 0.7 percent. Germany, it should be mentioned, is one of few countries that have made that benchmark a goal.

The German campaign for a permanent seat on the Security Council raised many controversies. Critics like Wolfgang Schäuble, deputy head of Germany's opposition parliamentary group, called it a "craving for status." German UN Ambassador Pleuger, representing the views of those who supported the effort, said, "We send our troops on UN missions all over the world, and as the country that pays the third-largest contribution to the UN, we always get the bill. If we're talking about an expansion, why shouldn't we be entitled to participate in the decisions, instead of just carrying them out?"

But all that is over now. In June, Ambassador Pleuger wanted to put a plan developed by the so-called Group of Four (G4) nations -- Japan, Brazil, India and Germany -- to a vote. Under the G4 plan, the Security Council would be expanded from its current 15 seats to 25 seats. Following the vote, each of the G4 nations would have campaigned for one of the new seats on its own.

Missing the chance

Back then, in June, the group counted 140 supporters, more than the necessary two-thirds majority, or 128 nations. But the Japanese were still worried about the motion failing and the G4 missed its opportunity for a vote. Soon thereafter, the Americans and the Chinese launched their campaign against the plan. And that, said one diplomat, was when the group lost the battle. The Americans didn't fail to notice that Berlin had structured its candidacy around its opposition to the Iraq war. And, as diplomats in New York see it, the fact that Schrí¶der neglected to ask Bush for his support when the US president visited Germany in February was a death blow to the campaign. Bush was expecting it, and yet Schrí¶der said nothing and remained oddly casual about the matter.

Germany versus America, until the very end: that was the G4's second mistake.

The diplomat looks out the window, high above New York. There is still time, he says, adding that negotiations should continue until the end of the year -- as if the momentum from the summit could somehow push the G4 directly to its objective. But this is unlikely to happen, not with such a vigilant opposing lobby. The G4 nations' persistence, say the Americans, threatens to destroy consensus for a revitalization of the UN.

But in reality there is no consensus, and that is why there will be no new Security Council and no reforms. Perhaps there will be a new commission here and a bit of streamlining there, but not a UN that is a match for this world. And so it is that years of negotiation have culminated in a 39-page manifesto of world politics in the year 2005, little more than document cluttering the desks at UN headquarters in New York. The document is a grotesque tragedy. It calls upon the nations of the world to fight terror, but the delegates already part ways on the definition of the term "terror." The formation of the Human Rights Council, the strengthening of the International Criminal Court -- these are little more than meaningless phrases, ways out of commitment, ways to obtain signatures. At the UN, they call these kinds of declarations "feel-good phrases" and "as-if treaties."

Is the failure of Annan's agenda the last bit of proof of the world body's inability to reform itself? Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN and the architect of the Bosnia Peace Accord, says that the UN is just a building, that it mirrors the individual interests of its 191 members. "When something goes wrong in that big empty factory of diplomatic mumbo-jumbo on the East River there, it isn't the UN that's happened; it's the ambassadors representing their governments," says Holbrooke.

Secretary General or scapegoat?

Richard Haass is head of the "Council on Foreign Relations" in New York. He smiles serenely, smoothing his pink tie with his hand. For Haass, the demands for comprehensive reform are "very American; they reflect the pleasure we take in mechanical fixing." The biggest problem, he says, is not mismanagement, but a world that can no longer agree on anything. In this kind of environment, the UN is doomed to fail.

This is the core of the problem: an imbalance. The United Nations -- its name says it all -- is viewed as an idea and model, a world government with heart and soul, with Kofi Annan as chancellor and president and prime minister, showered with expectations and, in the end, with mockery and derision.

Annan recently talked about how he was criticized because he had failed to modernize the organization after six weeks. "What are you complaining about? You had more time than God," said the Russian ambassador. "God," Annan replied, "had a decisive advantage. He was able to do his work without the General Assembly, the Security Council and all the committees."

