Crisis of Relevance at the UN

Crisis of Relevance at the UN

The UN’s sixty-fifth General Assembly opens this week amid rumblings about the UN’s relevance. But CFR’s Stewart Patrick says that while there are many international venues for multilateral cooperation, UN efforts on the part of refugees, development, and other issues remain essential.  

September 17, 2010 3:28 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

With delegates from around the world assembling in New York for the sixty-fifth annual UN General Assembly, Stewart Patrick, CFR’s UN specialist, says there is "increased sentiment in the UN General Assembly and also within the UN Secretariat that there is really a crisis of relevance to the world body and the organization." Although he points out that the UN is very important in areas like refugee relief and places like Afghanistan, and in some peacekeeping missions, "when you think about the big, global problems that have been plaguing us over the past few years, what we find is that the United Nations hasn’t always been at the center of global responses to these." He cites the economic crisis and the inability of the UN Climate Control summit last December to do much. And he says that the highly touted Millennium Development Goals, which will be the subject of the opening of the GA, are falling short in many areas, in part because of the world economic crisis.

The UN General Assembly is returning for its sixty-fifth annual session, and there’s a new twist this year--a special three day session to open the General Assembly, on a review of the Millennium Development Goals. What are the Millennium Development Goals, and how relevant are they to the workings of the UN ?

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The Millennium Development Goals are a set of ambitious targets agreed on by UN member states at the UN Millennium Assembly in 2000 that the world is supposed to reach by 2015. They basically pertain to poverty reduction, education and expanding opportunity for education around the world, efforts to increase gender equality, global health interventions to deal with things like maternal and child health and to focus on particular diseases like HIV/AIDS. In addition, the goals call for environmental sustainability. These MDGs, as they are called, have been an extremely useful tool for mobilizing attention by the international community. You had a huge number of Hollywood personalities who have jumped on the bandwagon to try to ensure that the world makes progress on these.

How much progress has been made?

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The real storyline going into this summit is that the world is doing badly in achieving a number of these goals. In large part, that’s due to the global economic and financial crisis, which has had an enormous impact on economic growth in some of the poorest countries in the world, causing a decline in remittances and things like that. As a result, there are now more than a billion people around the world, for instance, who suffer from chronic hunger, and the crisis, in particular, has thrown tens of millions of people back into levels of absolute poverty. It’s also had a negative impact on the levels of official development assistance from the wealthy donor countries to some of the poorest countries in the world. We’ve seen enormous cutbacks, for instance, in the United Kingdom in terms of what it spends on foreign assistance. Projections are that aid to Africa--that really had surged quite a bit over the last several years--has been reduced by about 40 percent.

What about the United States?

The United States is doing better than most countries. The Obama administration has launched a global health initiative, which is quite ambitious and promising. One area where the Obama administration has taken a certain amount of heat is precisely in the area of global health, because it’s moved to an approach that focuses on overall global health system strengthening, but that leads to certain curtailing of single-disease focused interventions. A number of people in the HIV/AIDS activist community are worried that this is going to really hurt international efforts to keep people alive who are completely depending on HIV/AIDS medications.

The United States has reduced its shipment of these drugs?

No, it’s less a question of drug shipments and more of a concern that the mix of the overall expenditures is going to be more in favor of strengthening global health systems rather than on HIV/AIDS.

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There have been tremendous advances in bringing people out of poverty in the last couple of decades, and even if we say, "Hey, the glass is only half full," we have to remember that it is half full.

Are the MDGs realistic?

There has been tremendous progress in a lot of MDGs if you take it from the baseline of 1990, which is when a lot of these targets were initially pegged from, particularly in areas of higher education. Some of the targets were never particularly realistic to begin with and were a bit too aspirational. It’s good to have targets in terms of mobilizing activity. But there’s some danger that if the world doesn’t get to these targets, it will somehow be seen as an unqualified failure, which is not really accurate. There have been tremendous advances in bringing people out of poverty in the last couple of decades, and even if we say, "Hey, the glass is only half full," we have to remember that it is half full.

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What about the General Assembly itself? In recent years, most of the publicity surrounding the annual plenary session has been around Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearances and what he has to say. Are there serious issues for the General Assembly to take up?

There are. The UN General Assembly itself, in terms of the opening plenary session, is always a little bit of a circus--or it runs the risk of being one, because the General Assembly provides a forum where somebody like [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez can get up and launch an attack on the United States, or where the Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi can overstay his welcome at the podium. So there is always a risk that some of the state leaders who each get a chance to speak will engage in some questionable behavior.

There is increased sentiment in the UN General Assembly and also within the UN Secretariat that there is really a crisis of relevance to the world body and the organization. In 2002, President George W. Bush famously challenged the United Nations to prove its continued relevance in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. What’s interesting now is that a lot of the same questions asked by Bush are actually being asked within the United Nations itself by many of the member states and within the Secretariat.

