United Nations Reform

3 December 2004

United Nations Reform

By Gwynne Dyer

 United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for UN reform, unveiled on 2 December, was a brave attempt to square the circle, but it will not work. It acknowledged the Bush administration’s strident demands for changes at the UN, accommodated a few of them, and proposed a new UN structure that will appeal to those who are really fed up with the organisation:: the non-Western, non-great power majority of the members. But it will not appeal to Mr Bush, and he has the power to thwart it.

Mr Bush spends a lot of time criticising the UN, but he will not be satisfied by reforms that just make it a more effective or representative institution; what he wants is one that obediently supports US strategies and policies. Since the whole style of his administration is unilateralist, and the UN is multilateralist by definition, he is not going to get what he wants — so very few of the 101 reforms proposed by the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change are actually going to happen. He won’t mind: a genuinely committed and activist UN is not in his administration’s interest.

Mr Bush was at it again last Wednesday on his visit to Canada. “The objective of the UN and other institutions must be collective security, not endless debate,” he said, adding that it must be “more than a League of Nations.” The rhetoric echoed what he said last year before the US invasion of Iraq, and the implication was that the UN had failed by not supporting America’s attack on that country, but the UN didn’t fail. The United States wanted to invade a country that had not attacked it, and the UN Security Council refused to endorse that attack, which made it illegal under international law (as Kofi Annan admits when pressed very hard).

The Security Council could not condemn the United States because the US has a veto, and nobody could stop the invasion because the UN has never been able to coerce the great powers. But the UN did its job, which was to consider the legitimacy of the US case for an immediate attack and find it wanting. So poor Kofi Annan, who was originally Washington’s candidate for the job of Secretary-General, found himself trapped between his sponsor and the institution he served.

His response, a classic bureaucratic manoeuvre, was to appoint a panel that would report on how to reform the UN and make it more effective. To raise the odds on a favourable response by the Bush administration, he appointed Brent Scowcroft, a former National Security Adviser to President George H.W. Bush, to the panel. To get support from the rest of the planet, he proposed the expansion of the Security Council. Neither move will succeed.

Expanding the Security Council is a good way to placate large countries in the developing world who don’t see why the Security Council should be virtually a Western monopoly: four of the five veto-wielding “Permanent Members” that dominate the Security Council are Western countries who gained their special status at a time when most non-Western peoples lived in colonial servitude. Unfortunately, the idea of adding some new permanent members to the Security Council breaks down over the details.

Nobody can agree on which countries should become new permanent members. Should Portuguese-speaking Brazil be Latin America’s candidate, or is Spanish-speaking Mexico more representative? Should South Africa, the continent’s richest country, or Nigeria, its most populous, be Africa’s permanent member? Which Muslim country should get a permanent seat? Handing out vetoes to new permanent members would just paralyse the Security Council, but why should China have a veto if India doesn’t?

The expansion proposals open many cans of worms and do not win Kofi Annan much support from the intended beneficiaries — while the panel’s thoughts on making it easier to intervene in countries that abuse their own citizens are unlikely to win over the United States either. It is “pre-emptive” intervention in countries that allegedly pose some threat to the United States that interests the Bush administration, and UN approval for that would still have to come by means of a Security Council vote that the US would not necessarily win.

The disdain and outright hostility towards the UN that now threaten the institution will not be ended by the changes that Kofi Annan and his panel are recommending, though they would be useful enough in their own right. NOTHING will do much good so long as the Bush administration sees the United Nations and the whole structure of international law as irritating constraints on the exercise of US power; pandering to Washington’s wishes would just further alienate the key group of countries in the developing world that have already grown deeply impatient with Western domination of the Security Council.

The wise men have laboured long and thought deeply, and their 101 recommendations for change are mostly sensible and in some cases long overdue. Debating them will give the delegations at the UN something to do while they wait to hear their fate — but their fate is being decided elsewhere, above all in the United States, and it will probably be years before we know the outcome. If the world’s greatest power turns against the UN permanently, then it does not have a future.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The Security…succeed”)