Everyone Hates the U.N. (Until They Need It)

How the next U.S. administration can fix America’s dysfunctional relationship with Turtle Bay.

By Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America.
<> on September 24, 2014 in New York City.
<> on September 24, 2014 in New York City.

In his January State of the Union address, President Barack Obama asked a rhetorical question: “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?” The image of a global constable dates back to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940s conception of the United States, Britain, Russia, and China as “four policemen” keeping the peace in a postwar world. His vision took shape in the United Nations and its Security Council — dominated for generations by those very powers plus, at Churchill’s insistence, France.

Yet more than 70 years later, almost no one answered the president’s plaintive query from his Senate podium with reference to the world body headquartered on the East River. Last week, interviews were held for a leader to succeed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when his term ends later this year; the U.S. media mostly ignored the proceedings. While the world obsesses over the U.S. presidential election, the campaign to helm the world’s premier body is an afterthought at best for Americans. While the U.N. did make headlines last week, it was because the U.S. Senate held hearings at which lawmakers threatened to withhold dues to the world body if it could not end a pervasive pattern of sexual abuse by peacekeepers. According to Gallup, the U.N.’s approval rating among Americans stands at 38 percent, and has been below 50 percent for the past 13 years. While Obama reversed the George W. Bush administration’s disdain toward Turtle Bay, U.S. re-engagement has been weighed down by deep doubts that the world body can deliver on the highest-stakes assignments.

There is a growing, if tacit, worldwide acknowledgement that the U.N. increasingly isn’t where the action is on international affairs. At the same time, as the president detailed in his March interview with Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, there is no nation or organization that can plausibly fill the void left by a United States that is necessarily selective about its global engagement. Europe is mired in internal divisions, economic stasis, and a historic refugee crisis. The Middle East is in perpetual turmoil. China’s and Russia’s ideas of enlightened self-interest involve deploying ever more sophisticated tools in service of age-old aims of power and control. What were once dubbed “rising powers” — India, Brazil, and South Africa — are sinking under the weight of corruption and domestic turmoil. And NATO’s shortcomings have become presidential campaign fodder; other regional organizations are uniformly far weaker.

And yet by default, the U.N. is key to maintaining order in a world of threats that are oblivious to national borders. Whether the problem is climate change, refugees, sectarian conflicts, nuclear proliferation, humanitarian disasters, or patrolling fragile peace settlements, the U.N. and its specialized agencies are grinding it out at the forefront, keeping bad situations from getting far worse. They do much of the spadework of international affairs that, when it makes headlines at all, features political leaders gathered for photo ops, not experts who spent years making the handshake possible. While the U.N. can’t stop the Islamic State, it can play a key role in stabilizing post-conflict states, curbing global pandemics, and mitigating the destabilizing effects of refugee flows.

In late March, Anthony Banbury, a former U.S. National Security Council official and outgoing U.N. assistant secretary-general, published a confessional New York Times op-ed titled, “I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing.” Banbury chronicled a litany of seemingly intractable ills: “colossal mismanagement,” sclerotic hiring systems, bureaucracy run amok, wasted money, needlessly prolonged peacekeeping missions that distract leaders and divert funds from fundamental societal needs, and lax troop recruitment standards that have led to an epidemic of sexual assault perpetrated by blue helmets — despite years of high-profile efforts to curtail such abuses. As the organization prepares to elect a new secretary-general to replace Ban Ki-moon, Banbury begs member states to rethink what they want out of the world body.

For decades, Washington was dogged by fears — world government enforced with black helicopters — of a United Nations that had grown too strong. Now the far more pressing danger is that the world body is too weak — what Banbury calls “a Remington typewriter in a smartphone world.” Washington has had a fixation on the need for U.N. reform for decades. John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. whom presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz has named someone he would consider for the post of secretary of state, once memorably mocked that were the U.N.’s 38-story headquarters to lose 10 floors, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”  The United States is the sole nation with an ambassador-rank position at its U.N. mission dedicated to management and reform; all others fold those issues into the responsibilities of the main ambassador or deputy. The American preoccupation with reform, though, centers heavily on ensuring the responsible use of U.S. funds, which represent a larger share by far — some 22 percent — of the U.N.’s regular budget than do the contributions of any other country, and an even greater portion of U.N. peacekeeping expenses.

While stewardship of U.S. taxpayer dollars is no small matter, as Banbury points out, the imperative of U.N. reform extends far wider. The U.N. is the world’s intervenor of last resort: whether natural disasters, post-conflict instability, or a health crisis like Ebola — when the job is too dirty, fraught, or forgotten for anyone else to be willing to help, the U.N. does. Born in an era of decolonization, the U.N. is premised on the idea of a measure of equality among all sovereign nations and a rejection of invasion, annexation, and usurpation. No matter where it goes or how long it stays, the U.N. is never mistaken for an occupier. It can stay and help stabilize places where the United States can’t and others won’t. It offers an essential antidote to power as the sole instrument of international affairs, offering tools for diplomacy, collective action, and conflict prevention to keep aggression in check.

