David Rothkopf

UNGA week, either you are in or you are out … (probably out)

This is U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) meeting week. That’s extremely important news if you live in mid-town Manhattan, because it means traffic is going to be miserable. As for real relevance to the rest of the world, well, not so much. While the UNGA festivities feature lots of high-profile speeches by world leaders and a ...

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

This is U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) meeting week. That’s extremely important news if you live in mid-town Manhattan, because it means traffic is going to be miserable. As for real relevance to the rest of the world, well, not so much.

While the UNGA festivities feature lots of high-profile speeches by world leaders and a panoply of parties, conferences, and lunches designed to showcase those leaders — and local caterers — while providing full employment to anyone on the eastern seaboard who owns a black Lincoln Towncar, the entire affair is much more show than substance.

The U.N. meetings are like Davos but without the important people. (Actually, come to think of it, these days Davos is like Davos without the important people.) Maybe it’s better to think of UNGA as New York’s Fall Fashion Week for Fat People — all the same posing, strutting and camera flashes going off as during the anorexic version last week, the difference being that the fashion industry may actually be doing something practical for humanity.

O.K., I exaggerate. Each of the world leaders who participate, like President Barack Obama, have high expectations that their speech to the U.N. and their events on the edges of the gathering will gain them stature with their electorates and perhaps even advance their national interests. But with the U.N. serving as a kind of black hole for many international initiatives, sucking in the will to do anything but making precious little progress on a wide variety of vital fronts, most leaders will have to content themselves with a photo on the front page of their local papers and to playing second fiddle to whatever crazy fringe strongman gives the looniest speech of the week.

This is a view confirmed in an article entitled "U.N. Struggles to Prove Its Relevance" in yesterday’s Washington Post. In it, staff writer (and FP blogger) Colum Lynch asserts, "From nuclear diplomacy with North Korea to economic negotiations among the Group of 20 nations and peace talks in the Middle East, U.N. diplomats have frequently been reduced to bit players over the past year." Lynch goes on to assert that "the United Nations has been hobbled by failures, and distractions, of its own making."

Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to acknowledge those areas in which the U.N. is doing extremely important work — for example, in meeting vital humanitarian concerns. Furthermore, unlike many in, say, the U.S. Congress, I see the weakness of the U.N. as a negative. In a world of burgeoning transnational threats and one in which most nation-states have less ability than ever to meet their social contract obligations to their citizens, we need much stronger global governance than the U.N. has ever been able to give us.

The United Nations is weak by design, conceived for a world in which the U.S. and other major powers preferred to leave the real options for action to themselves. It is time we all acknowledged that is simply a world no one can afford any more — on many levels. By now we should see the social, political and economic costs of unilateralism, leaving decisions to clubs of "great powers," or simply not being able to share multilateral responsibilities effectively. The organization is long overdue for structural reform, and while revamping the list of who sits on the U.N. Security Council is an important part of it (the organization has no claim on legitimacy with France and Britain being permanent members and India and Brazil left on the margins), the real changes required involve empowering the organization, and not only to reach binding decisions on transnational issues, but to actually be able to enforce them.

We can admire U.N. peacekeepers and its refugee and development work and still lament the failures when it comes to effective conflict prevention or stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It’s useful to acknowledge that while the U.N.’s role has been a secondary issue for President Obama, that is due as much to the fact that the U.S. and others are unwilling to let the U.N. lead as it is to any inability to do so on the part of the organization. The two problems are, of course, flip sides of a single coin. The problem is that coin was minted in 1945.

Nothing guarantees the organization’s ineffectiveness as surely as burdening it with a structure that captures in amber the post World War II power structure of the world … except for procedures and a mind-set steeped in a soup of 1960s and 1970s vintage non-aligned movement obstructionism. It is not just the big old powers that need to change their views and accept new roles. Part of the reason Iran and others toy with the U.N. is that they know it is built in such a way to make effective action the least likely outcome.

Sadly, for now, the U.N. is a box that the U.S. checks on the way to doing things alone or with a small group of like-minded powers. It is a validator, and sometimes it is the international equivalent of the guy with the broom behind the elephant in the parade. In fact, it does its best work cleaning up the messes it couldn’t help the world avoid.

Once again, this week, the UNGA catwalks will be filled with preening political supermodels including America’s own, rail-thin, GQ-worthy president. And once again, just as during Fashion Week, we’ll be left feeling unsatisfied, as if we’ve seen it all before and what we have seen doesn’t have any real connection to our daily lives anyway.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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