Debate--The United Nations: Still Relevant After All These Years?

Jun 12, 2006

Is the UN "I" for irrelevant, or "I" for indispensable, as Shashi Tharoor would have it? While conceding that the UN is relevant, Ruth Wedgwood argues that "competing multilaterals" should also play a role in solving the world's problems. This witty but deeply serious debate will give both sides of the argument food for thought.


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I’m Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I’d like to thank you all for joining us as we welcome this illustrious panel which will shortly be discussing the relevancy of the United Nations.

Critics and supporters of the United Nations have sometimes seemed worlds apart. As an organization that represents 191 nations, it is asked to accommodate the wishes of the most powerful countries while giving a voice and acknowledging the needs of smaller nations. As it struggles to maintain peace in a world where violence and warfare are, unfortunately, still the norm, we wonder whether it can continue to address the challenges of our world today.

To debate this issue, we have gathered together a “dream team” of panelists—a pundit, a pandit, and a professor—to discuss whether in this, the sixth decade of its founding, the United Nations is still relevant after all these years. Jim Traub, Shashi Tharoor, and Ruth Wedgwood are seated beside me, and they are eager to begin.

Please join me in giving these exceptionally knowledgeable and gifted speakers a very warm welcome. It is a pleasure to have you all here.


JAMES TRAUB: The format of this evening— or so I’ve been told—is that I kind of referee while the two of them engage in edifying battle for your benefit. Normally I try to instruct the people I’m doing this with to not blunt their differences in the interest of politesse, but I don’t fear that in this case. But I will count on you to make my job easier by sharpening your own differences.

Our subject tonight is UN reform, but I would like to begin by asking Shashi and Ruth a few questions that have to do with the U.S.-UN relationship, because, frankly, practically everything winds up turning on this question. We happen to have a fresh provocation on that subject just over the course of the last week, which I’m sure you have all been avidly following. Mark Malloch Brown, the deputy secretary-general, gave a quite strikingly sharp speech in which he criticized the United States, in terms that are very unusual for a sitting Secretariat official. John Bolton took this very personally and fired back. Then Mark Malloch Brown gave a series of responses, in which he more or less stood his ground. I gather, as of today’s Financial Times, which Ruth just showed me a little bit of, that the secretary-general has somewhat retracted. But the issues that were raised in the course of this spat are very relevant.

So I actually want to begin by asking Shashi if he shares what I understand to be the critique that Mark Malloch Brown was laying out in the course of this speech that he gave, which was essentially that the United States insists on taking maximalist positions when perfectly acceptable compromise positions are available, thus creating an incredibly negative dynamic in the institution, where others take maximalist positions.

He also said that Washington practices what he called a “stealth diplomacy,” in which it constantly uses the UN in all sorts of practical ways and has a very solid relationship on a hundred different subjects, but refuses to actually talk about it in public, so that the public comes away thinking that the UN just means the oil-for-food scandal and a few spectacular failures, and there is no sense of the actual day-to-day relationship between the United States and the UN. More broadly, that the United States in recent years has simply failed to consistently commit itself to the success of this institution in a way that is now endangering the institution.

Shashi, do you agree with that?

SHASHI THAROOR: I think I’ll let my friend and colleague Mark Malloch Brown speak for himself. He has done that, I think, very strongly and pertinently.

Perhaps one logical consequence of this recent debate is the perception on the part of many of us in the Secretariat that perhaps characterizing member-state actions is not the most effective way forward. So let me rephrase, if I might, your approach to all of this.

It’s not so much a question of how the United States conducts itself at the UN, which I think is something for Americans to analyze and sort out for themselves. It is, rather, the larger problem of how the UN is perceived in this country, by this administration and by the broad public.

It has always been striking to me that for years, even decades, the UN ran consistently at between 78 percent and 82 percent approval in public opinion polls in this country. The American public, by and large, liked the idea of the UN, and liked what they knew about the UN. But the fact was, they didn’t know very much. It was a kind of support that was a mile wide and an inch deep. The moment specific sorts of bad news arose, I think it’s fair to say that people didn’t retain their affection for the organization. You all like motherhood and apple pie, and then if you take a bite of the apple pie and don’t like the apple, I guess you end up wanting to spit it out. We have been spat out a few times in recent years. That has been part of the challenge that we have been suffering from.

There, I would turn to the gatekeepers of public opinion as well. I turn to political leaders. I think practically no congressman or senator actually feels that the UN is one of the top half-dozen or top dozen issues on the minds of their constituents, their voters, when they go to their home districts. So it becomes an issue where it really isn’t of much political salience to them.

The media, quite frankly, as a general proposition, doesn’t really spend a whole lot of time portraying the UN. I say this quite honestly and with some chagrin, as somebody whose job it is to try to get the message of the UN out around the world. I don’t find it easy, myself, to appear on mainstream American television or to promote those of my colleagues who have a story to tell in these programs. Yes, we can get on PBS. We can get on CNN International, but much less frequently on CNN Domestic.

So if the American public as a whole is blissfully unaware of what the UN does that is in America’s interest, it’s partially because their political leaders and their media gatekeepers by and large haven’t found this a story worth finding space for.

JAMES TRAUB: So, Ruth, Shashi has found an artful way of not directly answering the question about the validity of Mark’s claims. I should add, by the way, that in his speech Mark made it clear that he was not speaking only of the Bush administration. He was saying this is a longstanding problem with the relations between Washington and the institution.

Leaving aside the tactical value, or lack thereof, of his having said this, do you feel there was any merit in the criticisms that he made?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: Let me first misuse your question again—since it is your fate as moderator to be misused—just to note that in today’s Financial Times, there is a piece that is signed by Kofi Annan. Who might have been part of the wordsmith team, I don’t know. I do think there is a retrenchment from the high rhetoric of Mark Malloch Brown. In the third column, it says, “Both sides in the argument over the UN need to turn down their rhetoric and engage in serious negotiations to work out a sensible compromise as a basis for fundamental change later.”

I do think that, much as I like Mark Malloch Brown—he is a very smart guy. We spent some time together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a Harvard conference. He does give a dandy barn-burner speech, with no notes.—But this time I wish he hadn’t used his notes and let his own sense of the occasion reign, because I do think, as Shashi has intimated, that attacking countries by name, attacking people by designation, is not a becoming etiquette and doesn’t do anything to try to mend fences.

Some people speculate that he was trying to earn kudos with the G77 (Group of 77 developing nations) by showing he had a barb for the Americans, and therefore would aid the ultimate reform process. That’s too Machiavellian for me.

