Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Problem and Solution: the UN in a world of conflict

I'm going to be too busy to post much over the next few weeks so I thought, in order to keep the blog ticking over, I would re-post a few things I've written elsewhere.

The following post is from the DevNet Forum. If you wish to comment on it, do me a favour and do so over there.


In a recent review of two books on the United Nations journalist and academic Samantha Power relays the following anecdote which reveals much about relationship between the world’s most powerful nation and the world’s main body of global governance.

The new year marks the end of two turbulent terms at the United Nations: that of Kofi Annan, who served 10 years as secretary general, and that of John R. Bolton, who lasted just 17 months as the U.S. ambassador there. When Bolton was asked about a December 2006 farewell dinner that President Bush held for Annan, the departing American diplomat sniped, "Nobody sang 'Kumbaya.'"...When told of Bolton's remark, Annan laughed and said, "Does he know how to sing it?"

That Bolton could say such a thing about the head of the organisation he was ambassador to isn’t entirely surprising. Bolton has a reputation for being abrasive and even before his appointment as ambassador his public utterances about the UN suggested that he was not, perhaps, the organisation’s biggest fan. (Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s thoughts about society he once claimed that: “[t]here is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States”. On another occasion he said, “[i]f the UN Secretariat building in New York lost ten storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”)

Similarly, the fact that the Bush administration could appoint an apparent unbeliever as its representative to the United Nations in 2005 came as no surprise to anyone who had observed the relationship between the multilateral body and the unilateral president in the years since Bush took office. The ultimate bust up being, of course, over the Iraq war.

Perhaps more than anything else it was the invasion of Iraq that politicised debates about the United Nations. To many opponents of the invasion, by attacking a country without UN sanction, the United States and its allies were setting a dangerous precedent and tearing up the ‘rulebook of international affairs’ (whether such a ‘rulebook’ ever actually existed is another question altogether). While, to many of the invasion’s supporters, the mere fact that the organisation would dare stand in the way of such a noble and necessary endeavour was a source of rage. In reality, the UN Security Council’s refusal to endorse the invasion posed scant hurdle to the world’s sole super power; yet supporters of the war dredged up a long list of ‘UN failures’ from the Balkans to Rwanda which they claimed illustrated the organisation’s venality and ineffectiveness. And showed why the United States was justified in bypassing it in its march to war.

As arguments for the invasion of Iraq these claims struck me as either disingenuous or besides the point at the time; however, underneath all the sound and fury I think that there is really interesting question waiting to be discussed. This is not the simplistic is “the UN good or bad?” – but rather, and this the question that Samantha Power focuses on in her review, the question of whether the UN is better than, worse, or simply the sum total of, its parts. In this argument, supporters of the organisation argue that it does its best, constrained not by organisation staff or structure but rather by fickle member states acting too often in their own self-interest. The UN failed, they argue, in Rwanda not because of anything to do with the UN but rather through French intransigence and the timidity of president Clinton who, nose bloodied in Somalia, did not want more American troops dying in Africa. Likewise, it failed in the former Yugoslavia because Western Nations were unwilling to commit sufficient resources to peacekeeping. In short, defenders argue, the United Nations does its best – and it has had successes to accompany its failures – in a world of real politic and rogue states. This, by the sounds of Power’s review is the tone of the book ‘The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN In the Era of American World Power’ by James Traub.

On the other side of the fence are people like Adam LeBor who – in his book ‘Complicity With Evil: The United Nations in the Age Of Modern Genocide’ – argues (if Power’s characterisation is correct) that the UN does have power of its own and, too often, has squandered it.

Power’s review is excellent, mediating carefully between the two different sides

The trouble with leaning exclusively on either Traub's or LeBor's approach is that the distinctions between the United Nations as a building and the United Nations as an actor are blurry: The United Nations is, of course, both things at once. Although Traub acknowledges this, he sometimes gives U.N. civil servants the very free pass they give themselves, portraying Annan, for example, as "unfairly blamed for failures not of his own doing." In fact, U.N. officials can deserve blame. They raise false hopes of protection that they -- but not the civilians under their watch -- know they will not be able to keep. They self-censor for fear of getting too far out in front of the member states. In so doing, they hoard information to which only they have access and miss important opportunities to affect the domestic political debates that will ultimately shape the will of the major powers. Instead of taking personal responsibility, many U.N. officials engage in what LeBor rightly condemns as "buck passing." They also too frequently become what the U.N. critic David Rieff has called "cultists of the small victory," losing sight of the burning forest while scurrying around in search of the seed to plant a single tree.

But LeBor neglects to mention that U.N. officials who condemn aggression, corruption or atrocities without the consent of powerful governments do not survive in the U.N. system. Annan himself nearly lost his job. As Traub documents, the Republican campaign to string up the secretary general for his role in the oil-for-food scandal grew virulent only after Annan made the obvious point that, lacking Security Council authorization, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was "illegal." To gauge the relative responsibility of the organization, it might be helpful for U.N. bashers to ask, "But for Kofi Annan or the presence of U.N. peacekeepers, would the response of the countries on the Security Council have been any different in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur?" The answer, sadly, is no. (Although it's not credited in LeBor's account, Annan's office has spoken out more about Darfur than almost any government.) And by homing in almost exclusively on the United Nations, as LeBor has done, rather than pinpointing the responsibility of the countries with the armies, the financial leverage and the diplomatic clout to stop these horrors, his book could have the effect -- perhaps unintended -- of absolving those best positioned to make a difference. Governments that claim to be dismayed that the "United Nations" has not halted the rampaging Janjaweed militiamen in Sudan should look less at the world body and more in the mirror.

And it seems sensible to me (I’d add to Power’s discussion the simple point made by Conor Foley here that, on top of everything else, working in conflict situations often leaves the UN with choices only between different bad alternatives). But I’m not expert on the UN so I’d love to hear your thoughts.