Would the World Be Better Without the UN? with Thomas G. Weiss

Jun 18, 2018

Thomas Weiss, a leading expert on the history and politics of the United Nations, gives incontrovertible evidence of the UN's achievements, such as the eradication of smallpox, but also details where the organization has fallen short. This is a critical time for all multilateral organizations and treaties, he stresses, as Trump has no regard for international cooperation.

JOANNE MYERS: Good evening. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you all for joining us for this Public Affairs program.

Our guest this evening is Thomas Weiss, and he is one of the foremost analysts of United Nations history and politics. He is, as a reading of his bio indicates, a prolific writer and scholar of all things United Nations. He is the author of a new book entitled Would the World Be Better Without the UN?, and this book is the subject of his discussion, and it will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program today.

When the United Nations was founded at the end of World War II it was conceived as a unifier of states and populations. Its central mission was to restore international peace, ensure security, and advance human development and social progress. Each element was seen as being a necessary component that would ensure postwar peace and prosperity. Since that time, the UN's record has been one of successes as well as disappointments. However, it is not as bad as we sometimes make it out to be. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 12 times to the United Nations, its specialized agencies, programs, and staff.

Yet even with these positive steps many are losing confidence in the belief that multilateralism works and that international cooperation is the essential element for a country's advancement. With voices of protectionism and nationalism gaining strength around the world, some governments are pursuing policy goals through unilateral or ad hoc measures rather than by working together. This raises the perennial question: Do we need the United Nations?

In considering this question, Professor Weiss is very fair as he seeks answers. In a methodical way he evaluates whether the United Nations is a drain on global resources or essential to maintaining global order. In studying the pluses and minuses of this august body he understands that geopolitics have changed. Accordingly, he looks at how the United Nations in the more than 70 years of its existence has addressed international peace and security, human rights and humanitarian action, and sustainable development.

In all fairness, Professor Weiss focuses not just on defending the United Nations and the principles of international cooperation, but he also writes about where the United Nations could and would be if it had performed better. Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, Tom Weiss. Thank you for joining us.

THOMAS WEISS: Thanks, Joanne. When Joanne asked me to speak briefly, I said sure, but I didn't explain to her why. I've been at the Graduate Center now for 20 years. But during one of my last evaluations of an undergraduate course—I now have graduate students, a couple of whom are here, they tend to be more respectful than undergraduates. They have these future jobs that depend on things.

I never was sure what to do with these questionnaires—"He talks too much," "He talks too little," "We read too much," "We read too little," so I used to add them up and divide by two, basically. But okay. There was always a final question which said sort of "anything you want to know?" I would flip through those, and I came to one which said: "If I had a terminal disease, where would I like to spend the last hour of my life?" This didn't have much to do with international relations, but the answer was, "Weiss's seminar, because the last one seemed like eternity." So I will try to be brief.

Would the world be better without the United Nations? Actually, answering that question would be critical at any moment since 1945, but it's even more critical today, so the subtitle of the talk will be "The UN in the age of Trump," and it's even more pressing with the appointment of John Bolton, because neither Trump nor Bolton—they spend most of their time denigrating anything multilateral, have no regard for international cooperation; partners are irrelevant in a zero-sum world.

My book is about the United Nations, but I think much of what I'm going to say could be extended to the G7 minus one or the G20 minus one, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and soon the World Trade Organization (WTO) as part of multilateralism under siege. In case you haven't read the book or haven't bought it yet, the answer is on page 190: No, the world would not be better.

There is a foreword written by Kofi Annan, so you might say, "Well, obviously the answer is going to be no." But I ask a really honest question, and my response involved some tough choices and some uncomfortable albeit not alternative facts that should cause unease among foes as well as friends of the world organization. The book is organized like my textbook and other things, that is, I try to talk about pluses and minuses on the ideas-norms front and on the operational front, the two big outputs, and I try to talk about the three big pillars—peace and security, human rights and humanitarianism, and sustainable development.