I just think that a certain kind of courtesy, which is wanting in Washington often nowadays, is almost prerequisite to hearing the substance of other people’s arguments, on whether these are new problems or not new problems, obviously. The problem of getting political consensus on a crisis is as old as the beginning of the charter in 1947, when the Israeli-Palestinian partition plan was put forward by the General Assembly. It was never adopted by the Security Council in a Chapter 7 resolution, and the Israelis were allowed to fight off the Arab armies by themselves, with no UN backing whatsoever.

Or the problem of the withdrawal of peacekeepers in 1973 from Sharm el-Sheikh. And when I teach the Congo crisis nowadays, even though we all worshipped Dag Hammarskjold, the actual purpose of the intervention is quite murky and evolves as it goes on.

So the sense that there is a kind of political confusion is not new. The worry about the efficacy of the machinery is not new.

JAMES TRAUB: But, Ruth, let me stop you for a second. I do want to push on this. I have to say that as I have learned more about the UN, I have been surprised at how dense is the weave of relations that binds Washington, how indispensable the one is to the other. I do want to push on this question. That is, do you think it’s right that there is a widespread perception in this country that the UN is this kind of feckless organization which mostly gets itself into trouble and does relatively little to advance American interests? And if that’s so, is that unfair? Does that, in part, rest with the unwillingness of policymakers to actually speak truthfully about this nuanced, if incredibly vexed, relationship?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: If it’s feckless—if you Google the phrase “Security Council,” in The New York Times or even in the Omaha paper, you discover “Security Council” pops up at least once or twice or three times a day, as you use the Council for various crises, whether it’s Darfur or Iran or the wonderful work that’s being done on the Harari investigation and to try to free Lebanon from Syria’s dominance.

So it may well be that the readers are less interested in the instrument. If you ask the question, “Does the normal reader of an American newspaper care about the Senate Appropriations Committee?” no. They care about the issues that the Senate Appropriations Committee is addressing, whatever instrument is effective.

Also there is the phenomenon in the American media that they love car crashes and train wrecks. So, of course, when there’s a scandal, they love it. That’s what fills the news hole. But on good news, it is likelier to be the debate over the merits of the solution than the instrument itself.

SHASHI THAROOR: That’s an excellent point, if I may chip in right there, because I think Ruth has put her finger on it. People don’t care about the Senate Appropriations Committee; they care about the expenditures that the Appropriations Committee is authorizing and so on. But that’s precisely because in the United States you take the Senate for granted. No one is threatening the existence or the funding of the Senate. No one is essentially concerned about the future of the institution. It’s embedded in the Constitution. It’s taken for granted.

The problem in the United States is that the UN is still up for debate. There are still people who challenge the very utility of the institution that is delivering all these goods.

One of the striking things about why the UN was created in the first place is that we had a horrendous first half of the 20th century. I think if you look back at those forty-five years where you had two world wars, countless civil wars, mass expulsions of populations, genocide, the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima—my gosh, if the century had gone on like that, we wouldn’t have survived to the 21st.

The farsighted statesmen and stateswomen of the world at the end of the Second World War said, “We need to do something to prevent the second half of the 20th century from looking like the first half.” So they set up a system—we call it global governance today—a system of interlocking institutions, rules of the road by which the world could live, and they put the UN as the sort of keystone of this new arch that they had built, this architecture of global governance.

At the heart of it, therefore, lay the idea that in order to keep the peace, in order to help human beings to progress and so on, you needed a mechanism, as well as a system of rules that would actually be to the benefit of all. President Truman, when the charter was adopted, said it’s not about any one country trying to seek advantage; it has to be the interests of all.

FDR, in fact, in his address to the joint houses of Congress before San Francisco, obviously, since he passed away that spring, said that the UN would be the alternative to all the military alliances, the balance-of-power politics, the disastrous arrangements that had led to war so often in the past.

So you actually lose sight of the fact that the UN exists because of a very real reason. Once it came into existence, it was given a number of tasks, which it has fulfilled.

One of the things that Americans surely haven’t allowed themselves to forget is the indispensable role the UN played during the Cold War. It was a vital factor in ensuring the Cold War didn’t turn hot. Why? Because it provided a roof under which the two superpower adversaries could meet and engage, instead of coming to blows. It was actually a place where they could talk and work together. Through the amazing invention of peacekeeping—a concept not even found in the charter—you had a mechanism to prevent local and regional conflicts around the world from igniting a superpower clash and a third world war.

So the UN did all of that. Now we have gone past the Cold War phase. We have an opportunity to make much more of a difference. This globalizing world is full of so many of what we like to call these “problems without passports,” problems that cross our frontiers uninvited, everything from terrorism, climate change, human rights, drug trafficking—you can pick your issue—problems that no one country or even one group of countries, no one coalition, can be rich enough or strong enough or powerful enough to solve on their own. These are, by definition, problems you need the whole world to come around on.

Therefore, it’s unthinkable that it wouldn’t be of use to the United States to have a United Nations to deal with all these problems. And day in and day out, the UN does.

It has often struck me that when we had all this focus on the disputes in the UN about Iraq, back in 2003—those eight to ten weeks leading up to the war when the UN seemed so bitterly divided—no one noticed that in that same eight to ten weeks, the same fifteen ambassadors, the same Security Council, met and agreed on a dozen different issues unanimously —on Liberia, on Congo, on Afghanistan, on Cote d’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast, and so on, things that were life-and-death issues for people in those countries. We just focused on the divisions of Iraq.

I think it’s important to remember that the UN is indispensable for all this.

JAMES TRAUB: Let’s focus on a piece of what’s all there, especially the last point that Shashi made. That is, at the same time as these spectacular failures, the UN transacts a great deal of very important business with the United States that shows a kind of surprising degree of efficacy. Is that fair, or do you think that’s overdrawn?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: First, I want to amuse Shashi and the audience by telling them a vignette about UN history which I don’t think anybody else remembers. I ran into an old cold warrior in Washington last week, and he recounted for me that at San Francisco in 1945, in the American delegation were two young Navy lieutenants. One was named Richard Nixon and the other was named Cord Meyer, who was later with the CIA.

JAMES TRAUB: John Kennedy was there as well, right?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: So it was quite a smorgasbord of people.

I also note for my students, however, that the end of the world war in the Pacific, through the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, came two months after the meeting in June of 1945. So the signing of the charter was not the birth of a halcyon world of lamb and lion supping at the same table.

Clearly, you have to have a place to talk to folks. Where my naughty op-ed comes in—on "competitive multilateralism"—is that you no longer have to meet at the clock in the middle of Grand Central Station when you haven’t otherwise gotten instructions, because you can now reach each other on cell phones. So there are no SOP (standard operating procedure) ways of doing things anymore, and you don’t necessarily have to have a single venue in which you meet and talk. OSCE (the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) has done terrific work in human rights by hoodwinking the Russians into thinking it was just about security. Guess what? It was also about other baskets.

