Is the UN Reformable?

Welcome to readers of The Stanley Foundation’s Courier. We hope you find the views and commentary presented herein of interest. As an introduction, we’re pleased to again welcome David Shorr, Program Officer and Policy Analyst with TSF, as a guest contributor to share his thoughts on UN reform and its challenges. As always, we welcome your comments

Time for another interlude from’s excellent horserace coverage. I have been thinking about ways that the big reform push launched by Kofi Annan will shape the agenda for his successor. The short answer is that the breadth and ambition of the reform agenda will leave plenty of work still to be done. But the ambition itself and the lessons learned from the 2005-06 push raise a bigger question about whether major change is even possible in the UN. This is an important question because it tells the new UNSG whether he or she should view herself as a change agent or simply accept significant organizational inertia. 

The early verdict points toward accommodation, but is it a fair verdict? The conventional wisdom is that the current SG sought too much reform all at once. Tom Weiss and Barbara Crossette made this criticism in their very thorough chapter in the Great Decisions book. For my part, I think this assessment says more about dysfunctions in the debate surrounding the UN than about the organization itself. In other words, the idea of an inherent resistance to change is part of a story line – “the hopeless UN” – that commentators (most of us, really) slip into almost unconsciously.

So, to sharpen the question, was it unrealistic to expect the scale of proposed change be adopted and implemented? Putting it another way, was the fragility of the reform push structural (more than the system could bear) or political (i.e., a function of freely made decisions)? Maybe it’s the existentialist in me, but I believe the shortfall stemmed from the choices of free agents (i.e. member states), and claims about overambition and inertia use the organization as a scapegoat for its members’ weak commitment.

Since I am not only an existentialist but a pragmatist, I do feel compelled to look at whether the reforms proposed before the September summit were radical or unrealistic. This question can actually be put very concretely: should it have been possible to garner support and momentum for the facilitators’ draft document so that it stayed on track? Are the reform proposals reasonable enough – appealing to widely held interests – that they could be adopted by enough UN member states? Yes, and yes.

There is a UN pathology that stands in the way: lowest common denominator politics. Member states consistently defer to small minorities who favor an indecisive and slow-acting United Nations. What really was needed for reform was for proponents of effective multilateralism to recognize the proposed package for the very good deal it was and negotiate constructively for its adoption. The diplomatic dynamic needed to be shifted from interminable wrangling to coalition building.

But it’s all working out in the end, right? Yeah, but… GA President Jan Eliasson and his co-chairs are working mightily to deliver on the commitments in the summit Outcome Document. If you believe slow change is good enough, all right. But I share the High-level Panel view that the times demand a new international consensus and much more assertive action. I see the mismatch between mounting threats like underdevelopment and proliferation and the international response to those threats, and I fear we don’t have the luxury of time. And this will be the challenge to the next UNSG – and to all of us.

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