UN, Rediscovered

March 1, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: SuperpowerIraq War

UN, Rediscovered

Mini Teaser: The UN is flawed, but the United States can learn to use it better—as long as we hold reasonable expectations.

by Author(s): Derek Chollet

When it comes to thinking about the UN, swings between grandiose optimism and brooding despair are something of an American tradition. Along with Bush 41's "new world order" are such rhetorical gems as John Foster Dulles calling the UN Charter a "greater Magna Carta" and Madeleine Albright speaking of "assertive multilateralism." Over-the-top critics have always accompanied these optimists, from the black helicopter crowd to John Bolton, who once joked that it wouldn't be so bad if someone blew the top floors off UN headquarters.

Many U.S. frustrations are warranted. The UN has never been managed well. It is full of career bureaucrats who make no significant contributions. In the cutting words of Malloch Brown, "what a lot of people do here is basically crap." Its failures to act in Rwanda and Darfur are disgraceful. But at the root of America's problems with the UN are the inherent limitations of an organization whose every decision depends on the collective action of sovereign states with their own interests and ambitions. The UN can bring states together, but it cannot make choices for them.

This might seem self-evident, but the organization's U.S. critics and boosters alike often forget it. "There's confusion between the UN as a stage and the UN as an actor", Bob Orr, one of Annan's top American advisors and an influential confidant of Ban Ki Moon, told Traub. "As an actor, there's so little we can do, and often the people accusing us are the same ones who prevent us from being able to act." Or as Richard Holbrooke often puts it, blaming the UN for the world's problems is like blaming Madison Square Garden for a poor New York Knicks showing. Consider two of today's most urgent crises, the genocide in Darfur and Iran's nuclear program. Who's preventing stronger action, the UN or veto-wielding countries like China and Russia?

Understanding these inherent limits is an important step. Post-9/11, when many of the threats we face are transnational and non-state, there is only so much one organization of states can do. This doesn't mean the United States can or should throw the UN away. But to deal with the complex challenges we face, it makes good sense to strengthen other institutions, like NATO, or build new ones (as some suggest we do with the Community of Democracies or a Middle East security organization).

For American policymakers, the fundamental question is what role to expect the UN to play. The UN will remain indispensable in meeting humanitarian and development challenges through agencies like the UN Development Program, UNICEF and the World Food Program. And as the only global political organization, the UN can continue to set standards and norms for behavior. But when it comes to grappling with the most sensitive security questions-where the issue of sovereignty is often central-the reality may be that the UN has to yield to regional organizations or ad hoc coalitions. Again, this seems to be the direction it is heading in Iran and Darfur: The UN Security Council has been more of a forum for global deadlock than for strong action.

Regardless of what one expects from the UN, thinking differently is not enough. America has to act differently. Sustained U.S. engagement and creative leadership are necessary to gain the maximum benefit. As with any large deliberative organization, the keys to success in the UN are the usual tools of influence-log-rolling, symbolic gestures and, of course, raw power.

Too often, the United States approaches the organization with only the latter, leaving us isolated and empty-handed. When the United States has succeeded at the UN, such as during the financial dues debate in the late 1990s, it has done so because of creative, energetic diplomacy and skillful politics. And when it has failed-reform efforts under John Bolton come to mind-it's been because we gave nothing to our potential supporters and provided ample ammunition to our opponents. American diplomats shouldn't be pushovers, but they shouldn't be martyrs either.

Washington's shifting political winds offer an opportunity to change course. The Iraq quagmire and the challenges of Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs have reinvigorated pragmatism among American policy elites. Choosing between bad and worse policy options is sobering, and, more than ever, policymakers and citizens want institutions that work well and solve problems. An improved relationship with the UN might be just what the beleaguered Bush Administration needs, and the new U.S. ambassador could make this his legacy-as Holbrooke did during the last two years of Clinton's presidency.

President Bush is fond of comparing himself to Harry Truman, and repairing U.S.-UN relations could make this strained comparison apt. His initial approach toward the UN is a mistake he is willing to admit: "I don't know if I'd call this ‘change of mind', but one thing that my European friends have taught me is that the United Nations is an important body in order to be able to convince parliaments of hard work that needs to be done", he said recently. "I have come to realize that other countries do rely upon the United Nations and I respect that a lot. So there's an area, for example, where I have been taught a lesson by my allies and friends." The President's new UN ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has shown in Afghanistan and Iraq that he can handle diplomatic complexity-and his admirable patience for diplomatic rituals, nuance and hand-holding will serve him well in New York.

But while we can hope for a new U.S. attitude, we cannot expect it. So the new Democratic majority must help rebalance the U.S. approach and demand the kind of vigorous American participation that makes the UN effective. Too often, Democrats have been pinned between bloated hopes for the UN and fears that those hopes will hurt them politically-witness the scrambling in the John Kerry campaign after the candidate spoke of a "global test" for America's leadership. But most Democrats, like many centrist Republicans, have a clear understanding of both what the UN can be (a tool for solving some problems) and what it will never be (a global government).

Thus, the new Congress should promote UN reform without demonizing the institution or undercutting the American position there. For Democratic leaders, this is a chance to show they understand the UN's possibilities and limits. It is worth noting that the most effective UN ambassadors have been registered Democrats, even if they served under Republican presidents: Adlai Stevenson, Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright and Holbrooke.

Leading members of Congress should work to develop a strong relationship with the new secretary-general and his team. Although Washington helped shepherd Ban Ki Moon into the job, he is not well-known as a policy operator and is practically unknown to the American people. If the SG's most important powers are voice and authority, he has a long way to go.

Members of Congress should also find ways to deepen engagement between the two institutions. Congress should take a cue from Jesse Helms and exchange visits with the Security Council or hold Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings in New York. While it's true that the U.S. Congress and the UN have an unusual relationship-there is no other international organization that depends so much on one country's legislative body-a more positive American role is impossible without legislative support.

Such efforts might strike some as trivial, as changing the mood music while the dangers, possibilities and limits of global governance go unaddressed. But they are based on a fundamental premise. For all of its problems and complexities, a strong United Nations is in America's interest. Yes, the UN is flawed; yes, the squabbles there can be petty and ridiculous; yes, the nature of the institution tends to reward bloviating over action; and yes, even a talented and respected secretary-general like Kofi Annan can fall short of expectations. But in today's world, if the UN didn't exist, we'd have to invent it. So it's only realistic to make it work better.


Derek Chollet is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as a speechwriter at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations during the Clinton Administration.

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