I was quite surprised to discover, when I began to spend nine weeks a year on the UN Human Rights Committee, that most of the European states think they have exempted from themselves from the petition jurisdiction of the committee by saying that if the European Court of Human Rights has dealt with the issue, ça suffit.

JAMES TRAUB: I want to get out of the long weeds of some of these. Let’s go back to something else, which is the whole question of Iraq and what meaning we should ascribe to that. This whole reform process began in the fall of 2003—that is to say, four, five, six months after this catastrophic failure to reach an agreement on a resolution to go to war in Iraq. Kofi Annan said, “We have reached a fork in the road.” That is, the UN is either going to advance and progress and become a relevant institution in this new world or slide back. He was talking about Iraq, above all, when he said that.

First, I’m curious. What meaning do you ascribe to that failure to reach agreement over Iraq?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: The great puzzle is actually why Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman supposed that a wartime alliance would endure. And it didn’t. It was quite predictable.

One more shaggy dog story. There is an interesting diplomatic historian at Tulsa who says that FDR and Truman knew exactly what would happen. They simply thought that the moniker of the United Nations and the Council would be sufficient to counter an otherwise quite traditional American isolationism; that, in fact, the pretense of consensus would be the mechanism you would use to keep America engaged abroad at all.

JAMES TRAUB: Well, if you do a good thing for a bad reason, that’s fine.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: But, clearly, anybody who sits around the building can’t ignore the fact that countries vote their national interests, that the organization works on regional groups, that, in fact, there is a tremendous pressure on members of regional groups to maintain the discipline of their caucus. It’s quite painful for them to break away from the G77, qua G132, because that’s who they have to go to for all of their issues.

Therefore, this picture of this perfect—if people knew universities, they would never use this metaphor—this perfect, wonderful academic discourse of what is really Kantian or Habermasian—it doesn’t obtain. The politics of energy says that if you have a deal with Sudan or a deal with Iran for billions of dollars of energy, you are less likely to vote in favor of intervention.

So the real problem has been oftentimes, how do you, in fact, craft a consensus? Can you afford to wait that length of time? If you can’t get consensus on the ultimate action resolution, is there sufficient consensus before and aft, as you had in Kosovo and Iraq, where the UN diagnosed the problem beforehand and came in afterwards, to give legitimacy and a kind of emerging legality to the use of force?

But I don’t think you can ever survive in the institution without a kind of Machiavellian political virtue. If you go in naively and think that invoking world federalism or universalism is going to get you what you need—

JAMES TRAUB: But, Ruth, obviously, this was a unique level of catastrophe, this train wreck of the failed resolution on Iraq. Is your point that it’s naïve to expect that a thing that is as divisive as that actually could be resolved by the mechanism of the Security Council, and therefore such disagreements are inevitable and rooted in the institution?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: No. I think UNSCOM, the UN weapons monitoring commission headed by Rolf Ekeus, worked quite well up through 1995. Then Saddam began to detect the splits politically in the Council, with the Russians and the French, and he exploited them, craftily and subtly. From 1995 onward, it was very hard sailing.

Would the dramaturgy of an intervention have been better if it had occurred in 1998 rather than in 2003? You betcha. But it didn’t.

I do think that one can make a multilateral argument for the intervention, in the sense that the force of the mandate of the Council was being quite openly disregarded by Saddam, and the credibility of future mandates might, in part, depend upon that. Prudence and legality are different issues. But I don’t think one should see it as a unilateral act, because the Council, beforehand, had said over and over and over again that Saddam was in flagrant breach of Resolution 687.

JAMES TRAUB: Shashi, certainly the view inside the institution, which I know the secretary-general shared—and many people shared—was that Washington had put the institution in an impossible position and essentially pushed it beyond the limits whereby it could function, and did provoke a structural crisis—thus, the sense of a fork in the road.

Do you share that view? Or are you going to allow yourself to say whether or not you share that view?

SHASHI THAROOR: I’ll tell you what did happen. In fact, in the summer of 2003, just after the war, the Pew organization, a respected organization, conducted a poll in twenty countries around the world about the UN. They discovered the UN’s image had gone down in all twenty. It had gone down in the United States because the UN had not supported the U.S. administration on the war. It went down in the nineteen other countries because the UN had been unable to prevent the war.

So, you see, we got hit from both sides of the debate. We disappointed both sets of expectations. Do you want to describe that as an impossible position for the institution to be in? Sure, it was pretty impossible.

But then, as Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. And we took it.

JAMES TRAUB: That was another diplomatic dodge there. Should I infer that these are directions I just shouldn’t push you in too far, because it would be foolish for you to hazard an opinion?

SHASHI THAROOR: The topic that you advertised here is: Is the United Nations still relevant after all these years? I think so. I remember, in 2003, giving a dozen interviews a day—

RUTH WEDGWOOD: It sounds like a Cole Porter song. (Laughter)

SHASHI THAROOR: You can sing it, Ruth, I’m sure.

I remember a BBC interviewer at one point said, “So how does the UN feel about being the ‘I’ word, irrelevant?” He was about to go on when I interrupted him and said, “Oh, I think the ‘I’ word for us is actually ‘indispensable.’”

I wasn’t just trying to score a debating point, because, in fact, I think it’s clear that, as on many occasions, the UN is often irrelevant to a decision about a war. In fact, the UN has really only been involved in about two-and-a-half decisions to authorize war in its entire sixty-one years of existence. But it’s extremely relevant to the ensuing peace and to all sorts of other disastrous and important situations around the world, other than war. Right now, for example, we have had our hands full with disaster after disaster in Asia. We have had to deal with the tsunami and its aftermath, the earthquake in Kashmir, most recently the Indonesia earthquake and then the violent volcano eruption.

These are the sorts of things for which, competitive multilateralism or no, Ruth, there is simply no competition for the UN.

There is, again, one very sound reason where the universality of the UN becomes so relevant here. No one government likes to be second-fiddle to any other. Lots of governments are giving aid and assistance, but no one wants to do it under the umbrella of another government. But if the UN goes in there and the blue flag is flying, it means the whole world is taking charge. It means that humanity is responsible, not one government. In that process, the universality of the United Nations gives you a mechanism to actually deliver effective results.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: There’s a reason why the founding fathers in Philadelphia rejected the idea of a collective executive. They thought that it would be very hard to actually take a decision if you had to get a huge number of people to do it —so it depends, in part, whether you think inactivity is a better state of existence than activity—

SHASHI THAROOR: I don’t think there’s been much inactivity in all these humanitarian disasters.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: There are occasions when one has to move forward.

I will concede the relevance of the UN, and stipulate it—relevance. Monopoly? No, because, indeed, the very premise of the collective security system broke down in the first years, and the UN can’t demand, can’t legally require—at least it chooses not to legally require—that any country, in fact, donate troops.

