Global Policy Forum

World Leaders Have the UN they Deserve


By David Shorr*

United Nations Association - USA
March 7, 2006

We supporters of the United Nations have a serious "framing problem," as political communications specialists call it. What hinders us isn't merely the lack of due credit for what the UN does well, though that is certainly part of it. The root problem is a recurring dynamic for so many debates about the UN-domestic and international-the use of the world body as a scapegoat for global problems rather than an instrument for their resolution. The current debate over reform is a good place to start breaking this cycle.

The route to a more constructive discussion of UN effectiveness and relevance begins with placing the burden of proof where it really belongs: the 191 national governments that comprise its membership. In other words, how should we look at the reform effort, as a refinement of institutional machinery or a test of international cooperation? In reality, the UN is only as strong or weak as governments want it to be.

But that isn't quite right either. Our essential framing problem is the idea that the UN has strength (or weakness) separate from the political will of member states. The very idea of the UN as an independent entity is the premise on which scapegoating rests. If the UN were widely recognized as dependent on political leadership, political leaders would not be able to deflect attention from themselves.

And this is precisely how frames work, by locking in unexamined premises. Taking a closer look, it is surprising that the frame is so widely accepted, particularly by opinion leaders who ought to know better. Observers and practitioners of international politics ought to be keenly aware of power realities. They should be the first to recognize that the UN as an organization has little power in comparison with the sovereign states that make all of its decisions. The world body has scant ability to act, or change, of its own accord.

Essentially, the UN's function is to put a set of tools at the disposal of member states. Political leaders can turn to the UN for decision mechanisms, norms, agendas, fundamental approaches and implementation programs to deal with almost any international problem. Whatever the dysfunctions of the UN-and they are indeed real-they are not inherent. It is sometimes said of democracy that the people get the government they deserve. Likewise, in intergovernmental organizations, world leaders get the UN they deserve. They can use it for concerted action, or let it lie fallow.

The UN is not a complete phantom; as the guardian of humanity's highest aspirations, decisions under its aegis carry moral and often legal force. For the practical challenges, however, such as reducing extreme poverty and disease, combating terror, and stemming the spread of deadly weapons, the critical factor is international commitment and unity. For all of its difficulties, it is remarkable what can be accomplished through the UN when governments close ranks behind it: keeping pressure on Syria over Lebanon, immunizing children and helping get them into school, inspecting nuclear programs, caring for millions of refugees, reversing Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

This is why the Secretary-Generals High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change that kicked off the reform effort called for: "…a new consensus between alliances that are frayed, between wealthy nations and poor, and among peoples mired in mistrust across an apparently widening cultural abyss. The essence of that consensus is simple: we all share responsibility for each other's security."

So the push for a stronger UN is indeed a test of international cooperation. In order to be meaningful, any proposal to update the UN must contribute to a new global consensus by combining member states into a unified front against each of today's urgent problems.

The reforms prepared for the World Summit last fall pointed the way forward for stronger action on human rights, economic development, terrorism, response to genocide and UN management. As if to prove the need for consensus-building, diplomatic representatives were not able to reach agreement in time for the summit. Fortunately, world leaders endorsed the reforms in principle and set timelines for their adoption, so negotiators at the UN have another chance.

Meanwhile, as each of us follows the UN debate, we must watch how it is framed and make sure to highlight the role of member governments. Even some of the famous "failures" of the UN-the Rwandan, Bosnian and Sudanese genocides and the weakening of pressure on Saddam Hussein-were really failures of powerful countries to pull themselves together.

So if we truly want the UN to reach its potential as a vehicle for international cooperation and problem solving, we must break the cycle of scapegoating in the UN debate. We should take every opportunity-in speeches, letters to the editor, conversations with friends-to put the onus on the UN's real decision-makers and reject the notion of a monolith. Exasperation over what happens at the UN is inevitable; let's make sure that sentiment is pointed in the right direction.

To cite a current case in point, the proposed new Human Rights Council, the centerpiece of UN reform, is in serious jeopardy as I write this (see UNA-USA's article-link). Contrary to the idea of UN structures that are inherently resistant to change, this impasse is a political struggle between governments over how they hold each other accountable on human rights. It is an international disagreement about change. And once we have shifted the frame, and political leaders can no longer deflect attention from themselves, the focus will be where it really belongs, achieving the ideals of the UN Charter.

About the Author: Mr. Shorr is a program officer in policy analysis and dialogue at the Stanley Foundation.

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