The Incredible Shrinking United Nations

Can anyone stop Turtle Bay from fading into obscurity?


In early 2011, the United Nations seemed poised for a renaissance. After playing a marginal role in global conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.N. Security Council was the epicenter for rapid-fire deliberations that yielded a historic resolution calling for "all necessary measures" to protect the Libyan people from President Muammar Qaddafi’s onslaught. The decision elevated the nascent global principle of an international "responsibility to protect" innocent civilians, warming the hearts of human rights activists who had for years sought to promote this new international norm. The Security Council’s action was decisive, timely, cutting-edge and backed by a wide consensus of world powers, established and emerging.

But the momentum dissipated almost as quickly as it had built. China, Russia and South Africa complained of having been hoodwinked into backing a resolution used to justify military intervention culminating in Qaddafi’s ouster. That ire stiffened Moscow’s spine for nearly two years of unbending resistance to any Security Council action on Syria. Two successive U.N. mediators for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan and Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, have been mostly ignored by both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Security Council. The result has been to marginalize the U.N. as a force in the Arab transformations, relegating it to the sidelines of the world’s most volatile and pivotal region.

The U.N.’s paralysis over Syria is symptomatic of a wider malaise. As with the U.S. Congress, what happens or doesn’t at the U.N. is a function not of the institution itself, but of its members. While it’s fun to blame the bureaucrats at Turtle Bay, its problems originate not in New York but in capitals around the world. Despite a flurry of activity after September 11, the U.N. membership has for 12 years been unable to even agree on a definition of terrorism, leaving this manifestly global fight mostly to unregulated national efforts. Despite a series of large-scale summit meetings, the U.N. has failed to forge agreement on how to curb climate change. Successive rounds of stiffening U.N. sanctions have not broken the will of either Iran or North Korea to gain nuclear weapons. Although the U.N. is nominally part of the "Quartet" charged with addressing the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it was Egypt and the United States that mediated the latest flare-up in Gaza. In the backseat on so many of the major issues of the day, the U.N. doesn’t trend on Twitter or make top news, at least not in the United States. Indeed, of the more than 200 journalists listed as members of the U.N. press association, only about two dozen are affiliated with U.S. media outlets.

The U.N.’s drift comes as a disappointment to those who hoped that after the standoff of the George W. Bush years — which reached its zenith when Washington went to war on Iraq after trying and failing to win Security Council approval — the election of Barack Obama would mark a multilateral awakening.  But multilateral progress depends largely on bilateral power relations. A surging China, a defiant Russia, and a rising Brazil, South Africa, and India have made for a fractious Security Council. With the exception of Libya, the Obama administration’s other significant Security Council achievements, principally sanctions resolutions, have been heavy diplomatic lifts, requiring months of high-level calls and carrots.

This low political and public profile does not necessarily reflect limited activity or impact. On Syria, for example, the U.N. has played a pivotal role despite — and partly because of — the political impasse. The U.N.’s World Food Program feeds more than 1.5 million people each month and assists 5,000 new refugees every day. After France’s swift intervention to help oust the Islamic militants in Mali, the U.N. looks to be on clean-up duty, gearing up for a potential peacekeeping operation there. The U.N. has also done vital humanitarian, human rights and development work in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has tended to neglected conflicts in Congo and the Sudanese border areas. This all happens alongside a dizzying array of norm development, standard setting, and reporting functions, many of them vital to the smooth flow of things we take for granted — for example, air traffic – and which the U.N. and its technical agencies carry out daily, almost entirely outside of public view.

But it’s undeniable that the U.N.’s importance as a forum for high-stakes geopolitical decision-making has waned, giving way to a focus on humanitarian and technical matters.

What’s more, new developments have continued to deny the spotlight to U.N. activities. After the 2008 financial crash, the organization was put in a fiscal straitjacket, and its regular budget has been essentially flat ever since. While the organization operates 15 peacekeeping operations, with the exception of new missions in South Sudan and its border region with the north, the others have been ongoing for at least five years and, in some cases, many decades. Most are low-profile, silently keeping tensions from boiling over in places like Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Haiti.

