The UN, after 60 years in existence, is going through an identity crisis. How the US and world react to the UN will make an important difference in international relations. If the UN, specifically the 5 permanent members, fails to reform itself, its remaining relevance will continue to erode. After the $20 + billion Oil-for-Food Scandal that involved Iraq, France, Russia, China and even Mr. Annan's son, and after the Secretary General's own work to discredit the Bush administration during the election, the UN institution is in jeopardy. Is the UN salvageable? And second, if it is, is it worth saving?
There are several interesting developments that have been playing out over the past year. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, initiated a 16 member High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. Its report on UN reform has a number of reform objectives for the Security Council. Mr. Annan, in The Economist, laid out the key points of the report:
- up to 24 permanent security council members (an increase of 9 from the current 15, but with no expansion of the current 5-member veto power)
- a strengthened UN secretariat
- “overhaul the Economic and Social Council to strengthen its role in social development and in improving knowledge about the economic and social dimensions of security threats.”
The first response is, are any of the above in the US interest? Taking the first recommendation, an enlarged Security Council would increase the countries at the decision making table. The existing permanent Security Council members (US, UK, France, Russia & China) reflect the status of power at the end of the Second World War. They additionally represent two nations in Europe, two in Asia, one in North America and none in Africa, South America and Australia. The current permanent Security Council does not reflect 2005 geopolitical realities.
Japan, the UN's second largest donor and a democratic country with over 130 million people, along with Germany, the third largest donor, have no permanent clout in security functions in the council. Additionally, both countries are a part of the two most dominantly represented continents. India and Brazil both have legitimate desires to sit at the Security Council table. But opening up the Security Council by additional permanent members would further deadlock the UN and increase its irrelevance.
To prove the point of the UN's lackluster 60-year history, The Economist states:
The UN was set up to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. It has not been very successful. Countries have repeatedly taken up arms against one another with impunity (as many as 680 times between 1945 and 1989, according to one count). Hundreds more conflicts have taken place within states."
All five permanent members have engaged in armed conflict without international approval: the US in Vietnam, the British and French in the Suez (to name one), China in Tibet, and Russia in Afghanistan. Current liberal international thought pays homage to international law as the new gospel (though ironically not rooted in religious beliefs). To believe that a moral act can only come through legitimacy from a body that has a good deal of totalitarian members seems perverse. Liberal thought gives credence to international bodies because of the boundaries of individual states but then pretends the state's sovereignty derives from the collective body. It also cares not for how the member state is governed. China by no means is a democracy, and Russia raises many eyebrows as well concerning personal freedoms, yet both nations can veto the proposals of UN member democratic states.
If the UN is to be saved and transformed, reforming the Security Council makes sense; however, any change should not erode US veto power. Additionally, a stronger emphasis on representation of democratic nations is necessary.
In a follow-up post I will address the High Level Panel's recommendations 2 and 3 above and sum up my thoughts on what the US should pursue vis-a-vis international collective security arrangements.