SHASHI THAROOR: This is a straw man. No one is claiming monopoly. The UN has never said it’s the only answer to the world’s problems.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: Well, you’re one-stop-shopping.

SHASHI THAROOR: It has said it’s the only answer to those problems that affect the whole world, which is different. You do have regional situations in which, of course, there are regional actors. My gosh, the Security Council was only too glad to let ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) initially handle Liberia and Sierra Leone, until the UN had to step in.

JAMES TRAUB: Let me move this in a slightly different direction. Ruth, you made the point that the premise broke down in the initial years—that is to say, that these five powers could collectively police the world, because they had a collective interest in world order.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: This was supposed to be a worldwide NATO.

JAMES TRAUB: A worldwide NATO, that’s right. They were created more or less at the same time.

SHASHI THAROOR: No, no. It was created earlier than NATO. The UN was the original treaty organization. It was when the Cold War started that NATO was—

JAMES TRAUB: Yes. I meant approximately. But let me try to move forward here.

So then, clearly, that proves to be false, because the Cold War line went straight down the middle of the Security Council. The Cold War ends. Then there’s the hope that now, finally, the dream of 1945 can be realized.

Is what we’re seeing now, in part, an actual re-creation of the Cold War division of the Security Council, where, in most cases, you have Russia and China on one side, on a whole range of issues, and the U.S., the U.K., and France on the other side, such that you have a kind of new version of that old paralysis?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: It’s sort of a fractal cold war, with lots of different factions. Where the French will be, you have to predict, and the Germans, obviously, if they become permanent members of the Council, might be quite at odds with us on the need to intervene in various situations.

If I may, one of the unspoken themes in Security Council expansion, which nobody really dares openly address, is that if you expand the Council with a great many countries that don’t feel themselves to be the intervener but the “intervenee,” you may actually make it harder for the Council to do the very kind of anti-genocidal, anti-civil conflict intervention that is really its bread and butter nowadays. Countries will vote their world view, along with their national interests. Countries just have, often, different views.

The other thing I worry about in the relevance-versus-monopoly debate is just the moral hazard problem. If you tout the UN in a naïve fashion, to build up its prestige with the American people or whatever, my worry is that it creates the belief that the UN will, in fact, be there to act effectively in every crisis. There are problems which, often unpredictably, it can’t do because of political fracture. So you can get a kind of moral hazard where some leader, like Izetbegovic, supposes that the West will intervene to kick the Serb army out. And guess what? It didn’t happen. You can actually encourage reckless behavior by national leaders if they take for granted this premise of the automatic, frictionless, perpetual-motion UN machine.

So it’s a very dangerous trope—

SHASHI THAROOR: Another straw man. No one is suggesting that that’s the case.

I have just been through this very interesting exchange in The New York Times letters pages not too long ago. After a rather idealistic column deploring the UN’s failure to solve Darfur, I wrote in saying that the things that the world was prepared to do about Darfur were:

  • First, humanitarian aid, sending in humanitarian workers, both in Darfur and across the border in Chad.
  • Second, trying to do the very best we could at “boots on the ground”—in this case, African Union boots on the ground, because that’s all the government was prepared to accept. Where these African Union soldiers were deployed, their presence did make a difference. But there are 7,000 of them in a country the size of Texas.
  • Third, of course, was pressure on all sides to come to a peace agreement in Abuja to end the conflict, so that then a peace could be kept. Then, of course, a UN peacekeeping force could go in.

I said, “This is really what we were trying to do, and now the pressure must be on the government of Sudan to accept a robust UN peacekeeping force and let an assessment team go in so we can plan for such a force.”

There was a very nice but anguished letter from a rabbi the next day or two days later, saying, “But if the UN isn’t able to impose itself on Darfur, then the UN has failed”—

JAMES TRAUB: But, Shashi, I don’t think it’s only this anguished rabbi who might feel that way.

SHASHI THAROOR: But that’s exactly the point I’m making in response to Ruth’s about expectations.

JAMES TRAUB: Let me ask it in this way. Let me ask Ruth this question. Two things:

One, should we say that the Security Council’s behavior in regard to Darfur—should we call that a failure? It seems to me that Shashi is saying, in part, it’s only by the standard of unreasonable expectations—

SHASHI THAROOR: No, no. Wait a minute. The point I’m trying to say is, if the UN didn’t exist tomorrow—

JAMES TRAUB: That was part two of my question to Ruth.

SHASHI THAROOR:—is there any country on earth that is actually prepared to go to war to impose a peace on Darfur?

JAMES TRAUB: You may answer both or either of those questions.

SHASHI THAROOR: There isn’t. We have to make do with the best we can.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: Rhetoric actually matters, and when you talk about the world or mankind or humanity, it sounds so much more efficacious than when you talk about a collection of member states that have very different agendas. Actually—since I’ve known Shashi for a good long time—whenever something goes bad, it’s, “Don’t forget, we’re only a collection of member states.” When something goes well, it’s mankind speaking. (Laughter)

You have to watch him, because he has a rhetorical fork in his road—much as I love him.

SHASHI THAROOR: And you have a fork in your tongue, my dear. (Laughter)

JAMES TRAUB: I told you this wouldn’t require any encouragement from me.


RUTH WEDGWOOD: The great tragedy is that there is, if you will, a surprisingly modest limitation on usable democratic military power in the world. One of the great tragedies of Europe’s demilitarization, though they don't expect to go to war amongst themselves—is that they can’t project power. They have a very limited ability to deploy ready-reaction forces. We are still waiting for the 50,000 corps that the European Union is supposed to have. They have all had bad peacekeeping experiences.

One of my non-Holbrookean reasons for expanding NATO was that every Western European country has already had a bad experience in peacekeeping, whether it’s Srebenica or the Belgians in Rwanda, and I wanted some sort of—

JAMES TRAUB: Give them a chance to have bad experiences in NATO as well.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: Yes—once more for the Gipper.

JAMES TRAUB: So back to Darfur, let’s say that—

RUTH WEDGWOOD: The problem there is the absence of countries willing to put themselves in the middle of a very difficult conflict, where the Janjaweed are just utterly bloody-minded and morally feckless and indiscriminate.

SHASHI THAROOR: So it’s not the UN’s fault. It’s that no country will do it.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: And on the other side, some of the rebel groups won’t at the moment compromise. So it’s a very difficult peacekeeping situation. Very few countries are willing to risk the actual deaths—

JAMES TRAUB: So there is no different architecture, there is no reform that would make the UN a more effective instrument when it comes to these kinds of atrocities?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: The UN has to go around with its begging bowl, just as everybody else does, to try to put together a coalition force. One should not have any over-expectation of the willingness of democracies to put their troops at hazard, particularly in areas where the kind of war you are fighting is so difficult to game.