Another factor keeping the U.N.’s profile low is Secretary General Ban Ki-moon himself. He is low-key, still not fully at ease with the English language, and lacks the telegenic charisma of his immediate predecessor Kofi Annan or other memorable secretary generals like Dag Hammarskjold. In an era of 24-hour cable coverage, viral videos, and quotes that boomerang through social media, Ban’s flat demeanor almost never breaks through. Moreover, substance has followed his style. When foreign policymakers cannot solve the most difficult regional and country-specific conflicts they face, they revert to focusing on themes — women’s rights, development, health, and many others — that can be addressed more incrementally, are less susceptible to outright failure, and offer lower risk and lower visibility. A look at Ban’s website proves the point. Of nine searchable topics for Ban’s speeches, only one — "African Issues" — is regional rather than thematic.

The secretary general, however, is just one among several potential personalities that could drive greater attention.  The U.N.’s visibility to the U.S. media and public hinges heavily on the the U.S. ambassador. While incumbent Susan Rice is a high-profile foreign policy force, her prominence has not rubbed off on the U.N. itself. During his time as ambassador, Rice’s predecessor during the end of the Clinton administration, Richard Holbrooke, focused relentlessly on the U.N. itself. He rammed through reforms, aggressively cultivated his fellow ambassadors, and worked to repair relations between the world body and the U.S. Congress. Holbrooke’s U.N. focus was a choice and a necessity: he wanted to notch accomplishments and the U.N. was the only place for him to do it. With Washington foreign policymaking then dominated by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Holbrooke was not a pivotal player. But he drew the spotlight to where he was, which allowed the U.N. to share it with him.  During the U.S.-U.N. Cold War years of the Bush administration, U.S. ambassadors ranged from the relatively reserved John Negroponte and John Danforth to the fiery John Bolton, before finally settling on the genial Zalmay Khalilzad. But regardless of who sat behind the U.S. placard, media coverage tended to center on Washington’s open disdain for the world body.

Rice is in a very different position from Holbrooke, her most recent predecessor representing an administration interested in a stronger U.N. A member of the president’s inner circle of advisers, she may spend as much time in the White House Situation Room as she does in the Security Council. Through her, the U.N. has the benefit of being plugged into the inner circle of U.S. decision-making, a clear plus, but it is rarely the focus of those deliberations. The controversy over her potential nomination as secretary of state was grounded in a critique of the State Department, intelligence agencies, and White House’s handling of the Benghazi incident; it had nothing to do with her record at the U.N. Perhaps partly because of the U.N.’s torpor, during her four-year tenure she has continued to be a player in Washington, earning front-runner status for a top foreign policy role. While Rice will continue to command the spotlight, it’s not clear the U.N. will shine along with her.

While personalities unquestionably drive coverage, the U.N.’s conflicts are also to blame. The center of gravity has always been the Security Council, where top powers meet, supposedly to tackle the world’s most pressing conflicts. But major powers don’t want the U.N. meddling in the most sensitive disputes — India/Pakistan, Afghanistan, or East Asian territorial matters — relegating it to managing neglected conflicts, most of which are in Africa. The council’s divisions have bred a reputation for fecklessness that may be self-reinforcing. This week, the North Korean government brazenly swore it would never "bow" to a U.N. resolution and continues to defy Security Council attempts at coercion. Just this week, Iran again spurned the U.N.’s nuclear inspectors, denying them access to key sites. These governments have come to rely on the fact that its difficult for the council’s members to agree on anything, and even more so to back words with actions.

The U.N.’s diminishing profile hurts the organization, much as it would a non-profit organization or a political candidate. It makes it harder to argue for increased financial support, and it lessens the punch of pronouncements by Ban, visits by his envoys, and even negotiated resolutions. People pay attention to what the media covers and what others talk about, and right now the U.N. isn’t making the cut. The problem is self-reinforcing; the less the U.N. is mentioned, the less attention is paid, and so on. While Ban is undoubtedly relieved not to be in the news for sex or corruption scandals these days, for an organization trying to summon global influence, no news isn’t good news.