But the book involves two parts. The first part is counterfactual that consists of really specific illustrations of how the world would have been actually far worse off at several crucial junctures over the last seven-plus decades. This part of the argument is designed to persuade or at least give pause to the Heritage Foundation and members of the administration in their declared war on the rules-based international order that the United States established and has nourished for almost three-quarters of a century.

Please note that I don't use the term "a" rules-based order, which was what the administration was apparently trying to sell in Quebec, but I use the definite article, "the" order that we have, that the United States and frankly everyone else has benefited from over this period of time.

What's the evidence? The argument is that the world certainly wouldn't be better without both the first United Nations of states and the second United Nations of staff members because denying that proposition would involve asserting among other things that we would not be worse off, for instance, without the efforts to have eliminated smallpox in 1977, almost having done the same thing with polio and guinea worm, women's rights, study the effects of climate change, deliver emergency aid in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or Sudan, keep the peace on the Golan Heights, facilitated decolonization, began halting steps to protect cultural heritage, or prosecute war criminals, and the list goes on in the book.

Frequently counterfactuals are seen as the toys of social scientists. I don't think they are. I think they actually help look squarely at a question and be forced to come up with some answers. So it's not inconceivable that the members of the current administration would look at this and call them alternative facts, but I think almost everyone else would say there are some real pluses on the UN's ledger on the asset column.

But the second half of the counterfactual and the second half of the book are for a different audience, that is, cheerleaders with blue pom-poms because there are deficits on this ledger as well that are substantial.

It would be equally difficult to maintain that the world could not have been a far better place, for example, if the Security Council had been less hypocritical in Rwanda or Syria or Myanmar, and the list goes on, or that if peacekeepers had raped fewer kids in Central Africa or spread less cholera in Haiti, or if more dedicated and competent staff had performed better in implementing development projects and monitoring what goes on and conducting research, and if there were fewer interorganizational turf battles among the members of the so-called "family." So that's the second half of the book.

When I wrote the proposal for a grant to the Carnegie Corporation I thought that telling stories would be a good thing to do in preparation for the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the United Nations in 2020. I think that task became considerably more urgent—and the book actually came out about a year before I had planned. Amidst the panoply of craziness—racism, tax benefits for the rich, and your list is as long as mine—most people don't look at what I think is the coming crisis of multilateralism.

Let's just think about what happened in 2017 alone. We started off with eliminating financing for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), which fostered girls' and women's reproductive rights. We ended up the year by pulling completely out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) instead of only partially out despite of the programs—if you think girls' education is important, and protection of cultural heritage in Palmyra, and the list goes on.

In between we pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate despite record-setting temperatures for four or five years in a row; in the early fall pulling out of the compact on migration, a modest effort to make some sense of what supposedly is a crisis in the United States and lots of other places; but then ending up the year with a veto of the Security Council resolution suggesting that maybe being the only country on the Earth besides Israel to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was not a good idea, and then when the General Assembly said the same thing, the response was to cut in half the U.S. allocation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

I'm hoping that the evidence—the stories in the book—have a modest effect in countering the ignorance, narcissism, and ethical shoddiness of the administration because I think there is evidence that the shots across the bow in 2017 and the first part of this year are going to be broadsides this year and next. I think the recent fireworks with the G7—the G7 is a multilateral effort, after all—will be followed up by I suspect an even worse speech at the General Assembly this year. In a minute I'll talk about the one from last year.

I suspect that when the World Trade Organization gives a negative judgment on the case against it by the Europeans, Canadians, and Mexicans, that that will be shattered as well.

What I would like to do briefly, though, is talk about Trump's performance and put it in a historical context. The second part will say, "Well, what does 'America First' mean on First Avenue?"

Let me start with the historical context with a quote from Brian Urquhart, an old friend of mine who is not very well. When I interviewed Brian shortly after he retired—and then he confirmed this later—he said, "My dear Tom, the central problem is it's the last bastion of state sovereignty." He, of course, was lamenting the fact that victims of human rights violations and violent attacks caught in the crosshairs of national sovereignty and their presidents and princes and prime ministers say, "Well, that's our business," and for decades the United Nations actually agreed, Member States agreed.

