Global Policy Forum

The World Needs a Stronger UN


By Melita Grabic *

International Herald Tribune
September 19, 2005

The convergence of the world's leaders on the United Nations in New York last week has put that organization under its annual spotlight, and as usually happens, many have found it wanting. As never before, the United Nations is an embattled institution. It is therefore worth recalling the still considerable - and irreplaceable - value of the United Nations.

As a citizen of one of Europe's so-called "new" nations (a phrase that handily ignores the fact that Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Croatia and others are all products of cultures that have existed on their respective territories for just as long as Europe's "great powers"), I and most of my fellow Slovenes can easily remember a time when we, as a nation, simply didn't exist - or at least not so far as the rest of the world was concerned. We were, as our poet Oton Zupancic once wrote, "doomed to silence in the council of nations."

The world's most powerful nations only rarely have experienced such feelings. Not coincidentally, it is among such nations that the most savage criticisms of the United Nations are most commonly heard. The view from Slovenia, a country that has invested a good deal of effort in its multilateral diplomacy over the last decade, is of course very different.

We were spared the worst of the warfare that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 90s. But I still remember witnessing jets of the Serb-controlled Yugoslav Air Force dumping bombs on a national guard installation near my hometown in 1991. The violence of our 10-day independence struggle - insignificant though it may have seemed later in the context of the far greater bloodshed in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo - was a shattering experience.

It was therefore with a mingled sense of relief, accomplishment, disbelief and also pride that most of us watched on television in May 1992 as our flag rose among all the others in front of the United Nations. Slovenes tend to be unsentimental types, but this was a truly incredible sight: Just a year after proclaiming independence, our small country had become 176th member of the world's only joint council.

As President Harry Truman declared prior to the San Francisco conference in 1945 that brought the United Nations to life, "We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to always do as we please." Truman's reasoning reflected the postwar notion that not even the greatest powers can deal unilaterally. On our increasingly interlinked planet, such an idea is surely more, not less, relevant.

So it bears remembering the many things that the United Nations has in fact gotten right, and continues to get right. These include activities ranging from peacekeeping in some of the most violent parts of the world, to humanitarian aid in some of the most desperate, to the adjudication of disputes in some of the most contentious.

These are not easy tasks. In fact they're just about the most intractable imaginable - and, as one might expect, they sometimes fail spectacularly. But they also succeed, with many lives saved. The former scenario, of course, always receives the most attention. But even in the failed cases, at least the attempt was made. And a failed try can at the very least serve as the basis for designing more effective ones in the future. Contrast this with doing nothing - history's more typical scenario. Perhaps the best way to understand the UN's continuing importance is simply to try imagining a world without it.

We shouldn't kid ourselves: A return to that kind of Hobbesian universe is always possible, and some are even actively working for it. If history is really "a nightmare from which we're trying to awake," as James Joyce had his character Stephen Dedalus observe, then perhaps it's the United Nations, flawed though it may sometimes appear, that remains the most serviceable instrument of that awakening.

We should be thinking about how to reform and strengthen the United Nations, and not diminish or dilute it.

About the Author: Melita Gabric is the senior adviser on foreign affairs to the president of Slovenia.

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