But despite a dedicated ambassadorial position and stern rhetoric aplenty, Washington has not been serious about U.N. reform for some time. Beltway policy debates on reform (to the extent they occur), focus mostly on proposals to modernize and reconfigure the U.N. Security Council, which retains an anachronistic structure frozen in place since the 1940s. The imperative of updating the council is real and the pace of geopolitical shifts make it prudent for Washington to spearhead the process while it probably still can, rather than waiting for a future moment when other powers may seize the initiative to try to remake to their liking the consortium of true power players.

But, as Banbury points out, the U.N.’s problems go far beyond the placards around the table in its inner sanctum. And if they are to be solved the United States will have to set the ball rolling in the right direction. As Obama told the Atlantic: “If we don’t set the agenda, it doesn’t happen. … There is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results.” For the past eight years, the United States has worked itself back into a position of leadership at the U.N. after the schisms and resentments of the Iraq War. But Washington must now overcome its visceral ambivalence and dubiousness about the U.N. in order to lead with a convincing brand of tough love — driving forward an ambitious reform agenda and molding the organization to become what Washington and the world now need it to be. Caring too much about the United Nations, or evincing any faith in it, has been a mark of naiveté in Washington, even in Democratic administrations. But to get the most out of the world body, the United States has to be willing to invest. To position itself to yield returns, several elements are key:

Refocus the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. 

Under the current (and all recent) Democratic administration and even some Republican ones, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. holds cabinet-rank status. While downgrading it would the wrong signal about the U.N.’s importance, the job description for America’s top U.N. envoy merits a rethink. Obama’s two U.N. ambassadors — Susan Rice (now national security advisor) and Samantha Power — were key players in his foreign policy kitchen cabinet. Measured by access to the president, Rice and Power count among the most influential U.N. ambassadors in memory. Both women understandably decided that shaping presidential policymaking wherever and however they could was the most consequential use of their time and leverage; many of their central policy efforts — including on Libya and Syria — went well beyond their U.N. purviews. In dealings with Iran and the Central African Republic, the two ambassadors’ influence in Washington was essential to delivering political results in New York.

Unavoidably, Washington’s gain is to some extent New York’s loss; no one is going to leave the Oval Office to attend a U.N. budget meeting. But that’s the job. Reforming the U.N. will require an ambassador for whom New York is the primary game they play. While of course the next U.S. ambassador needs the ability to get the president’s ear when necessary, to achieve reform Washington will need an ambassador who will give the world body his or her full attention and whose success or failure is tied inextricably to what is achieved there.

Also, being cabinet-rank should not mean that the ambassador oversees a free-standing cabinet department, or what a 1968 book titled “The ‘Other’ State Department.” The U.S. Mission to the U.N. (USUN) has long had a small outpost back at the State Department to represent its interests in D.C. and house a Washington-based deputy to the ambassador. Over the years that office has grown, sometimes dueling with the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which is, at least on paper, the USUN’s docking station. One solution to this longstanding organizational sore spot would be to merge the so-called IO Bureau and the ambassador’s Washington office, with a dual-hatted, dual-reporting undersecretary for multilateral affairs who also serves as the Washington deputy to the U.N. ambassador. That person’s staff would cover both servicing the U.N. Mission in New York and the other U.N. and international agencies around the world. This new position could also oversee other areas of multilateral engagement, including the Office of Global Criminal Justice. This redrawing of the organizational chart would eliminate longstanding tension between two offices that should work in tight partnership and would allow a merge staff to be more than the sum of its parts.

Reshuffle the deputies

The configuration of ambassadorships at USUN in New York is also out of date. Apart from the permanent representative and her deputy, the U.S. Mission has three subordinate ambassadors, one for the Security Council, one for Management and Reform, and one devoted to the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, which over the years has devolved into one of the least significant political bodies. These should be reassigned so that one focuses on the Security Council as well as peacekeeping operations, an area that needs far more attention; one on the General Assembly and Secretariat that can deal with human resource and other managerial reforms; and one on the organization’s so-called Funds and Programs, which do much of the U.N.’s work in the field worldwide (and have never received the level of engagement that they warrant, and that other governments afford them). This won’t involve a radical redivision of labor, but will help equalize the portfolios as well as bring the mission’s management structure in line with the U.N. issues that deserve the most attention today.

Support the right new secretary-general

Essential to prospects for reform will be the outcome of a contest over who will succeed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban has been a competent, diligent, and dedicated leader who has absorbed multiplying demands ably, but has not driven a transformative agenda in terms of either the U.N.’s internal workings or its role in the world. Addressing the tough issues Banbury has raised will demand a leader who can command the attention of, and build personal relationships with, heads of state and foreign ministers from around the world. A reformer must be willing to take risks and show some genuine appetite for issues of management and operations that tend to put most diplomats to sleep. While a strong relationship with Washington is essential to the success of any U.N. secretary-general, so is their strength of character and ability to independently set an agenda and marshal others behind it.