More recently, however, we've seen a couple of invocations of the Responsibility to Protect, which has revoked the license for mass murder by thugs. In addition, sovereign states have agreed to tie their hands in a modest number of ways. There are almost 600 treaties deposited at the United Nations.

Of course, in the face of globalization, if you're interested in finances, technologies, and information, states are rather tied up in certain ways. So sovereignty ain't quite what it used to be.

Nonetheless, the United Nations—and every other intergovernmental organization—remains firmly grounded in sovereignty, which Trump made crystal clear. He is not exactly articulate. He is very redundant, but he used the S word "sovereignty" 21 times in his first address to the General Assembly last year. The loudest applause, of course, came from human rights champions Russia, China, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, etc., because these countries customarily use sovereignty as a defense to ward off criticism from Washington. That's no longer necessary.

You don't have to be an Obama groupie to go back and read his first statement, which used the word once, and that was in the context of saying how U.S. interests would be served by cooperation. That's a little part of the historical context.

I'm not the only person to recall that the America First Committee draws its name from the largest and best-organized and shortest-lived anti-war group ever, founded by the likes of Lindbergh and Henry Ford and Father Coughlin just before the onset of World War II. It lasted 11 months. It collapsed after Pearl Harbor. Trump's version has not as yet. It will, although I hope without the equivalent incentive of a December 1941.

We have this paradox at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. The United Nations is a logical location to convene conversations to address global problems. Global problems need global solutions. At the same time, the world's organization's current limitations, both its sovereign foundation and its atomized and wasteful operations, should be obvious as well to any except the blindest of cheerleaders.

How in the age of Trump can the United Nations become a little more pertinent and less of a relic? I think formulating an answer to that question would be important whenever, but I want to focus for a minute on a different period. Part of my historical context here is the fruits of another research project I did on wartime history and the origin of the United Nations, a very different moment, a very different approach by Washington, very different leadership, very different calculation of national interest in the face of a truly existential threat, fascism.

I say I think it's important to go back and visit this period because Trump and Bolton have never met an ally or an international organization they thought served U.S. purposes. That clearly is incorrect, and this history helps draw that out.

The beginning of the United Nations, the famous story of FDR rolling his wheelchair into Churchill's bath and the pink-fleshed Churchill coming out and saying, "What a great idea to call this the United Nations," reflected a totally different attitude by the United States. The Declaration by United Nations, signed on the 1st of January 1942 by 26 and later 44 allies, was not only a commitment to crush Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the short run. In the longer term, it was to maintain peace, security, stability, and economic development through multilateral cooperation.

That commitment was in evidence obviously in the European-Asian-North African fronts, but it was also in evidence across the Allies and in planning departments for the follow-up to the Second World War. I think too few people certainly in this administration understand the powerful mix of realism and idealism starting with the lend-lease program and the wartime United Nations.

Subsequently, people like Michael Mandelbaum say: "Well, we don't do social work. That's not foreign policy." Or Condoleezza Rice says: "Well, we don't take kids to kindergarten. That's not foreign policy."

However, if you go back to 1942-1945, both social work and multilateralism were integral to every single U.S. decision during World War II. Social work: Decolonization, international criminal justice, postwar reconstruction, refugee assistance, international development, regulating economic activity, public diplomacy, and agricultural and educational policy. All of this was social work. This sustained not only the military undertaking, but it also kept the Allies together. What the planners rejected was military might and lawlessness as the solution to the world following on the second installment of what Wells and Wilson had incorrectly billed as "the war to end all wars."

As a result of San Francisco, one sees that multilateralism in this period and immediately thereafter was not peripheral but central to U.S. decision making. Different calculations, different leadership obviously. One might have expected the fallout from the failed League of Nations to produce Hobbes on steroids. That wasn't the solution. Multilateralism and the rule of law, not going it alone, and the law of the jungle, were what was on the planning boards. It was not 1914-minus but 1918-plus, to build on the initial experience, albeit unsuccessful, of the League.

