Building a Better UN

If one had asked the leaders of the United Nations to choose a test case through which they could demonstrate the organization's efficacy before the world, they would hardly have chosen Iraq. With a volatile security situation, too few peacekeeping troops, and a recent political history that has bitterly divided the members of the UN Security Council, Iraq is just the kind of politically charged, high-risk intervention that has recently overwhelmed the UN in places like Bosnia.

But Iraq, of course, with a strong push from the Bush administration, has chosen the UN. With the U.S. occupation officially over as of June 30, Iraq is the most watched postwar nation-building challenge in the world today -- and, almost certainly, in the UN's 59-year history. "It's the highest-stakes issue out there," says Mike Pan, a former adviser to the UN chief prosecutor in Sierra Leone and currently a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. "If the UN can't be useful to the U.S. here, when will the UN be useful?"

Note the phrasing there -- "useful to the U.S." It says a lot about the reality of the UN's role today. Confronted with ever-expanding threats of terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and a global aids crisis, the UN does not have the resources -- or the internal consensus -- to work alone. It needs the United States. And the United States needs the UN as well. The disintegration of postwar Iraq has shown that Washington, for all its sole-superpower status, can win the war militarily only to find itself losing the peace. Even the most unilateralist White House in decades has begun to see that reality.

Can the two institutions, as currently constituted, work together? It won't be easy. By the time you read this, the UN will have replaced the U.S.–led Coalition Provisional Authority as the kinder, gentler face of the Iraqi occupation. Its mandates are to bring into existence the Iraqi interim government and to organize the January 2005 national elections. But looming in the shadows from Baghdad's presidential palace will be the mammoth new 1,700-person U.S. Embassy, along with some 150,000 U.S.–led forces on the ground and Army Major General David Petraeus overseeing training of the new Iraqi security forces. The United States, while promising to stay out of the political process, has already thrown elbows at the United Nations, specifically at UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Though President Bush promised to respect Brahimi's selections for the post–June 30 interim government, in late May the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council conspired with Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer to elevate council member Iyad Allawi, a longtime recipient of CIA patronage, to the top post in the interim government, then publicly announced its support for Allawi before the UN's Brahimi had come to a final decision.

The Iraq War -- its run-up, its duration, and its aftermath -- showed us a bellicose American administration whose attitude toward the UN was one of contempt. That belligerent posture was, obviously, intentional: The people who agitated for unilateral war were many of the same people who have spent 20 years wishing that the UN would fall into the East River, and hoping that the Iraq War might start it tumbling. Their rhetoric has led multilateralists to defend the UN that much more vigorously, and that is proper -- time has largely proven we-told-you-so multilateralists right.

However, there was always a grain of truth in what the unilateralists were saying: There was, in fact, something deeply flawed about an institution that could pass more than a dozen resolutions against a tyrannical government like Saddam Hussein's and enforce them only haphazardly; that could name a state like Libya to head its human-rights arm, as the UN did in January 2003; and whose chief governing body, the Security Council, was as open to dictatorships as to democracies. So while multilateralists should be defending the UN, they should also be aware that the best way to save -- indeed, to strengthen -- an embattled institution is to acknowledge its shortcomings and deal with them.

Is the UN capable of reforming itself?

Iraq represented the third intervention in the last 10 years that the United States and "coalitions of the willing" had pursued without explicit Security Council authorization. The first two followed the UN's two massive failures of the 1990s: its failure to stop the genocide of more than 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994 and its standing by while more than 7,000 Muslims were killed in the UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica, Bosnia, in July 1995.

In the wake of these failures, Secretary-General Kofi Annan created a reform agenda, which focused largely on how the UN could become a better peacekeeping institution, and created commissions, chaired by former Algerian Foreign Minister Brahimi and Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. The Brahimi report on UN peacekeeping, released in 2000, was revolutionary: It recommended that the UN should take on less rather than try to do everything and fail miserably. The report suggested that the UN needed to more specifically define its goals for intervention and accept only the missions it has the political will and military resources to achieve.

"The Brahimi report finally provided an inventory of what the UN could and couldn't do," says the Center for American Progress' Pan. "A lot of people realized the limitations that it would have in doing peacekeeping. That was a sobering analysis but a good one. That sort of stocktaking had never been done before."

Just as Annan was working toward these goals, George W. Bush came into office, staking out a starkly unilateralist position and signaling disdain for nation building and the kinds of post-conflict activities the UN had successfully undertaken in postwar Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. After the attacks of September 11, Washington felt increasingly entitled to bypass the UN and ignore world opinion in pursuit of national security, plunging the UN further into existential crisis.

Wisely, Annan recognized that he had to begin to act -- or at least speak -- dramatically to save his organization from irrelevance. He gave a major speech on September 22, 2003, suggesting that the body's rules of engagement might be updated. "The [Security] Council needs to consider how it will deal with the possibility that individual states may use force preemptively against perceived threats," Annan said. "Its members may need to begin a discussion on the criteria for an early authorization of coercive measures to address certain types of threats -- for instance, terrorist groups armed with weapons of mass destruction -- and … the best way to respond to threats of genocide." He highlighted two key internal reforms: defining the criteria for international intervention and reconstituting the Security Council to prevent the automatic veto of such interventions.

