Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.3 (Fall 2009): Book Reviews: "What's Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It" by Thomas G. Weiss [Full Text]

Sep 11, 2009

What's Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It, Thomas G. Weiss (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 292 pp., $65 cloth, $20 paper.

Barbara Crossette (Reviewer)

A lot of people, expert and amateur, talk incessantly and vaguely about how the United Nations needs "reforming." Very few actually know how the system works, how profound its crisis is, and what fundamental change is needed. Among those who do know is Thomas G. Weiss. In his newest book, Weiss is not interested in tinkering with the UN—his proposals are bold and far-reaching. Drawing on his own experience within the UN system (he has held several UN positions) and studying it from outside, Weiss clears away a lot of the debris of superficial critiques to uncover the deeper explanations for why the more world problems become interconnected and global in scope the less the UN seems able to cope with them.

The UN, according to Weiss, is an organization hobbled by geopolitics and by its own warped management systems. Four big themes emerge at the start of this book—four culprits that Weiss describes as: the deeply entrenched, paramount principle of national sovereignty that has endured since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia; a meaningless and mostly unproductive global North-South divide; a "feudal" UN system of quasi-independent fiefdoms in a panoply of agencies; and a troubled international civil service beholden to many masters and conflicting interests.

Weiss, who is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, suggests four courses of treatment for what ails the organization. He calls for an overdue redefinition of member governments' national interests in tune with a global age; for new ways to overcome the kind of North-South hostility that undermines and paralyzes entities from the UN General Assembly or the Human Rights Council to the separate World Trade Organization; for more centralized administration of the range of now-atomized international responses in many areas; and for a concentrated shake-up of the UN's civil service. Unlike many others who know the UN, Weiss believes transforming the civil service is actually doable.

Weiss rightly bemoans the cop-out strategy of squabbling over details when nations cannot or will not act on an urgent matter. For years this has tangled up the creation of a high-level agency for the empowerment of women, critical to development in many countries. As for stalled Security Council reform, he offers this instructive nugget: "The debate about the Security Council presents a microcosm of a perpetual problem: the UN is so consumed with getting the process right that it neglects consequences" (p. 55).

In the United States, where the UN faces some of its harshest attacks, demands for reform are often linked to congressional oversight that would be unacceptable to the rest of the world—exactly the opposite of what Weiss proposes. U.S. leadership may be needed, but from inside the organization, not from Washington, and not through bullying but persuasion. For the Obama administration, which has taken some bold steps to reintegrate the United States into critical UN activities, including on arms control, human rights, the status of women, and family planning, an open commitment to global solutions and new ways of thinking about international issues would be the next moves. True, this would not be easy for American diplomacy, given the predictable domestic uproar and the fact that the United States and like-minded countries in the Western hemisphere, Europe, and Asia are now in a minority among member nations. More cohesive (and overlapping) bodies, such as the Group of 77 (now numbering more than 130 countries), the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference have become the agenda setters, and a more efficient organization is not often a high priority for these groups, as succeeding secretaries general have discovered.

Though Weiss's book goes well beyond proposing bureaucratic solutions to make the lumbering system work better, he does offer some hard-hitting critiques of avoidable management blunders that get in the way of more fundamental change. For example, he faults Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for some inexplicably bad high level appointments when he took office in 2007 and the setbacks that resulted. In fairness to the secretary-general, throughout the system, countries frequently do not put forward their best and brightest for UN jobs, and secretaries-general are under political pressure to accept nominees. However, the desire to live in New York, Geneva, or Paris should not be a qualification for high office. Developing nations hurt themselves and their reputations internationally when their leaders nominate incompetent cronies over the many truly qualified people they could select if talent and expertise were the criteria.

Running through this provocative book is the question (most relevant to the UN) of how to get from the burgeoning phenomenon of global governance to something more like cohesive, or at least better centralized, global government. Weiss makes several stabs at defining exactly what constitutes global governance, a phrase coined in the 1990s. "For me," he writes, "it refers to collective efforts to identify, understand, or address worldwide problems that go beyond the capacity of individual states to solve" (p. 221). Everybody gets in the act, not only the UN, which in fact gets sidelined when an issue is too divisive or too hot to handle. In recent years a wide range of nongovernmental organizations, professional groups, foundations, and the private corporate sector have involved themselves in global problem solving. Sometimes what results is an informal understanding of how to proceed; sometimes it is a formal agreement or treaty.

Weiss recognizes some notable achievements of the loose and occasionally ad hoc coalitions that join together governments, nongovernmental organizations, and intergovernmental bodies around causes. Such initiatives include the international convention against land mines, initially an NGO campaign; the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, a government-NGO collaboration; and the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, inspired by the work of Francis Deng of the Brookings Institution and Secretary- General Kofi Annan, and brought to fruition through an international commission and ultimately a summit of world governments. The Millennium Development Goals also came from within the UN, with the input of diplomats and outside experts from the global South and North. As such, Weiss writes, global governance becomes "the totality of institutions, policies, rules, practices, norms, procedures, and initiatives by which states and their citizens try to bring order and predictability to their responses to such universal problems as warfare, poverty, and environmental degradation" (p. 222).

But is global governance enough? One of its weaknesses, Weiss believes, is that its proponents see it as an end in itself and not a step toward global government, particularly global government with the UN at the center. An ad hoc approach may be fine when a sudden challenge arises, but, he says, "Recurrent problems require predictable and institutionalized responses" (p. 227). He calls for some serious analytical thinking about where international responses to global problems are going, and asks, "If solutions without passports are necessary, how soon will we revert to an old-fashioned concept, world government?" (p. 233).

It is not that Weiss sees global government—with critics on the left and right—coming in his lifetime. But even if a more centralized global administration based in the UN were possible, the organization is not up to the job, or even its newest global policy slogan, "Delivering as One." This policy, articulated by Kofi Annan and continued under his successor, Ban Ki-moon, was meant to coordinate overlapping, often duplicative, and always confusing or time-consuming efforts to serve countries where the UN works, and to become a model of operational efficiency at headquarters and in peripheral agencies. Weiss argues that donor nations will have to insist on more centralization "rather than permitting, to paraphrase Mao Tse-tung, 'a hundred flowers to bloom'" (p. 173). Moreover, the centralization campaign should apply across the full range of UN activities, from peacekeeping to global health to human rights. In addition, the Bretton Woods organizations—the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—need to be part of a more cohesive international regime.

Here, however, we come full circle back to the elephant in the room: national sovereignty. The jealously guarded rights of nations are as much an impediment to the consolidation of the organization's power as they are a cause of its weakness, as Sir Brian Urquhart notes in his introduction to this volume. He credits Weiss with "the courage—the temerity perhaps—to put the political aspect of UN reform front and center" (p. x). Weiss suggests that sovereignty is not necessarily immutable, and points to the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights as examples of how old notions of sovereignty can be modified through institutions that become better than the sum of their parts. It is a start.

—BARBARA CROSSETTE The reviewer is UN correspondent for The Nation and former UN Bureau Chief of The New York Times.

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