JAMES TRAUB: Now that we’ve sort of begun to verge on the reform—are we running out of time here, Joanne?

JOANNE MYERS: About five more minutes. We want to open it up.

JAMES TRAUB: Okay. Let’s talk about some of these reforms. The Human Rights Council has now come into existence. The United States chose not to join it because it felt that this is not what we had in mind.

Ruth, do you think that was the right decision? Could there have been a much more effective human rights council that, alas, did not come into being?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: My fear, which I hope will not be realized, is that the same folks that brought you the Human Rights Commission are going to bring you the Human Rights Council. The pressures on countries to conform in their voting behavior are still there.

If there is one thing I would change at the UN—and I don’t know how to do it. If Shashi becomes secretary-general, he can change it by decree. The inner discipline of the regional groups is so great that concessions you can get in capital-to-capital, bilateral conversations fall by the wayside when—and pick your group, any group. I will, for the sake of argument, say the G77, which is the G132, which is the two-thirds of the GA (General Assembly), which is the voting majority you need for any important decision. If they take a position, it’s a very brave member that would fall away.

To that degree, I worry about the capacity to really have conversations on the merits about what you need. Now, the Human Rights Council—we all know all the arguments on both sides. One hopes it will not have the singular permanent agenda item on Israel. One hopes that Israel will finally get into WEOG (Western European and Others Group), which, I think, Jan Eliasson had hoped to—

JAMES TRAUB: To explain, that’s the European group of members. Be careful with the shorthand. We have some lay people here.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: But you “can’t do nothing” if you’re not a member of a regional group. The Western European and Others Group, which is also the commonwealth group—Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Americans, and Turks are allowed in, but not Israel. Israel has no capacity to function in the Human Rights Council. Jan Eliasson, the president of the GA, had hoped to change that as part of his negotiation. He didn’t succeed.

So I’ll wait and see. I have an optimistic hope that it will be as bad as people suppose. But the same pressures that brought you the original commission, over time, I fear, may degrade the council.

JAMES TRAUB: Shashi, you could argue that here’s an institution whose Security Council can’t find a way of even putting Zimbabwe on its agenda, to even talk about it. Why would you expect that this same institution is going to create a different organ, the Human Rights Council, in which they will act effectively or speak effectively?

SHASHI THAROOR: They actually have done so. One of the fundamental reasons why I disagree with Ruth’s point about it being just like the commission is that, in the commission, which had become an over-politicized body, you had a lot of bizarre merchant business going on where countries got themselves elected to the commission to prevent scrutiny of their human-rights records. They would indeed say, “I’ll vote to prevent your human rights being examined if you vote to prevent my human rights being examined”—

JAMES TRAUB: So why can’t they do that now?

SHASHI THAROOR: They can’t do that now because the founding document and the resolution creating the council explicitly mandates a universal peer review. Every country on the council, the day they are elected, guarantees that their human-rights records will be examined.

JAMES TRAUB: Assuming that the peer review is so scathing that Cuba is going to be forced to leave the Human Rights Council?

SHASHI THAROOR: We’ll see how honestly they conduct it. Obviously, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. But we actually have a recipe that can work.

JAMES TRAUB: The huge obstacle that the institution is facing now, which could be leading to quite a train wreck, is this question of management reform. The White House has said that if the UN can’t prove that it can run itself effectively, then we are going to use the budget as a lever to force it to do so.

I guess the question is—and I believe, Ruth, you may have written this in a piece you wrote in The National Interest

RUTH WEDGWOOD: That was my very naughty piece.

JAMES TRAUB: Is this an insoluble problem, because most of the members actually are perfectly happy to have an ineffective UN, because an effective UN isn’t so important to them and other things are important to them?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: I think Kofi Annan has rightly said to the membership at large, “It’s crazy. The stuff we’re doing is largely to help you guys.” Here I’m going to sound like Shashi Tharoor. Most of what the UN does, apart from security crises, are things that are aimed at helping the less developed countries. Not wasting money, having procurement that actually purchases goods at a market price, not having sinecures where people sleep—I have a lot of students at Johns Hopkins who want to join the UN and I take these kids around. I think the best way for them to see it is the field operations.

I won’t quote the former official from the personnel department. When I asked, “Why is there such an early retirement age at the UN?” the person said, “How else would we get rid of them?”

This person’s point was that the way that people are recruited into the main Secretariat is so random. I tell my kids they have to watch the UN Web site—you can’t even put a Google alert—you have to watch the UN Web site to hope that your country comes up in your specialty as underrepresented before you turn thirty-two. So if Albert Einstein applies in physics but they have too many Germans or Americans at that point, too bad.

You want people mid-career who can come in and come out. You want the secretary-general—here I’m right onboard—to be able to redeploy people to urgent missions, to be able to reprogram money. To have to be micromanaged at this level of detail I take as proof, somehow, that some members don’t just worry that the SG (secretary-general) will be subject to superpower domination; they don’t trust the SG himself. And that’s a terrible testament to, I think, a kind of distrust of a different kind within the organization.

JAMES TRAUB: Shashi, what do you think about that?

SHASHI THAROOR: I think we can rise above this. I do believe this is a problem on the way to a solution.

But I want you to look back a little bit. I actually, on the 1st of May, celebrated the twenty-eighth anniversary of my having joined the United Nations system. I began with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

If on the day I joined I had said to my seniors that I was joining an organization that I expected would one day run elections in sovereign states; that would one day send intrusive inspectors to conduct inspections for weapons of mass destruction; that would one day impose sanctions on the entire import-export trade of a medium-sized member state; that would one day send human-rights monitors to see how a monarch was treating his own people; that would one day set up an international criminal tribunal to try former heads of state for crimes against their own people, but under international law; that would one day run entire territories, and so on and so forth—my seniors would have looked at me and said, “Young man, what are you smoking?” The fact is, they would not have said to me that I understood the UN that I was trying to join.

Yet, in the career span of this one official, the UN has done all these things and more. I believe the transformation has come because the UN has proved itself to be an organization that is capable of adapting, with sufficient flexibility, to the changes—

RUTH WEDGWOOD: But that’s dodging the question, because those are issues of intrusion. Clearly, legally, the charter has evolved, in a much greater sense, that it can look at human rights, which is some of its best work, that it can look at democratic governance. We’re quite far from the moment of the agenda for democracy, when I used to get calls from the thirty-eighth floor—

SHASHI THAROOR: We set up a democracy fund, just in September.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: The thirty-eighth floor was doubting whether democracy was a universal norm.

Let me give you an example from my Human Rights Committee. I call it my pajama party. I spend nine weeks a year doing it, unpaid, living on my little stipend in Geneva or New York. I think it does good work, because it engages with countries around the world that otherwise would fall beneath the bilateral political radar. Suriname—who would care, in strategic politics? But you do get some conversation. If we put it on the radio, it will have a huge effect on civic society, or on the Web.