To the first end, Annan has created a commission -- the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change -- which is charged with defining the criteria for intervention. The panel is addressing questions like whether the UN may invade a country to prevent mass abuse of that country's citizens by its leaders, under what circumstances, and at whose request. (Such meddling was prohibited in the UN Charter, and Annan created an uproar in 1999 when he suggested that borders should not be inviolable in emergency humanitarian situations.) In developing such a set of criteria, the panel will try to disentangle one of the UN's most tricky knots: How can an institution whose own conventions mandate action to stop genocide authorize action that violates the sovereignty of the nation state -- a system of sovereignty that is, after all, the central girding of the UN system?

But whatever criteria member nations might agree to here on paper, the fact remains that actually following through on any such framework will be hard work, and that's because of the setup of the Security Council. The five permanent members (P5) -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France -- can single-handedly veto any action, so it should come as no surprise that the five have agreed to authorize the use of force only once, for the Gulf War invasion of Iraq (if there's a surprise here, it's that they've agreed even one time). So Security Council reform is paramount.

The Security Council is structured as it is for good historical reasons. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt conceived the UN and organized its founding session in San Francisco in 1945 (the session was held just after FDR's untimely death), the premise was that the "great powers," then wartime allies, needed to act in concert in order to keep the peace. That assumption was overtaken by events within just three years, and Soviet vetoes became a chronic stumbling block.

The two ideas most often proposed for Security Council reform are expanding the body's permanent membership -- to include India, Japan, or Brazil, for instance -- and modifying the veto power away from unilateralism. But the five permanent members don't support changes to a system that now gives them so much power. And, even if they were willing, it'd be hard to get consensus on how many new permanent seats there should be and who should fill them. The UN has been studying this issue for a decade, through an "open-ended" working group that reports back to the secretary-general regularly. Even with expansion or reform, however, it's not entirely clear what the council could be expected to do. If it were expanded or the veto eliminated, for instance, effective UN engagement in major peacekeeping operations would still require the consensus and collaboration of the United States and other major powers. Otherwise, the
United States and/or NATO would simply continue to proceed around the UN.

But even if the UN manages to define its terms of engagement more sharply and pare its mission to manageable size, it has another problem that taints both its legitimacy and its efficacy: the unpleasant fact that so many of its members are dictatorships and human-rights abusers themselves. Why would Sudan vote for the UN to authorize intervention to stop genocide? When would China ever vote for the use of force to prevent Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on Kosovo's ethnic Albanians? And, of course, there is the organization's anti-Israel tilt, which, whatever Israel's transgressions in the occupied territories, is undeniable and at times has been lurid. The irony is that what makes the UN so friendly to dictatorships is the fact that its General Assembly membership is strictly democratic -- one state, one vote.

Meanwhile, membership to smaller bodies, such as the UN High Commission for Human Rights, is determined on a regional basis, which leads to situations like the one in which Libya was chosen as the commission's chair while the United States was voted off entirely; and, more recently, in which Sudan, where government-backed militias have forced more than a million people to flee their homes, was voted on to the commission in May 2002. About 20 of the 53 members of the human-rights commission are not democracies.

Such outrages have forced the issue of democratic reform onto the agenda. An interesting collection of American human-rights groups we normally think of as liberal have joined conservative institutions like The Heritage Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House to promote an initiative that would create a caucus of democracies at the UN. The "democracy caucus" -- which is related to another body, the Community of Democracies, founded in Warsaw in 2000 under the watch of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- would strategize on important votes and work to get democracies elected to UN commissions, much the way dictatorships like Cuba, Libya, Sudan, and Zimbabwe strategize on getting their buddies elected. California Representatives Tom Lantos, a Democrat, and David Dreier, a Republican, have co-sponsored legislation that would require the State Department to seek reform of UN bodies so that no dictatorships could be elected onto UN commissions. The bill has passed the House, and Lantos anticipates that the legislation will pass the Senate and go to the president later this year.

Clearly, such a democracy caucus would be a grand thing, were one to emerge and actually become an effective bloc. Fostering democracy has only ever been an implicit part of the UN's mission, as the body's organizers knew from the start that
so many of its member states would not be democracies. But after 9-11, as we have witnessed so starkly the acts of which autocracies and theocracies are capable, it seems the time for democracy promotion may have come. And it would be nice to see Democrats and liberals -- the multilateralists who actually care about the UN surviving and flourishing -- take the lead.

