Deck Chairs on the Titanic

It is often said incorrectly that the United Nations Charter, framed in San Francisco during the final year of the Second World War, was designed for the world of 1945.

It is often said incorrectly that the United Nations Charter, framed in San Francisco during the final year of the Second World War, was designed for the world of 1945. It was actually designed for the world of the 1930s. The paramount question on the minds of the Charter's framers, not unreasonably, was "how do we prevent another Adolph Hitler?" The idea at the core of their Charter was that the wartime allies - who became the Security Council's five permanent members - would act in concert to repel all such future aggressions.

But consider the great issues facing the human community six long decades later. Environmental degradation. The AIDS pandemic. Failed states. Intractable poverty. Non-state terrorists. Transnational governance of transnational corporations. Genocides in places remote from great power interests like Darfur and Rwanda. States trying to stem the tide of nuclear proliferation while insisting on retaining vast nuclear arsenals of their own. (It is often forgotten that the Charter was drafted months before the world even learned of the existence of the atomic bomb). Few of these bear much resemblance to Wehrmacht Panzer divisions racing across the Polish border on the first day of September, 1939.

In this context it is greatly disheartening to see the timid and unimaginative report that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's High Level Panel for Threats, Challenges, and Change issued on December 2nd. The panel did make a number of thoughtful recommendations about criteria for the legitimate use of force in a threat environment radically altered since 1945. But virtually since the UN's inception, those who feel like they didn't get invited to the party have pleaded to make the United Nations more legitimate, more accountable, and more representative of the peoples of the world. Toward this end the panel put forth two slightly varying proposals for expanding the Security Council's membership from 15 to 24 - six seats each for Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. That's it.

The UN's 50th anniversary year saw several initiatives that proposed a wide range of dramatic changes in the structure of the UN system. Groups like the Commission on Global Governance, the Independent Working Group on the UN in its Second Half Century, the Preferred Futures for the UN symposium, and The South Centre's For a Strong and Democratic UN commission were brimming with prominent scholars, Nobel laureates and former heads of state. But the High Level Panel said virtually nothing about the dozens of interesting ideas about the democratization of global governance put forth by these initiatives and others during 1995.

The international community intends to consider the panel's recommendations at a summit of world leaders just prior to the opening of the UN's 60th General Assembly session next September. Many UN analysts believe that something may finally come of this at that time ... and that any further opportunities will likely not come again anytime soon after that. So consider some of the provocative proposals and fundamental questions that were, in the panel's report, conspicuous only by their absence:

· Is a small council of "great powers" the only possible mechanism for 21st Century global governance? Is the San Francisco Charter the only possible kind of UN Charter? What kind of UN system would we create if we were designing it from scratch today?

· Are we going to be stuck with the results of the Second World War forever until the end of time? What could be more anachronistic than a 21st Century UN owned and operated by the five winners of a conflict that ended in the first half of the last century?

· If the Security Council is going to remain as the primary center of power in the UN, why would a Nigeria or a Brazil, e.g., act to represent African or Latin American interests -- as opposed to simply Nigerian or Brazilian interests? After all, no one expects China or France or the United States on the Council today to represent Asian or European or North American interests in any way.

· Shouldn't the Arab and Muslim world so central to world politics today have some structural guarantee of permanent representation, rather than just sticking with traditional grade school definitions of geography?

· Should there be some kind of democratic legitimacy requirement, so that authoritarian governments that don't "represent" their populations in any meaningful way are not allowed to pretend to do so on the world stage?

· How about at least modifying or limiting the veto? Even though it is rarely cast, veto calculations dominate virtually every decision the Security Council makes, because it is always necessary to get all five permanent members on board. To allow a single country to defy the whole rest of the world (e.g., when the vote to retain Boutros Ghali-Ghali as UN Secretary General in 1996 was 14-1 in favor - and the one won) is to perpetuate the single most undemocratic institution in world politics today.

(It's often taken as self-evident that the U.S. "would never give up the veto" - that is, our ability to prevent the rest of the world from doing something we don't want. But the veto allows other countries to stand in our way too. One can envision the U.S. pursuing an initiative that might garner the support of 10 or 11 or even 14 Security Council members. But if Russia or China or Britain or France stand opposed, the U.S. is forced to choose between dropping the initiative, or pursuing it without Council authorization and in defiance of international law. This, of course, is precisely what happened in early 2003, when the U.S. abruptly announced that it would drop its efforts to secure a new Security Council resolution authorizing a U.S. invasion of Iraq.)