When the U.N. held its hustings in New York last week, prospective candidates answered hundreds of questions before an audience of nearly 200 countries represented in the room, and hundreds of thousands watching online. Some themes were worrying: While it may sound politic for a would-be secretary-general to cast himself or herself as a “servant” of the world body, as former Slovenian President Danilo Turk and Bulgarian UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova did, subservience to the U.N. membership is a recipe for stasis. A body as fractious as the U.N. has to be led forward or it will fall back of its own weight. In that light, it’s hard not to be tantalized by the prospect of a leader of the stature of Angela Merkel throwing her hat into the ring.

While bureaucratic realignments will make the United States even more potent at Turtle Bay, Washington cannot achieve U.N. reform on its own through force of will. Successful efforts depend on three elements: 1) objective data and analysis; 2) tireless diplomatic work in New York and, as importantly, in capitals; and 3) engaged support from the White House with the backing of Congress. Aligning these three elements will demand that a new administration start early, during the transition, to set priorities, develop proposals, and carefully examine the U.N.’s calendars and committee structures to develop a strategy to achieve their goals.

Banbury calls for a process-driven reform agenda, including a high-level panel on personnel and expanded program audits. Such panels and expert reports have historically been the vehicles for many of the most significant U.N. reforms in that they provide an objective rationale for making the changes while blunting charges that the measures are being forced by individual delegations. They can bring to bear charts, facts, and analysis that help elevate discussions above pure politics and zero-sum negotiations over money and positions for individual nations. But such reports are just a starting point; unless backed by exhaustive diplomatic efforts, they die a slow death in committee. In order to effectively drive reforms, U.S. goals must not be imposed as a diktat, which will only ensure Pavlovian rejection, but rather massaged through the system through persuasive evidence and delicate diplomacy. Right now, the U.N. Secretariat is still responding to a comprehensive review of peacekeeping operations issued last fall by a panel led by former East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta.

The problems facing U.N. peacekeeping are legion: swelling demands; the politicization of appointing leadership to key peacekeeping roles; fraught conflicts where there is no peace to keep; a paucity of troops from well-trained militaries, leading to overreliance on less skilled and disciplined soldiers; and mission-creep, whereby peacekeeping deployments are the only obvious way for the international community to be seen to “do something,” even when something else more difficult or nuanced could be far more appropriate and effective. With the U.N. serving as an all-purpose intervenor-of-last-resort, these shortcomings are crippling. The United States can play a pivotal role in the implementation of those recommendations, but it makes all the difference that they were conceived not in Washington, but by a panel mandated by U.N. members.

Even with detailed policy briefs and rationales, the inertia and obstructionism at the U.N. can make the U.S. Congress look nimble. Rules of procedure, overlapping committees, and laborious working methods are enough to make even the most intrepid would-be reformer take off his or her multilingual headset in despair. The key to getting anything done is realizing that by the time delegates enter a U.N. meeting room, the time for negotiation is essentially over. All significant U.N. agreements and undertakings are pushed forward behind the scenes through intensive engagements with delegates and ambassadors in New York, as well as those who write their instructions back in capitals. The recent COP21 climate change deal forged in Paris late last year is a good example: The real work happened long before delegates gathered in Le Bourget, over years of deliberations in Washington, New York, Beijing, Delhi, and elsewhere — much of it prodded along by then-U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern.

Care more

With its voting membership of 193 nations representing every political system on the planet, even the most energetic diplomacy and the fanciest facts and figures in the world won’t do the trick absent strong political pressure that inevitably must emanate from Washington. To strengthen the U.N., Washington must show that it really cares. The last time the United States drove through an ambitious reform program — centered on renegotiating U.S. dues to the U.N. and updating its assessment system — was back in 2000. Then, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke cultivated the U.N. membership tirelessly, going so far as to bring the ambassadors of the Security Council to Washington for a hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and arranging the first-ever hearing for the Foreign Relations Committee in New York City, dedicated to the U.N. That level of pageantry and courtship helped get the reforms through over vociferous opposition from nations whose U.N. fees would go up under the new rules. This engagement had real dividends: After 9/11, Washington was able to go to the U.N. and rally the support of the world for a campaign against terrorism — without having its long-unpaid dues still linger as a sticking point.

The challenge now is far greater and involves reforms that relate not to Washington’s pocketbook but to the world organization’s ability to step up in ways that no single country can and will. Without a powerful and vocal domestic constituency in the United States, the global body is an easy political target and (should the GOP presidential nominee win in November) the tendency of a new Republican administration may be to revert to reflexive U.N. bashing. But, soon enough, any new president realizes that the U.N. often turns out to be the only entity willing or able to address the crisis or helping the desperate du jour. And when the president inevitably casts about for someone willing to take on thankless tasks that Washington would rather not busy itself with, the White House operator will be instructed to put the new secretary-general on the line.

Reforming the U.N. to make and keep peace more effectively will be a difficult and expensive task. But the costs pale next to the alternative: vacuums of power that foster violence and unsettled conflicts left to fester and spread. If a new administration places foresight above reflex reaction, it could shape the U.N. into a far more potent and useful partner. For while some still fear a U.N. that is too strong, the world will be far more dangerous if it is too weak.

Photo credit: ANDREW BURTON/Getty Images

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel