UN to the rescue

UN to the rescue
Comment: The election of Trump sees the UN inherit a key role which it is not well equipped to perform. Root and branch reform will be necessary, writes Robert Springborg
7 min read
22 Nov, 2016
United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established in May 1974, Golan [AFP]

The election of Donald Trump as President highlights the need for global governance.

If he acts on his campaign rhetoric he will drastically reduce US support for the existing global order, resting as much of it does on US treaty commitments and Uncle Sam's general role as global policeman.

His apparent disdain for what have been seen as widespread if not universal global values, including democracy, personal freedom and the right of asylum, suggests that even as aspirations, these values and the principles associated with them may be put aside by their former advocate, the US.

His pledge to reduce American financial support to the UN constitutes a direct assault on the viability of the principal multinational organisational embodiment of global governance.

What then, can be done to minimize the damage Trump may inflict on the principles and organisations of the global order?

Americans, especially Democrats, and the world at large should advocate strengthening the existing multinational framework of global order, in which universal values are at least theoretically embodied. That framework is the United Nations, consisting of it six principal organs, including the Security Council and General Assembly, and its myriad of specialised agencies.

It must be admitted at the outset that the bright hopes of that organization, birthed by the traumas of WWII and the accompanying assaults by Germany and Japan on the core values of humanity, have tarnished. That is not entirely its fault. The UN has been purposely smeared by those who fear and resent the very fact that it does represent global aspirations and values and can apply pressure on those who violate them.

The UN provides the only global forum for the world's nation states to interact on sovereign concerns

A case in point is Israel and its supporters, most importantly those in the US. They have been relentless critics of the UN, successfully besmirching its reputation. They are, unfortunately, not alone. Numerous dictatorships, especially those in Africa, have worked assiduously to undermine the International Criminal Court, which although independent of the UN, was created by it.

The UN does not deserve such vilification. It provides the only global forum for the world's nation states to interact on sovereign concerns, the most vital of which involve peace and war. In 1956-57 it inaugurated the "blue helmet" global peacekeeping force with the imposition of the UN Emergency Force between the Israeli and Egyptian militaries.

Its potpourri of specialised agencies and related organisations, including the Universal Postal Union, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank Group and the IMF, have created international "regimes" that have presided over the growth and management of their respective jurisdictions.

This has made possible both the mundane, such as delivering the mail, and the complex, such as integrating the global trading order. Most importantly, the UN system has endured and grown, thus demonstrating its continuing centrality to our changing world and its superior capacities as compared to potential alternatives.

Regrettably, however, the UN is its own worst enemy

Regrettably, however, the UN is its own worst enemy. It suffers from organisational malaise that undermines its performance and which it seems incapable of addressing. The most prominent manifestation of its failure to reform, is its antiquated decision making structure, in which absolute veto power is vested in the five permanent members of the Security Council, a relic of WWII.

There are other examples of organisational malaise. The flagship peacekeeping role in which the blue helmets represented world consensus, concern and capability to do good, has been undermined by numerous transgressions.

Sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers appears chronic and inadequately punished. The Office of the Secretary General for years sandbagged investigations of the role played by its troops in infecting Haitians with cholera that resulted in more than 10,000 deaths. Cases of abandoning civilians who have sought protection under its blue flag, whether in Srebrenica in 1993, or in Rwanda in 1999, have profoundly discredited UN forces.

Another cause of the swollen number of peacekeepers is that few peacekeeping missions, once established, are ever abolished

The number of peacekeepers on the annual payroll has swollen to 150,000, in significant measure because many countries depend on the $120 or so a day paid to its troops for UN deployments. Some of those countries, including Egypt, use those deployments for intelligence gathering, in violation of contractual conditions. Another cause of the swollen number of peacekeepers is that few peacekeeping missions, once established, are ever abolished. UNIFIL in south Lebanon is a case in point.

Just as the UN juxtaposes its troops between conflicting parties, so does it play a key role in seeking to negotiate ends to those conflicts. Libya and Syria are current examples. Yet, as in the case of peacekeeping, peacemaking is not being done well by the UN, as the Libyan and Syrian cases attest.

The UN missions for those countries have been led by singularly incompetent diplomats, keen on establishing patronage networks for their own nationals rather than recruiting top flight experts to assist in the hard work of conflict resolution.

Whole UN organisations are kept alive for no purpose other than paying salaries of their employees

Just as peacekeeping missions are not dissolved once created, so are whole UN organisations kept alive for no purpose other than paying salaries of their employees.

Many of these were created during the decolonisation era, intended to assist newly founded nations. That era has passed, but the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Development Organization, the UN Industrial Development Organization, and others live on, contributing little if anything to research or actual development, but sucking up UN funds. I recently did a consulting job for one of those UN organizations in which the large staff in that country had not a single project to manage. They were there to manage themselves and reap the rewards for so doing.

As UN funds grow ever tighter, more of these UN organisations engage in dubious practices to secure financing. UNESCO is a case in point. It is willing to lend its prestige to certify compliance with international heritage preservation standards, for example, when in fact that compliance is questionable.

The most important reform is redistribution of decision making power so that it more accurately reflects present world realities

The politicisation of recruitment, as attested to by the process through which the incoming Secretary-General was chosen, is deleterious for organisational reputation and performance. The family corruption associated with the Iraqi oil for food program of a preceding Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and the less than professional way in which that matter was handled, undermined the prestige of the post and the UN's reputation for probity.

The UN, in other words, is fraying at the edges. If it is to assume more responsibility for maintaining the international order in the wake of the anticipated US pullback, it must be reformed root and branch. That should be the target of progressive citizens everywhere, most especially in the US, particularly within the Democratic Party.

The most important reform is redistribution of decision making power so that it more accurately reflects present world realities. The many attempts at this have failed, in considerable measure because of US opposition.

The UN needs to slim down and focus on its primary role, the very one for which it was created - maintaining global peace

It is for this reason that the role of the Democratic Party as a cheerleader for such reform is vital. This is the opportunity for it to consolidate the non-interventionist position underlying much of the Obama Doctrine while rejecting the "liberal interventionism" advocated by the Clintons and others on the right wing of the Party.

Another vital reform is for the UN to shed its dead weight. Those organisations and peace keeping missions created in another era for purposes no longer relevant, should be terminated. The UN needs to slim down and focus on its primary role, the very one for which it was created - maintaining global peace.

The world is more threatened now that at any time since the end of the Cold War by outbreaks of violence, possibly including even nuclear war. Trump has signaled that the US will adopt a beggar thy neighbor approach to international affairs, leaving the global order to fend for itself.

By default then, the UN is inheriting a key role which it presently is not well equipped to perform. It needs to focus on that role, shed others, and re-earn the world's confidence. Those fearful of Trump should commit themselves publicly and energetically to reforming the UN and upgrading its centrality in world affairs.

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.