In his second inaugural address last month, President Obama pledged to "renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad." The U.N. is chief among these institutions, and if it is to revitalize, it will need to command a profile that helps convince lawmakers and citizens that it deserves more resources and respect. With the Libya moment now a distant blip, it may take a new cast of characters both in Turtle Bay and in global capitals before the U.N. regains a sense of excitement and possibility. But even without tectonic shifts in personalities or geopolitics, there are some concrete steps the U.N. should take now to make sure it doesn’t slip further off the radar.

First, the U.N. should take advantage of some of the charismatic leaders in the tier just below Ban and build them into strong media personalities. In the past, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, Human Rights Chief Sergio Vieira de Mello, and nuclear watchdog Mohammed el Baradei showed that dynamic deputies can capture the limelight. The U.N. should do far more to play up the role of the down-to-earth and charming former Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, who now heads U.N. Women. Now the subject of chatter over a possible return to Chilean politics, Bachelet is the organization’s point person on women’s rights and sexual violence, topics that make headlines daily. Another player with the potential to be a household name is current U.N. Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, the official charged with traveling to all the worst humanitarian hotspots and captaining the U.N.’s work helping hard-hit victims. Both have ample political and media experience and plenty of personality. They and other colleagues can sometimes go places journalists cannot, and bring back stories that show why the U.N. matters. Their increased visibility would help showcase their agencies and missions, while benefitting the wider organization.

The U.N. also needs to overcome its ingrained reluctance to take credit for the rare signature victories achieved in its corridors. Officials there joke that the world body is blamed for everything that fails, but that the successes are chalked up entirely to member states. For good reason, U.N. officials are conscious of not wanting to upstage the organization’s members, but few would begrudge the global body for being a bit more keen in pointing out its own contributions. A good opportunity may present itself this spring if, as expected, nations reach consensus on the world’s first treaty regulating trade in small arms. If this comes through, U.N. officials should claim victory and explain that this global instrument is the first to tackle what Kofi Annan dubbed the "real weapons of mass destruction," responsible for the deaths of half a million people each year. It will also represent a triumph over the National Rifle Association, which has taken time out from fighting against domestic gun control to oppose the treaty, in effect supporting the free flow of arms to human rights abusers. Properly explained, this is an issue that can win plaudits from the large majority of Americans that realize deadly weapons should not be without basic controls.

A third opportunity is to show leadership on a tough issue. Ban tried to champion climate change during his first term, but has little to show for it. Simply put, without the backing of China and the United States, the U.N. alone lacks the muscle to press a breakthrough that would require the world’s leading governments to compromise their economic interests. Conceivably more tractable in the near-term is the issue of gay rights, the subject of a historic speech by Ban in December 2012, in which he decried the criminalization of homosexuality in 76 countries. While highly unpopular among some African governments, Ban’s leadership on gay rights is timely and could position the U.N. as a forward-thinking leader. It’s a media-friendly issue where Ban could use his bully pulpit — and one where the coercive powers he lacks would make little difference anyway. Over the years, the U.N. has been at the forefront of developing new human rights norms, beginning with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Extending this lineage to encompass a systematic effort to respect LGBT rights within the U.N.’s own personnel policies and practices and to bolster protections afforded by the U.N.’s human rights watchdogs would get the organization well-deserved positive attention.

President Obama’s second term offers an opportunity to revisit unfulfilled promises.  During his first speech to the United Nations, in 2009, he said that the U.N.’s weaknesses were "not a reason to walk away from this institution — they are a calling to redouble our efforts." In the ensuing years, as the common ground reached over Libya proved fleeting, and the impasse over Syria endured, it may have felt as though the doubled effort wasn’t worth the returns. That’s a loss for America and for the world. In the end, if top officials and ambassadors cannot cajole, coax, and coerce the globe’s leading powers to confront serious threats to international peace and security, neither good public relations nor noble humanitarian endeavors will save the organization from fading into irrelevance. 

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