The United Nations is really nothing but a club of 191 egoists, and it will never succeed as long as each member uses it for its own benefit and puts up barriers when others stand to benefit. As long as this remains the order of the day at the UN, Annan is nothing but a secretary. Indeed, Annan himself likens the position of Secretary General to that of a scapegoat. The United States has long had its share of UN haters, but the anti-UN movement has never had as much impetus as in recent years. Former Georgia Senator Zell Miller disparages the UN as an "army of Lilliputians [who] have not only tied down the great Gulliver, but also stolen his platinum credit card, spit in his face and killed his children."

In its 60-year history, no other incident has shaken the UN quite as thoroughly as the oil-for-food scandal. The UN lives for its integrity, and revelations of corruption are its biggest nightmare. The purpose of the UN oil-for-food program was to force then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to his knees with sanctions, but without causing the Iraqi people to suffer. To achieve that goal, the proceeds from the sale of Iraqi oil were to be earmarked for purchases of food and medication. Between 1997 and 2003, Iraq earned $64 billion in oil revenues that qualified for the UN program. But the program's biggest beneficiary was Saddam Hussein himself. Through oil smuggling, secret kickbacks and bribes, he managed to secure the $10 billion that enabled him to survive, albeit more modestly than in the past.

A week before the New York summit, a UN investigative commission headed by Paul Volcker submitted its report, and it paints an unflattering picture of Annan. According to Volcker, investigations into the scandal should have begun much earlier, and the program should have been monitored much more rigorously. But the report, which reads like a miniature version of everything that is wrong with the UN, also casts the entire organization in an unflattering light.

Clinton to succeed Annan?

Instead of monitoring the program, UN members, especially the Americans, were more interested in their own Iraq policies. Of the infamous $10 billion, $8 billion came from illegal shipments Saddam arranged to have funneled through Turkey and Jordan, shipments the US government accepted, for reasons of national security. Once, in April, Annan dared express what many at the UN already knew: The British and the Americans had decided "to turn a blind eye to the smuggling, because Turkey and Jordan were allies." It was a rare act of undiplomatic frankness, Annan's exposure of his beloved UN and, perhaps, of a father's pain.

The Volcker Commission claims that Annan's son, Kojo, lied to investigators, that Kojo used his father's name to acquire consulting contracts. "A son is a son," says Kofi Annan, "I love him." Kofi Annan gained custody of his son after divorcing his first wife. On one occasion, the senior Annan was unable to make it to an event at his son's school. "But all the mothers will be there," said Kojo.

The beleaguered Annan has another year in office -- not enough time for real reforms. As with everything else, there is an unofficial quota rule for filling the post. It's time for an Asian, but the lack of compelling candidates has tempered the general enthusiasm for such a move.

The name Bill Clinton has been mentioned. Even EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner said, over croissants and orange juice at the EU's Permanent Mission to the UN on 41st Street, that she has "heard about it." Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has also said he would support the former US president. And Clinton himself? He laughs hoarsely and says, "I don't see how anybody can think that's a dream job."

Clinton is an exquisite but all-too-Western speculation. UN diplomats say the man is "unelectable," arguing that a veto power could never propose one of its citizens as Secretary General, especially not the most powerful of all powers.

Who then? Germany, for its part, plans to replace current UN Ambassador Gunter Pleuger with Bernd Mützelberg, Chancellor Schrí¶der's chief foreign policy advisor, next summer. At least that was the plan. But nothing is certain anymore since the election. "Germany is weak, Great Britain is the 51st state of the United States, France is weak. In Iraq we have a new Somalia, and Africa is spiraling out of control. America is up to its ears in debt and has its hands tied by its own policies. Asia's rising stars are becoming rivals, nuclear programs are haunting the globe, while Iran and North Korea do as they please. We live in a scary world." These were the words of a European politician headed for the UN General Assembly. Like most others here, he preferred to remain nameless.

Then he took to the podium and praised the successes of the United Nations.

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