Who Broke the U.N.?

Long a target for "reform," the United Nations has taken heat for a bloated bureaucracy and gridlocked Security Council. FP surveyed top experts about what role it should play in today's ever-more-tangled global conflicts, with Madeleine Albright guiding us through the results.

Mario Tama/GettyImages
Mario Tama/GettyImages

See the FP Survey on the U.N. here.

The amount of time that has been spent in think tanks and inside the U.S. State Department trying to figure out whether and how to reform the United Nations would be impossible to calculate. The refrain of “U.N. reform” is heard over and over, yet infighting and gridlock continue to block bolder U.N. action, as the latest situation in Syria makes clear.

Like any organization, the U.N. does need to be reformed — from the structure and procedures of the Security Council, which 28 percent of Foreign Policy‘s survey respondents identify as the part of the U.N. most in need of rethinking, to the body’s staffing, leadership, and budget. But reform is not an event; it is a process. Although people tend to blame “the U.N.,” fundamentally it is a collection of nation-states, often with competing interests. No wonder more than 40 percent of the respondents consider this fact the greatest internal obstacle preventing the institution from being more effective.

Although two-thirds of respondents endorse the idea of enlarging the Security Council, the reality is that finding a way to do so is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube. For example, when I served at the U.N., European Union states often voted together. The logical move would have been to give the EU one permanent seat on the Security Council, but it’s hard to visualize the British or the French giving up their individual seats. At that time, the United States supported Germany and Japan as additions to the Security Council’s permanent members; respondents to The FP Survey list Japan and Germany as candidates for Security Council seats today. Their top choice by far, however, is India, which U.S. President Barack Obama has now also endorsed for a permanent seat. So the Rubik’s cube continues to shift — and yet the council’s membership is unchanged.

Individual countries can take the lead on pushing for reforms, but they must be willing to adapt. When I was at the U.N., the United States pushed hard for management reform. At the very same time, we unilaterally decided we would pay only 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget (our allotment was more than 30 percent). We also drew criticism because of the way our fiscal year begins in October, while many other countries pay their bills in January. There I was, constantly saying, “You need to reform on this; you need to tighten your procedures; you need to do projections on what peacekeeping operations will cost,” when everyone else was saying, “So when are you paying up?” It got to the point that our best friends, the British, stood up in the General Assembly and delivered a line they had waited more than 200 years to deliver: “No representation without taxation.”

The issue of how to deal with Syria has once again prompted questions about not just the U.N.’s structure and procedures, but also its purpose — whether and in what circumstances it has the “responsibility to protect” and whether its member states should ever take up that mantle on their own. I agree with the three-quarters of respondents who think the U.S. military should not intervene unilaterally in Syria. The reality is that there are always other channels. During negotiations over Kosovo in the 1990s, the Russians made very clear to me that they were going to veto whatever the United States was going to do. I then went back to my hotel room in Moscow and called every single ambassador backing intervention — and then we went to NATO. Every situation is slightly different, but many options are on the table. I’m the first one to say it would be better to get a U.N. mandate for military action, but ultimately I am for what I have always called the “doability doctrine.”

Americans tend to dislike the word “multilateralism” — it has too many syllables and ends in an “ism.” The reality, however, is that the U.N. is the world’s most visible multilateral organization and has the most members. No one country, even the United States, can tackle the bundle of issues the world faces — from terrorism to nuclear proliferation, economic inequality to environmental degradation.

I often tell my students that American decision-makers only have a handful of tools in the toolbox to achieve the kind of foreign policy they want: bilateral diplomacy and multilateral diplomacy; economic tools; threat of the use of force and use of force; law enforcement; and intelligence. That’s it. I don’t believe in multilateralism as an end in itself. But I believe in it as an important instrument of policy. If we start thinking that the United Nations doesn’t work, that we don’t have to pay our bills, or that everything in diplomacy will turn out exactly the way we want it, we are leaving out an indispensable tool.

This article is based on an interview with FP editor Susan B. Glasser.

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