The Trump administration has forgotten this lesson, assuming that any members actually ever studied the history, but I think what's important here is that normally it seemed smaller, and little powers like multilateralism because that serves their interests whereas major powers pursue unilateralism. It seems to me that the wartime origins not only suggest but demonstrate the relevance of collaboration for the most powerful as well when the political conditions and leadership are appropriate.

The age of Trump on First Avenue. The first thing to say is that he's not the Lone Ranger here. We've got the age of Putin, Erdoğan, Xi, Modi, Duterte, el-Sisi, Maduro, and the list goes on with several Europeans now piling on. However, I still think it's worthwhile looking at what is still the UN's most important Member State and largest funder, which has a mammoth capacity to create financial and political havoc, so we can't ignore the rhetoric or the actions. I already mentioned the actions in 2017.

I think it's important to think about the savings: $70 million from the UN Population Fund; efforts were attempted to reduce the peacekeeping budget, which eventually saved about $600 million, of which the U.S. share is $170 million; UNRWA, another $65 million. Three hundred million dollars is a rounding error in the U.S. budget, and it will have a far more deleterious impact on the United Nations and on its morale. No other Member State has jumped in to pick up the tab.

In addition, however, it's these other things that are going on outside of the purely UN context that I think foreshadow what's going to happen also in the United Nations on trade and the environment in particular. Starting out by tearing up the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Initiative (TPP) and afterward threatening North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and now the totally outlandish claim that national security requires tariffs on allied steel and aluminum has played directly into the hands of China, less so into Russian hands, but they benefit, too.

Beijing, of course, has made the most of this opportunity presented on a silver platter. They now can set the standards for trade in Asia; they picked up worldwide trading partners. Even pessimists who thought that eventually there would be an economic power on the horizon underestimated the speed at which the U.S. stature has diminished and its credibility evaporated. A strident and unpredictable Washington seems keen to start a trade war. Meanwhile, Beijing is the calm and predictable voice of trade and stability.

Of even greater significance I think on both a symbolic and probably the actual front is tearing up the UN-brokered but separate Paris Agreement on climate change. Once again, China is a direct beneficiary of this. It's happy to play an unexpected new role as the leading advocate of climate change. Ironically it has become the world's greatest producer of greenhouse gases and has several cities where you don't want to breathe. Meanwhile, however, its technology producers forge ahead, producing three-quarters of the globe's solar panels, and it has actually succeeded in cutting urban pollution in several places by as much as one-third. Meanwhile, of course, we're looking at coal mines and eliminating regulations, so this is certainly going to make America polluted again.

I think what's important, however, is that there is a four-year legal limit to withdraw from this pact. By then, my hope is that U.S. electors will have come to their senses. In any case, the mobilization of communities, cities, states, and corporations to respect the agreement means that multilateral and not a unilateral approach will still be possible by 2020.

Indeed, I think it's important that California's economy is bigger than the country where the Paris Agreement was signed, so there is much room to continue along this path. I think it's significant that—I don't know what's going to happen in this year's G20, but last year in Hamburg the other 19, while the Trump administration pouted, basically said: "This is irreversible. We can't go back on this."

In the five minutes that are left here, let me try to say something about changing the institution. Reform has been a perpetual trial since 1945, when the ink hadn't even dried on the Charter. Efforts seemingly never cease to make it more inclusive, transparent, and accountable, and the list goes on, and most importantly to pull together its excessively numerous and atomized moving parts. I would say the results have been very modest to date.

However, it seems to me that the decibel levels of this criticism are rising. This is not just in Washington. Powerful and less powerful countries and their publics appear also skeptical about intergovernmental organizations. They are likely to take a more cost-benefit and transactional approach to multilateralism.

Many sympathetic governments—I see Nina Connelly back there and I and a colleague did an evaluation of Swedish support for UN funds and programs. They too are distancing themselves in ways. They used to just sort of pay up and ask very few questions.

The multilateral narrative has much less visceral appeal than in 1945 or a few years ago. It's in this context, it seems to me, that we need to think about a world without the United Nations. I'm hoping that the stories here have some potential traction in that respect.