But also, in terms of efficiency, just think about small factoids that aren’t shared with the public. Our work costs $10,000 an hour to convene, with note takers, translators. If we take a fifteen-minute coffee break, that’s $2,500 that could have gone for an HIV/AIDS retroviral vaccine.

Our pages cost $1,600 to produce. So if we do a thirty-seven-page opinion when an Austrian zoning lawyer writes to the UN Human Rights Committee demanding his claim under the general right of equality, Article 26, we have wasted $50,000 that could have gone to a better use.

So some sense of money versus product is essential.

JAMES TRAUB: Let me stop, because I think we want to turn it over to the audience.

Just one last thing. We have had this reform process now. It obviously has some way to go. Briefly, I would like each of you to say whether we should feel, as a result of all this, that, yes, this institution is capable of adaptation and things are moving in a positive direction, or, no, the real meaning is the limits of what it can do and things are not moving in a positive direction.

Just a couple of sentences from each of you on that, and then we’ll turn it over to the audience.

SHASHI THAROOR: To some degree, I’ve answered that question, so I won’t take away more time from the audience. But let me add that fifty years ago, when the UN was being criticized, Dag Hammarskjold put it perfectly when he said the UN was not created to take mankind to paradise, but to save humanity from hell. Sometimes we can prevent—

RUTH WEDGWOOD: In a cost-efficient way.

SHASHI THAROOR: That rider, I think, entirely escaped him.

But the point, I think, that’s important to note is that the United Nations has adapted, can adapt, must adapt. But at the same time, it remains this one indispensable global institution in this globalized world of ours. It’s the one place where we can get every country together, not, frankly, to give up any of their sovereignty—they won’t—but to leverage their sovereignty collectively for the common goals, the common purposes that all countries agree upon.

JAMES TRAUB: Ruth, a couple of sentences on your part.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: First, Shashi said “can,” “must.” You didn’t say “will.” So this was a cautious statement.

If I were SG (unlikely as that would be), what I would do differently, I think, is to say the oversight of national parliaments—this very active conversation, which has been wished for from the days of the moderate reservationists, the mild reservationists on the League, and now Democrat and Republican alike in Congress—this can actually help me. This is Lyndon Johnson’s desire for a street demonstration to help him pass legislation.

What the UN doesn’t get—there used to be a slogan, “No one’s married in Bosnia.” I won’t go into fully unraveling that. But the temptations of hyperspace, of being international, of representing the world and humanity and the future of mankind, do lead to a sense of immunity. The normal transparency you expect in government—an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) premise that everything will become public eventually, allowing national parliaments to see how their money is used, having disclosure forms and conflict-of-interest that are available to the public, on the Web, as opposed to only member missions—would all be to the good.

Then, if you want to engage the public, treat them like adults. In a democracy, voters expect to have a great deal of information about what their delegates and agents do, not just what you put out in a public information campaign, but to be able to scrutinize and critique. It’s why someone invented the GAO (US Government Accountability Office)and the Congressional Budget Office and IGs (Inspectors General) in every department of the U.S. government. It’s a lesson that I think the UN still hasn’t taken. They seem to suppose too often that transparency is the enemy, that this has to be controlled—“what will the children think?”

JOANNE MYERS: I’d like to thank you, Jim, Ruth, and Shashi. I think we’ve all benefited from your banter and discussion.

Now I’d like to open up the floor to discussion.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you all very much.

First of all, just a quick point. One of the themes in a number of the writings on the UN is to distinguish between the UN as a forum and the UN as an actor. I do think that a lot of the criticism of the UN is when it’s only a forum. In other words, the Security Council not being able to agree on Iraq had to do with member states. I think much of it falls on the member states, the shortcomings—including the United States, which is not prepared to send any troops anywhere in Africa, just to take the Darfur example. So I don’t think it can just all be laid on the UN Secretariat or the secretary-general.

But I did want to come back to the very first point you made about it being the media and the politicians in the United States who were not doing enough to promote an understanding of the UN. I was at the U.S. Mission in the Carter years. I always felt that was something very hermetic about the UN system. There was what I used to call “a glass wall down First Avenue.” People were generally satisfied with themselves inside the Secretariat, and there was very little outreach to the Congress. There was this kind of once-a-year meeting between the president and the secretary-general, and that seemed to do it.

I wonder, since you have been there twenty-eight years, whether you do feel that, not only yourself personally, but the senior membership does have enough of an outreach or whether it could do much more than it is doing. I do think Fox News and all these people put out a terrible impression, a misinformed impression. But I do think there’s much more the Secretariat could perhaps do, above and beyond this particular speech that Mark Malloch Brown made the other day.

I wondered if you wanted to comment on that.

SHASHI THAROOR: First, you mentioned Congress. Yes, we do much more with Congress than we ever used to. Nowadays, not only do we have frequent visits from New York down to Congress, to talk to Congress people and their staffers, but whenever we have people coming in from the field, such as the head of the UNRRA (UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) who was here recently or one of the peacekeeping operations, we do send them out to Washington too. Because, of course, the United States is the biggest paymaster, and these folks in Congress are the ones who need to understand what the missions are accomplishing or not. They need to ask the questions, get satisfactory answers, so they can vote the necessary funds. That has become a key part of our work relationship with the U.S. administration—not just the administration; Congress as well.

On the larger public—I would say that we are always available and all too willing to go on every available medium to speak to the American public. Just last week, we had a whole bunch of talk-show radio hosts up at the UN doing live dispatches from there. We will accept any invitation to put ourselves on, to get word out.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we will always have a chance to say what we want to say or that we won’t be out-shouted by other voices. But that’s part of the risk we would be prepared to take.

But as a general proposition, we do find it much easier to be heard or to get a hearing elsewhere in the world than in the United States, and we would certainly love to see that change, which is not a criticism of the American people. Whenever I meet people and talk to them, there’s a lot of interest and a lot of sympathy. But it’s more a question of media judgment, as well, as to what the gatekeepers think will be of interest to their publics.

A final thought about whether we can do an effective job putting this message across. There’s an old Indian proverb that says, “You can’t wake a man who is pretending to sleep.” Think about that for a minute. If some people don’t want to hear you, they will not hear you.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: If I could just sashay onto this question, I do think there still is—Shashi is too sophisticated for this—some inner belief inside the building that you can control information, that what is wanted is delivery of information, instead of a very porous blogosphere, an omnivorous desire for actual statistics and facts.

