The Multilateralist

Failure doesn’t stick to the UN

One of the difficulties of commenting intelligently on the annual United Nations meetings is that there appears to be simultaneously too much to address and too little. Dozens of heads of state are circulating, giving speeches, and arranging quick bilaterals on the side. Surely there is important work being done! But in fact it’s often ...

One of the difficulties of commenting intelligently on the annual United Nations meetings is that there appears to be simultaneously too much to address and too little. Dozens of heads of state are circulating, giving speeches, and arranging quick bilaterals on the side. Surely there is important work being done! But in fact it’s often impossible to point to much of substance that comes out of the meetings, certainly not enough to justify the massive impact on New York traffic.

The invaluable Richard Gowan has two pieces out that shed some light on this year’s diplomatic extravaganza. Helpfully, he tackles separately two key aspects of the UN’s work: the process of generating international standards and norms and the management of specific security threats.

On the norm-generation front, he notes that there is a broad, seismic debate underway at the United Nations about human rights, sovereignty, and intervention. In one form or another, of course, this debate has run for decades. But several factors have combined to give the current version of the debate particular salience. First, the United Nations is, historically speaking, still in an intensely activist phase. Occasional vetos notwithstanding, the organization is quite busy. It conducts lots of peacekeeping operations, imposes and monitors multiple sanctions regimes, and is generally involved in a way it wasn’t for most of its existence. Moreover, this activism is happening in the midst of an important, if still very incomplete, power shift. To varying degrees, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey now see themselves as part of the international power structure.  Together, these trends mean that powers with mixed and often fluid worldviews are wrestling with a host of global problems and finding themselves compelled to articulate how the international community should involve itself in the domestic affairs of states. 

The choices they make could have lasting consequences; votes at the General Assembly and the UN’s Human Rights Council may have no legal force but they help shape international standards. One of the real accomplishments of the Obama administration at the UN has been taking the Human Rights Council seriously and fighting hard there for its conception of human rights. There’s evidence that this struggle is having an impact. For several years now, Gowan and others at the European Council on Foreign Relations have tracked how UN members vote on human rights issues, and they see some signs that the West is prevailing in a long-running battle of ideas:

The evidence suggests that there is a genuine shift towards Western human rights positions in UN forums, extending beyond the Syrian case, but that this is built on fragile foundations….Overwhelming numbers of countries have backed General Assembly resolutions concerning Syria. In February, the Assembly passed two resolutions on Syria – the first calling for a political transition and for Ban Ki-moon to appoint an envoy for the crisis, the second specifically condemning human rights abuses – by margins of 137 votes in favor to 12 against and 133 to 11 respectively.

But if there are reasons for optimism about the UN as a norm-generating body, its value as a tool for managing specific security threats is in serious doubt. The General Assembly meetings take place against the backdrop of the bloody Syria conflict and the continuing stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program. Both crises provide ample ammunition for those who argue that the organization is irrelevant–or even counterproductive–on today’s key security challenges.

Gowan argues that a UN failure on Iran, in particular, would have a long-term impact on the organization’s perceived utility as a crisis managent tool, at least in Washington:

The consequences of the U.N. failing to play a meaningful role in resolving the Iran nuclear standoff, however, would be deeper and long-lasting, for it would severely damage U.S. perceptions of the U.N. as a crisis-management mechanism. If the U.N. fails to contain Iran’s nuclear program, no American president will be able to turn to the organization to manage major threats for many years to come, whoever wins in November’s elections.

Here I respectfully part ways. The truth is that failure doesn’t really stick to the United Nations, at least not in the way that Gowan suggests. Only a few years after the catastrophes in Srebrenica and Rwanda, the Security Council launched what became a huge peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN’s crackup over Iraq in 2003 did not prevent the Bush administration from making the organization a centerpiece of its Iran and North Korea policies. In short, I see no reason that the United Nations might not, in the wake of the collapse of its Iran strategy, become a lead actor in some future security challenge.