When you think about the big global problems plaguing us over the past few years, what we find is that the UN hasn’t always been at the center of global responses to these. Take the global financial crisis and global economic crisis, for instance. The United Nations has been a reasonably marginal player compared to what is been going on in G20 and within the international financial institutions: the World Bank and the IMF. In a similar way, when one looks at the challenge of global climate change, there obviously was a major UN summit in Copenhagen last December, but the sort of chaotic unfolding of that event persuaded a lot of people around the world that if there is going to be any progress made, it’s largely going to be through what some people call "mini-lateral cooperation"--in other words, smaller coalitions of big countries that actually really matter. Even the Copenhagen accords were really an agreement between the United States and a small group of important developing countries. So, there is a sort of a crisis and a lot of angst going on within the United Nations.

How relevant is the UN in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East, where the United States has focused its international attention?

In Afghanistan, the United Nations has always had a genuinely multilateral effort, and it continues to play an important role in even in Iraq. After the bombing of the UN compound in 2003, the UN came back in slowly, but in Afghanistan, UNAMA--which was the United Nations’ Assistance Mission in Afghanistan--continues to provide important services in its efforts to improve governments and help with the conduct of elections.

In addition--I think that this is something that people don’t always realize--there is enormous value in what the United Nations does in terms of specialized agencies that are deployed all around the world. So in Afghanistan, for instance, you have enormous work being done by the World Food Program, by the United Nations Development Program, by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UN is doing some very important things that are helping the mission in Afghanistan, even if they are not the front lines of the counterinsurgency struggle.

Where do we stand on the endless discussion about how and whether to change the framework of the Security Council, which was set up in 1945 with five permanent vetoing members--the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China--and six non-permanent rotating members, later changed to ten?

The question of Security Council reform goes back decades. The Security Council has been enlarged once, when it went from eleven to fifteen members in 1965. What has changed over the past couple of years is that the discussion of Security Council reforms has actually gotten into negotiations. Right now, there is no consensus on any way forward. What’s interesting is that the Obama administration, despite the president’s statement that the international architecture we inherited from the past is buckling, has actually not taken a particularly forward-leaning stance on this. In fact, its stance only differs slightly from the previous administration, which was also quite cautious on the issue of Security Council reform. Nothing is going to happen without American leadership.

Would expanding the Council help the United States?

There is ambivalence within the administration about whether expanding the Council would be in the U.S. national interest and even if it is--and you can make a strong argument that it could be, if you got the right membership--whether or not the United States could possibly bring this about. There are questions about who the new permanent members would be. If the United States could simply go with Germany, Japan, Brazil, and India, and no more enlargement beyond that, there might be strong grounds or sentiment for doing so. But the problem is that to win the assent of the UN General Assembly, there’s a risk that the General Assembly would insist on a significantly larger enlargement, and that could make it difficult for the United States to exercise the same influence within the Security Council. If it was enlarged, could the United States ensure that, just in terms of sheer voting, it could actually address the pressing threats to international peace and security like Iran and North Korea?

If permanent members were added, they wouldn’t necessarily have vetoes, I gather.

There is consensus among all the five permanent members that there will be no extension of the veto if permanent members are added. The United States has declared its openness to expansion of the Security Council to include both permanent and nonpermanent members, but other than that, has not provided many details on what it would be in favor of. Like I said, nothing will happen without U.S. support.

Another purpose of the General Assembly is the opportunity for world leaders to meet privately. During the Cold War, that’s when the American secretaries of State would meet with the Soviet foreign minister in private. Nowadays I guess that’s less important.

That’s another example of the United Nations not being the only game in town. There are summits happening monthly--sometimes, recently, even more often. It’s actually taxing the schedule of President Obama and other world leaders because there is such a proliferation of summits the president is now expected to attend. The president will, no doubt, have important bilateral meetings. I know he’s having one with the Chinese premier. The president will certainly have a number of bilateral issues with important world leaders.

When you think about the big, global problems plaguing us over the past few years, what we find is that the UN hasn’t always been at the center of global responses to these.

But yes, the United Nations is increasingly sharing space with other entities. You’re seeing some of the diplomatic interchange move now to venues like the G20 which provide some opportunities for candid and informal back-and-forth between world leaders, without necessarily having to do as much choreography as you do in the General Assembly.

Let’s return to George Bush’s question: Is the UN still relevant?

The UN remains relevant, in terms of providing an enormous number of services that people kind of take for granted. There are a growing number of alternative venues where world leaders can meet and where multilateral cooperation can occur, but there is no entity matching the standing capacity of the UN’s agencies across the board. Also important is the perceived legitimacy of the United Nations among members of the international community. As I mentioned before, the specialized agencies of the United Nations dealing with refugees and assisting in global development efforts remain absolutely essential. In addition, although they’re not without difficulties, peacekeeping and UN peace operations remain enormously useful, not least for the United States, because it provides an avenue where the United States and other member states can address international security concerns that often have a moral imperative but aren’t necessarily on the top of the hierarchy of U.S. national security interests.

In recent years, there have been over one hundred thousand peacekeepers deployed around the world. The difficulty is in ensuring that the mandates and resources of those peace operations are actually realistic. The United States should devote more leadership to this problem. What tends to happen is that there will be a crisis and the Security Council will endorse a peace operation in some place like the Democratic Republic of Congo and not adequately staff it or provide it with realistic rules of engagement, and then it runs into trouble. I think that peacekeeping is an area where the United States gets, in a sense, a dollar of outcome for every twenty five cents that it actually puts in, given its contributions to the United Nations. It is incumbent on this administration and Congress to work to make sure that’s as effective as possible.


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