But that's not exactly what's happening. Over the last decade, Democrats have been alternately torn by two conflicting tendencies: to defend the UN, because it is essentially "their" organization in domestic political terms, and to run away from it when it starts looking like an albatross. The latter happened with the Bosnian debacle, when many a human-rights activist began to look in earnest for alternatives to the UN. They turned to NATO for more effective action. Forget neutrality and good offices, they thought; in the Balkans, precision bombs would more swiftly promote justice. Leading this charge was a group that emerged as an increasingly hawkish wing of the Democratic Party: Albright, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe Wesley Clark, and philanthropist George Soros, among them. Indeed, it was two Clinton-era ambassadors to the UN, Holbrooke and Albright, who turned out to be among the greatest advocates of using NATO to stop Serbian war crimes in the Balkans without explicit UN Security Council authorization.

It's not hard to see why. There's the practical advantage that NATO is likely to act more quickly at crisis times. Beyond that, there is, for Democrats, a clear domestic political appeal in invoking NATO over the UN: Talking about the UN and multilateralism makes them look weak. "'Multilateralism' is code for getting the whole world together and singing 'Kumbaya,'" a staffer who works for a prominent Senate Democrat told me. "When we use words like 'UN,' it's code for softheadedness, and the Republicans and White House get traction on it. … It's important that we use words like 'NATO' and 'P5' to talk about institutions that are considered more effective."

But the more common stance -- one adopted, recently and notably, as the Bush administration was running roughshod in the fall of 2002 over both Democrats in Congress and the UN -- has been that of defending the UN from Republican attacks. "The reason that most Democrats didn't get out in front of pushing for reform is they were always in the defensive mode," says Bill Stuebner, a former U.S. military official assigned to work with the UN in Bosnia and now executive director of the Alliance for International Conflict Prevention and Resolution. "Republicans are naturally in the position to go on the attack and demand reform."

And they have. The demands for reform from conservatives are ubiquitous. From Richard Perle and David Frum to the American Enterprise Institute's Joshua Muravchik, neoconservatives have been writing about and hosting conferences on UN reform, addressing such topics as U.S.–UN relations, the UN's anti-Israel bias, and how dictatorships and human-rights abusers seem to flourish at the UN. Of course, these calls for reform don't really have the UN's best interests in mind. Mostly neocons would like to see the United States find a way to bypass the UN entirely, or have it focus on humanitarian operations like housing refugees. And congressional Republicans who have called for reform have also had ulterior motives that had nothing to do with making the UN more effective. These lawmakers, led by then–Majority Leader Newt Gingrich and Senator Jesse Helms, blocked payment of almost $1 billion in back dues Washington owed the UN until the organization "reformed" -- that is, until the UN stopped funding international family-planning organizations that counseled abortion and until the United States was assessed a smaller percentage of UN dues.

Dismantling the UN would, of course, be a grave mistake. In historical terms, it is still mankind's most universal and sustained attempt -- Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations existed between the two world wars, but its influence on world affairs was limited, and the United States never joined -- to establish transnational and transcultural norms of behavior and justice. It is also relatively young, and its imprimatur still imparts legitimacy and cover to international operations.

Which brings us back to Iraq. Suddenly, after three years of snubbing the international community, Bush has dug himself into a situation that requires rescue by a multinational force with the imprimatur of the world. The administration, says Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation and a former Democratic senator from Colorado, "is coming to understand that, properly managed, the relationship with the UN can be enormously valuable to the U.S." And the UN, despite its flaws, is the one organization that truly represents the community of nations. So, like an atheist in a foxhole, Bush has returned to the fold, adopting a position much like John Kerry's, which is to internationalize the Iraq occupation. These days Bush publicly sends his congratulations to Annan on selecting the interim government in Iraq, and "encourage[s] other UN members to join in the effort of building a free Iraq."

Regardless of the cynicism of this embrace, Iraq presents an important moment for the UN as it tries to reform itself and its relationship with the United States. "The UN can't do this without the U.S., but I'm going to modestly suggest -- or immodestly suggest -- that the U.S. can't do it without the UN," Mark Malloch Brown, the head of the United Nations Development Program, said at a May 5 conference at the American Enterprise Institute. "The partnership is absolutely indispensable, not least because it needs the political authority of the world's leading power, but it often needs the trust and neutrality of the UN to undertake these difficult, difficult, sensitive tasks of building the new institutions in a way that all parties to a conflict trust."

In the worst case, Iraq will become another situation in which the UN will be in over its head, unable to cope with the requirements of a volatile postwar situation and dependent on the United States and its collected allies for help, once again proving how little it can really accomplish on its own.

But in the best case, this could be a moment when the United Nations and the United States are desperate enough -- a sort of mutually assured destruction -- to actually work hand in hand. Such partnership has some precedent in recent years, in innovative "hybrid" UN missions in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In these places, a single nation or alliance -- such as Australia in the case of East Timor, or the British in Sierra Leone -- provides the troops and the UN provides political, humanitarian, and reconstruction assistance. In a way, as the Brahimi report recommended, the UN has found it can be more effective where it acknowledges from the outset that it will do less. The real question is whether it can work when that partner is not a relatively small and trusted country but the powerful, and disliked, United States.