Broad debates about the United Nations tend to be highly ideological. For good or ill, world leaders and diplomats have a much more pragmatic outlook. If the shifting diplomatic sands make the United Nations a convenient forum for addressing some future crisis, the organization’s past failures won’t get in the way.   

One of the difficulties of commenting intelligently on the annual United Nations meetings is that there appears to be simultaneously too much to address and too little. Dozens of heads of state are circulating, giving speeches, and arranging quick bilaterals on the side. Surely there is important work being done! But in fact it’s often impossible to point to much of substance that comes out of the meetings, certainly not enough to justify the massive impact on New York traffic.

The invaluable Richard Gowan has two pieces out that shed some light on this year’s diplomatic extravaganza. Helpfully, he tackles separately two key aspects of the UN’s work: the process of generating international standards and norms and the management of specific security threats.

On the norm-generation front, he notes that there is a broad, seismic debate underway at the United Nations about human rights, sovereignty, and intervention. In one form or another, of course, this debate has run for decades. But several factors have combined to give the current version of the debate particular salience. First, the United Nations is, historically speaking, still in an intensely activist phase. Occasional vetos notwithstanding, the organization is quite busy. It conducts lots of peacekeeping operations, imposes and monitors multiple sanctions regimes, and is generally involved in a way it wasn’t for most of its existence. Moreover, this activism is happening in the midst of an important, if still very incomplete, power shift. To varying degrees, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey now see themselves as part of the international power structure.  Together, these trends mean that powers with mixed and often fluid worldviews are wrestling with a host of global problems and finding themselves compelled to articulate how the international community should involve itself in the domestic affairs of states. 

The choices they make could have lasting consequences; votes at the General Assembly and the UN’s Human Rights Council may have no legal force but they help shape international standards. One of the real accomplishments of the Obama administration at the UN has been taking the Human Rights Council seriously and fighting hard there for its conception of human rights. There’s evidence that this struggle is having an impact. For several years now, Gowan and others at the European Council on Foreign Relations have tracked how UN members vote on human rights issues, and they see some signs that the West is prevailing in a long-running battle of ideas:

The evidence suggests that there is a genuine shift towards Western human rights positions in UN forums, extending beyond the Syrian case, but that this is built on fragile foundations….Overwhelming numbers of countries have backed General Assembly resolutions concerning Syria. In February, the Assembly passed two resolutions on Syria – the first calling for a political transition and for Ban Ki-moon to appoint an envoy for the crisis, the second specifically condemning human rights abuses – by margins of 137 votes in favor to 12 against and 133 to 11 respectively.

But if there are reasons for optimism about the UN as a norm-generating body, its value as a tool for managing specific security threats is in serious doubt. The General Assembly meetings take place against the backdrop of the bloody Syria conflict and the continuing stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program. Both crises provide ample ammunition for those who argue that the organization is irrelevant–or even counterproductive–on today’s key security challenges.

Gowan argues that a UN failure on Iran, in particular, would have a long-term impact on the organization’s perceived utility as a crisis managent tool, at least in Washington:

The consequences of the U.N. failing to play a meaningful role in resolving the Iran nuclear standoff, however, would be deeper and long-lasting, for it would severely damage U.S. perceptions of the U.N. as a crisis-management mechanism. If the U.N. fails to contain Iran’s nuclear program, no American president will be able to turn to the organization to manage major threats for many years to come, whoever wins in November’s elections.

Here I respectfully part ways. The truth is that failure doesn’t really stick to the United Nations, at least not in the way that Gowan suggests. Only a few years after the catastrophes in Srebrenica and Rwanda, the Security Council launched what became a huge peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN’s crackup over Iraq in 2003 did not prevent the Bush administration from making the organization a centerpiece of its Iran and North Korea policies. In short, I see no reason that the United Nations might not, in the wake of the collapse of its Iran strategy, become a lead actor in some future security challenge.

Broad debates about the United Nations tend to be highly ideological. For good or ill, world leaders and diplomats have a much more pragmatic outlook. If the shifting diplomatic sands make the United Nations a convenient forum for addressing some future crisis, the organization’s past failures won’t get in the way.   

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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