The pay scale at the UN is classified. What does an ASG or a USG or a P5 or P3 make? How many women are there in P5s? All of this is an inner culture, where you have to have a building pass and take people to lunch—

SHASHI THAROOR: We’re quite willing to make that public, Ruth, any time. I mean it.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: Seriously, the premise that everything should be public, unless there’s a really good reason not to—there ought to be an FOIA, which, after twenty-five years or forty years, with omissions for personalities, and sensitive confidential assurances given, allows even the inner diplomacy of the UN to be available, just as every democracy ought to make its own diplomatic history available. There’s a premise that “this is our business; you should trust us.”

QUESTION: The last time I was here about the UN, someone asked, “What about better PR?” I just thought at the time to myself that one form of PR would be if a statesman-like addressing of all the issues that were brought up today, the complexity of it, were in a paper like The Times, where people could hear, not one side, but what was addressed today here at the Carnegie Council. That might be one way to add to helping the process. I just wanted to throw that out.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you.

SHASHI THAROOR: You would have to press it with the editors of The Times. We’d certainly be game to play along with that.

QUESTION: In the interest of full disclosure, I work for UNDP (UN Development Program) as an outreach and communications adviser. I’m on the other side of the street.

My question doesn’t go to defending the existence of the UN, but to ask the question: What would happen in this borderless world of ours, where borders have become so porous and things like drugs, human trafficking, bird flu, and environmental disasters don’t recognize nation-state boundaries in the way they did fifty years ago, when the UN was formed?

Since the UN was formed, so many more countries have come to independence. Is it a problem of just an outdated organization that needs modernization and updating? Or, if we are to get rid of the UN, who’s going to deal with all these cross-boundary problems that we have, other than war?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: If I may just jump in on that, there are lots of different forms of coordination. There is a kind of horizontal coordination.

One method, used in drugs and other kinds of crimes, is to have a treaty framework in which nation-states are required to create a category of crime and to repress it. You are not running all the operations through the eye of a single needle. You’re simply recognizing a mutual obligation to take precautionary action against a problem of the commons.

So it doesn’t have to be run from New York, in the sense that you have a tsar who is telling nation-states exactly what to do. They can undertake mutual promises to each other without necessarily having it be “tsared” by a particular person.

I do think having someone like the UN's Peter Piot in HIV/AIDS is hugely important to persuade heads of state that they ought to admit that they have a sex-trade problem and that they have a high incidence, and it’s not a shame; it’s an opportunity to help people. That kind of “bully-pulpiting” can be very useful.

Where I think the UN often gets into trouble is in the kind of random shots—this is closer to home, forgive me—it takes in various crises. I’m just amazed. One of the interesting features of learning how the thirty-eighth floor works is that statements aren’t vetted. You’ll have different characterizations of who did what to whom in the Middle East coming from different actors who are out on holiday at various conferences around the world. Is it an unlawful occupation or just an occupation?

Those kinds of freighted words, which are not the problem of the commons—these are particular security crises—often alienate communities in the most profound ways, in an untutored, unstudied, random, kind of drive-by shootings with words—that I think the UN needs to get much more clearly under control. There needs to be a process on the thirty-eighth floor which understands that words also are weapons. That, I think, would conserve the political capital and prestige of the secretary-general in a much more useful way.

JAMES TRAUB: Ruth, in your kind of ideal world—because you would get rid of some things that the UN has a monopoly on—what stuff should the UN not be doing that it is doing now or should be doing much less of that it is doing now?

RUTH WEDGWOOD: One profound change over the decades has been the movement of development toward the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. When I was researching Jesse Helms’s critique of the budget back in 1996, I was surprised to learn that about three-quarters of the budget goes for things that aren’t security, in a narrow military sense, or Security Council or Department of Political Affairs or the SG’s function. It goes through various kinds of economic commissions, social commissions, sustainable development, and developmental sustainability. The question of possible redundancy in those jobs is very much at issue.

Now, I understand that at times countries that don’t qualify for commercial capital have felt they need a way to get access to capital that is effective for their purpose. But that’s where, indeed, the World Bank itself has come in and shopping projects to the bank. So much of the old Secretariat development function has, I think, necessarily, gone to the Bretton Woods institutions, and if you’re looking for redundant mandates, you could shut down a few there.

SHASHI THAROOR: Not entirely, no. I think the important point here is that for developing countries to have a forum in which they actually have a voice, where they have the one-country/one-vote situation in the General Assembly, to be able to articulate, if you like, their political views on development issues, is extremely important—

RUTH WEDGWOOD: That doesn’t require three-quarters of the budget.

SHASHI THAROOR: You have five regional commissions in five different parts of the world that are actually doing a lot of the economic and social work. There’s norm building that is done at the UN. We certainly do not have a significant portion of the money that goes into development—even the Bretton Woods institutions, which are, of course, the key players financially, and the World Trade Organization, which we haven’t even mentioned, which is technically outside the UN system. In addition to that, there’s now the private sector which is playing a big part.

I don’t think the UN is trying to compete with any of those, but the UN has its own special place in this issue. Certainly, the G77 you mentioned so much today would not be happy to hear you suggest that they should be shut down.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: I didn’t say shut down; I said rationalized. Again, what one wishes for is the delivery of development capital to countries in a way that helps them—even, dare I say, in the debate on the Millennium Challenge Goals—

JAMES TRAUB: The Millennium Development Goals.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: Excuse me, “challenge” is the American parlance.

When you talk to people who have worked in the Bank—say, in Chad, in Cameroon, in Italy, in many countries—you have to worry about how money reaches the ground in a fashion that it helps people. One of the concerns that a great many development people have is that simply shoveling money out the door can make kleptocracy worse, not better. You could have a multilateral “Dutch disease” if you will, not simply an oil “Dutch disease.”

JOANNE MYERS: We’ll take one last question.

QUESTION: Thank you. It’s clearly a very provocative presentation.

As I was listening to Ruth’s analogy of the UN to the pristine and fertile conditions of an academic institution and how inapposite the analogy is, I was thinking that I learned early on that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

At the UN the stakes are huge, and yet the politics sometimes don’t seem vicious enough. As you look at this extreme spectrum between irrelevance and indispensability, as you try to stake out the right point on that spectrum, what’s the role of introspection—really serious introspection? When you analyze your own twenty-eight-year career and what preceded you and where you are going forward, how do the remedial measures to date make the place more effective?

But more importantly, we wouldn’t have entertained this debate had there not been a point of view that is—I won’t say hostile, but skeptical of whether or not the UN has achieved what it could achieve in a cost-effective way.

I mean this as a general question, but one specific point that Ruth raised—she didn’t really posit it as a question, but she certainly taught us laypeople a new acronym. When you have the marginalization of a country like Israel—and without talking about specific resolutions, you have a marginalization here that is a byproduct of the internal bureaucracy of WEOG— and yes, you can be included or you can’t be included. There’s a certain mandate or jurisdiction that falls to some of the regional groups. Is there an entity—whether it’s a task force or a think tank or some other group—within the United Nations that looks at these infirmities, if you will, and thinks about enabling member states to really have a fair voice?

