American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 2001

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The US & The UN: The Reform Trap

About the author
The author of this assessment of the interaction between the U. S. interest in UN reform and U. S. national interests sets forth a blue print for the advancement of both concerns. A frequent contributor to the pages of this publication, he is a member of the American Diplomacy Publishers' board.—Ed.

“While it has been conventional wisdom for some time now that the public lacks interest in foreign affairs, public opinion polls and the persistent need for the administration to address foreign policy problems… indicates the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Grabbing the issue of a responsible, bipartisan U.S. Government policy towards the UN… might be an effective way for someone to claim the mantle of responsible leadership in the tradition of all successf ul American presidents.”

The United Nations is no exception to the general rule that every organization needs periodic reform or reorganization. However, little was done about UN reform until the early 1990s, when the end of the Cold War opened up possibilities for change. The sudden popularity of UN peacekeeping created a demand for dramatic change in the UN Secretariat as the number, complexity, and cost of UN peacekeeping operations escalated dramatically. Changing economic conditions, including the dramatic increase in the free flow of private capital, led to declining enthusiasm among Western countries for financing even the existing levels of economic development. The global readjustment of political relations caused many countries to review the pattern of their international relationships in general and their participation in the United Nations in particular. In his last years, Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar was pressured to make significant organizational refor ms. His successor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was elected with a commitment to change (at least in the minds of many of his Western supporters). Boutros-Ghali was not reelected to a second term and American support for his successor, Kofi Annan, was based on the assumption that he would be a more effective reformer.

The Clinton Administration expressed interest in UN reform from the beginning, if only as a corollary to its broader interest in "assertive multilateralism." The administration’s desire to initiate a more active American multilateral role was not shared by everyone in American public life, however, and a chorus of critics soon renewed attacks on the UN for its alleged corruption, incompetence, and general inefficiency. When Congress had a rude wake-up call when the bill for the expanded peacekeeping program arrived in the mail, it demanded more consultation and involvement in the approval process, and then deliberately allowed arrears to build. Clinton Administration support for UN reform served, at least partially, as a tactical move to preempt the anti-UN moment in Congress. Although the reform campaign—after a somewhat confused start—was well-motivated and had some success, the Administration may have sabotaged its fundamental interest in meaningful multilateralism by focusing on administrative reform of the UN bureaucracy, rather than political reform of the UN system. The critics of the UN are not really interested in reform (would Senator Helms really change his mind about the UN if only its accounts were better kept?), and the Administration’s public support for administrative reform has placed it in bed with Congressional opponents of the UN. As the Clinton Administration ran out its days, the likelihood of meaningful reform of the UN also ran out.

Character of the UN
The argument about UN reform, especially among American critics of that organization, tends to overlook that the UN we as Americans have is the UN we wanted. The United States was a principal founder, and continued to be primus inter pares through the 1950s and then later during the period of the "mature" Cold War. If during the latter period, the growth of the Non-Aligned Movement deprived us of dominance in the UN’s inter-governmental bodies, both the "constitutional" arrangements of the UN charter and power relationships enabled us to ensure that the UN could not do anything serious without our approval.

The UN was designed as the successor to the League of Nations, but with the difference that it would also have a "board of directors" composed of the permanent five members of the Security Council. With the breakup of the Grand Coalition of the Second World War, however, the onset of the Cold War, and the successful independence movements among the former European colonial empires, the UN became the global "talking shop" for a rapidly expanding international community of independent countries.

U.S. Interests
Traditional American nationalists were never very comfortable with the original UN and have come to loath the evolved institution even more, considering it at best a waste of money, if not a threat to American independence. Although the differences between the foreign policies of the various administrations were more than merely cosmetic, they did share some basic assumptions. The United States is essentially a status quo power. While we want to improve the world, to improve human rights and obtain higher standards of living, we wish to do so incrementally and always while ensuring our basic national security. We bulk so large in the world that our interests are multiple, from security through economic and social to sustainable development, and the national interest is always a complex calculation involving time, as well as categories. And despite a current passion in some circles for modernized versions of isolationism or unilateralism, the American public understands, as former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagl eburger put it, "who will think globally if not us?"

We pursue our national interests in our own fashion, in accordance with our national character, as do all countries. For all our shortcomings, this means for Americans that both means and ends involve a concern for representative government, human rights and legitimacy. Our own internal national political style calls for accommodation between conflicting interests and groups, and this requires dialogue. For forty-five years the dynamics of the Cold War required us to behave aggressively as the leader of a global coalition. Since the end of the Cold War, as William H. Luers noted in the September/October 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, the United States has been seeking a post-containment strategy for dealing with a changing world. Whatever that strategy turns out to be, it will require American leadership of some sort (just ask most of our friends and allies).

UN Reform
This brings us back to the United Nations, as it is and as it might be, and the subject of reform. As long as the UN remained essentially marginal to American interests and to U.S. foreign policy, reform of the United Nations largely remained of interest to UN "groupies." These included members of the United Nations Association, other liberal world affairs aficionados, most Scandinavians, and various Third World leaders interested in restricting the global influence of the major powers.

Opposition to and general dissatisfaction with the UN, however, among many elements of the American body politic produced some initiatives by the United States in the 1980s. For example, we left UNESCO in protest against that UN agency’s policies and procedures. We successfully proposed a zero growth budget policy and fostered a new consensus voting practice in the UN’s intergovernmental bodies such as the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In the search for a secretary-general to replace Perez de Cuellar, the United States campaigned for the incl usion of managerial expertise in the list of selection criteria.

With the end of the Cold War, a changed international environment developed which included the effects of globalization, the emergence of non-governmental and civil society organizations, and huge advances in technology. This new environment produced a spurt of interest in an expanded role for the United Nations, and the related question of UN reform and reorganization. At one end of the spectrum of recommendations, the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland) released a major study in the late 1980s calling for significant UN reform emphasizing greater organizational coherence, more resources, greater authority, and more ambitious programs. At the other end, traditional opponents of the UN became alarmed and raised the cry for reform pointed in the other direction, that is, a cutback on the UN’s capabilities and role on the grounds that it was becoming a threat to the "legitimacy of the nation-state." In making that claim, Senator Jesse Helms in the September-October 1996 issue of Foreign Affairs called for a UN reform program which would "reduce bureaucracy, limit missions, and refine objectives."

Both movements coincided with the actual expansion of the UN’s activities and roles in the first heady days of the post-Cold War period. Member states called on the UN for greatly expanded peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance operations.

Continued: What does reform mean?
Page 1 2 3

Vietnam Reconsidered, Vol. III, No. 1
From Post Cold War to Post Westphalia, Vol. V, No. 1
Transitional Governance, Vol IV, No. 1

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