JOANNE MYERS: Is this directed to Shashi?

QUESTIONER: It is, yes.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: I’ll answer it, too.

SHASHI THAROOR: I’m sure we can both answer it. It’s an excellent question. I enjoyed your point about politics.

The fact is that on the Israel situation, you’re not talking about something, frankly, that has anything to do with bureaucracy, but rather to do with politics amongst member states. Admission into regional groups is something that member states alone can decide—who gets into their group. It so happens that Israel belongs to WEOG in New York, but has not been given full admission in Geneva. That was what Ruth was referring to in the context of human rights.

But Israel, I’m pleased to say, is a vice president of the General Assembly and is not, in that sense, a marginalized state at the General Assembly in New York. But, certainly, participation in a regional group is a passport to election to office, election to various councils and committees, and so on. That’s something that the secretary-general and others have pushed for which should happen for Israel in Geneva and everywhere else.

But on the broader question of introspection, which I thought was a very interesting one, sure, we have lots of task forces, working groups, committees. My gosh, the open-ended working group that is studying Security Council reform is now universally dubbed “the never-ending working group,” because it has been discussing the issue for so long without a concrete solution. In fact, it’s a very good example, Security Council reform, of a problem where—it’s like doctors gathering around a patient, and they all agree on the diagnosis but they can’t agree on the prescription. So introspection goes on, and action doesn’t follow, in that particular instance.

But introspection ultimately is an individual quality. I think one can say that the capacity for introspection of a secretary-general like Dag Hammarskjold or Kofi Annan has a great deal of value in and of itself. Kofi Annan’s speech on intervention to the General Assembly in 1999 is a striking example of how one person’s introspection essentially helped change the world agenda on this issue. It resulted in, in many ways, a thousand flowers blooming at think tanks around the world, and also then led directly to the evolution of what is now called “the responsibility to protect,” which was enshrined in the Summit Declaration of the World Summit last September. This is the notion that sovereignty carries with it the responsibility to protect your own citizens; but if you are unable or unwilling to exercise that responsibility, the international community has to think of doing so. That’s a whole new idea, and it has emerged from a process of, to use your word, introspection.

So I believe introspection does have a place in the international system. But that doesn’t always immediately lead to action. Action in all these things requires a combination of resources, of political will. That political will is something that member states’ governments have to find for themselves

Going back to the Darfur thing, we have no standing army we can send off to a place like Darfur. For any intervention, you need a collective decision by member states in the Security Council. You then need countries willing to give you the troops, the materiel, the money to make it work. Then you can make a difference.

So there are these various stages and processes. Sometimes it will seem inadequate. I can understand the impatience of people around the world who see horrors on their television screens and want to see them end. We all want to see them end. But the fact is the United Nations is a mirror of the world. It reflects our disagreements, the feebleness of our collective political will, as well as our hopes, our aspirations, and sometimes, indeed, our effective determination to deliver results.

I just want to go back to an old metaphor of Dag Hammarskjold’s. When the UN was criticized in the 1950s, he said it’s rather like the Santa Maria sailing off across uncharted waters to new lands, beset by stormy weather. There are people onshore blaming the problems on the ship rather than on the weather.

We operate in an environment. We operate within the global climate. We operate within what governments will allow us to do.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: If I may, just a couple quick aphorisms. One is, you can make your own weather, to some degree. How one conducts oneself, what is said, especially from the thirty-eighth floor, can affect the tenor of the rest of the conversation.

I am a big fan of Kofi’s 1999 speech on sovereignty and intervention—the ellipsis in that speech, when he said, “If you had Rwanda to do over again and the Security Council wouldn’t vote a resolution, but several other countries would come in to stop the genocide, what should you do?” And he doesn’t say what, but it certainly admits, as a conceivable legitimate choice, an ad hoc intervention. So I think Kofi should be given, actually, credit for inventing competitive multilateralism. I cede my copyright.

But I also want to say a word for extrospection, which is that a lot of the current debate about the legitimacy of the methods of reform has been: Is it a mortal sin or a venal sin to threaten to withhold your dues for some period of time if you think that something needs changing?

I will now resort to the blogosphere. Ms. Suzanne Nossel, who is a charming and smart gal who used to work for the number five in the U.S. Mission under Bill Clinton, a Harvard Law School graduate, has a great blog called Democracy Arsenal. When Mark Malloch Brown was giving his speech, she had a very funny passage. She’s blogging as he is speaking.

Suzanne says, “He’s acknowledging that the Group of 77 developing countries have opposed vital reforms," and she continues:

"I hope he doesn't attribute their recalcitrance wholly to resentment toward the U.S.... "

"Yup, he just did."

Then she goes on, “He’s calling for no more take-it-or-leave-it demands by the U.S.”

Yet, often, take-it-or-leave-it is all that works. My daddy was a labor negotiator for thirty-five years. I always recount that if you look at UN history, the gentlemen’s agreement in the mid-1980s that budgets should be decided by consensus, the creation of the IG in the mid-1990s, the budget deal done by Holbrooke with 22 percent for the United States in the late 1990s— all were done by take-it-or-leave-it propositions. It’s a bargaining technique, ladies and gentlemen; it’s not a rejection of world public order.

Therefore, I do think that in the to-and-fro of states that are indeed staking out positions and hoping to reach some moderate ground, that there should not be a Manicheanism, much less ad hominem attacks, on people who feel that it is their professional role to make propositions that are maximalist in their aspiration.

So, therefore, withholding funds for reform, I think, in the past, alas, despite the ICJ’s (International Court of Justice) opinion in the Congo case, despite my credibility as a lawyer, has been in fact politically one of the few ways to get change at the UN.

JAMES TRAUB: I just wanted to add one thing about introspection. If by that one means dwelling on painful experience in order to extract lessons from it, which it seems to me is one of the primary purposes of introspection, this has in fact been quite alien to UN culture until extremely recently. Now, I should say it’s quite alien to human nature probably as well.

If you look at the UN now, in terms of the Secretariat, one of the reasons I think that the Peacekeeping Department actually is quite a bit more effective than it used to be is that it has engaged in quite systematic and serious introspection. Other parts of the institution have not. But I should also add that there is no mechanism whatsoever for introspection on the part of the members.

JOANNE MYERS: Well, I think by the size of the audience, it should be an indication to you, as well as to us, how important this issue is. I thank all three of you for being here.

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JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

JUN 4, 2024 Article

Space-Based Data Risks to Refugee Populations

Space-based data is quite useful for observing environmental conditions, but Zhanna Malekos Smith writes that it also raises privacy concerns for vulnerable populations.

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