If one goes back and looks at the archival record and looks at the correspondence by Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they will recognize that U Thant's diplomacy was an essential, probably not the only essential, but an essential component in both the U.S. and Soviet stances. While that is not the only factor, I'm not sure I want to test the proposition or we want to test the proposition that we can do without this totally.

Or, if you really want to talk about cost-benefit analysis and you look at smallpox elimination, which cost $300 million, of which the World Health Organization (WHO) component was only $100 million, of which the U.S. share was only $35 million, one-third the cost of a fighter jet at the time, the savings since have been huge, billions of dollars a year in administration, vaccines, etc. It seems to me we could make similar calculations about Ebola or monitoring in Iraq or Iran, or, who knows, North Korea. So it's important I think to take onboard this argument and emphasize the value for money that certain parts of the system represent.

The secretary-general signaled his intention to solve conflicts. I think that is not exactly on the agenda, but also the management of the system, particularly the organizational system he directs, it seems to me that that is where one could make a difference, that the waste, overlap, lack of synergy, could address the problems that high-level panels, academics, media, and everybody else has underlined for years.

My question is: Will he be able to replicate the kind of administrative slimming down and decentralization that he implemented over a decade at United Nations Human Rights Council's (UNHCR) helm? The signs to date are not all that encouraging. Eighteen months, that's a long honeymoon for a five-year period. But he is aware of the political flaws, and he is well aware of all these structural problems, and so I think we have to hope that he's not going to shy away totally from the Sisyphean task of transforming—and that's the word, "transforming"—the way the United Nations does business.

I think there is a little evidence in his proposals about the UN development system, about their going to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and trying to create what Robert Jackson called a "central brain" in making the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) what it was supposed to be, to get donors to pay for some of this coordination, to get the UNDP out of the competition for resources.

But it seems to me that the assignment for Guterres is to take onboard Trump and others' tightening of financial screws to do what actually has needed to be done for ages. If the secretary-general fails, a self-reinforcement dynamic will result with an additional blowback for multilateralism, and at that juncture we're going to have a real-time test of my proposition that the world could be even worse without the United Nations.

In fact, I think one of the real dangers has become such an embedded part of what goes on that it is usually taken for granted in some of the same ways that I've tried to illustrate with U Thant and the elimination of smallpox. Kevin Rudd, in a report he wrote two years ago, said: "We are barely conscious of the continuing stabilizing role it"—the United Nations—"plays in setting the broad parameters for the conduct of international relations. If the United Nations one day disappears or more likely just slides into neglect, it is only then that we would become fully aware of the gaping hole this would leave in what remained of the postwar order." I think actually that's where we are.

Trump ended his statement by saying last September, "We are calling for a great reawakening of nations." He seemed to have forgotten that the United States actually helped to create the world organization to curb the demonstrated horrors of nations and of nationalism. It seems to me if we took that same sentence he should be calling the rest of us as well for a great reawakening of the United Nations.

QUESTION: David Schachner.

Professor, please comment on the UN's mission in terms of counterterrorism, what the United Nations and its agencies have done in terms of counterterrorism.

THOMAS WEISS: One of the problems with counterterrorism is that we've been unable to agree on a definition, which suggests one of the problems. But the counterterrorism campaign that began shortly after 9/11 when there was a groundswell of support for moving ahead in a more rambunctious and enthusiastic way has brought a certain amount of agreement on various kinds of sanctions.

This is a demonstration of hands being tied by Member States and the same kind of shortcoming that I would address more generally, that the power of one to solve world problems is very limited. The United States cannot protect itself from terrorist threats any more than it can protect itself from environmental degradation. This requires coming together in a way that can only happen—everything doesn't have to be universal, but a huge number of players have to be onboard, and so counterterrorism is only very modestly there.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

For the last 11 years or so I have worked on various UN projects, largely as a volunteer from both the academic and business sectors, particularly the UN Global Compact, which has a role to play on which I would certainly like to hear your comments because it does seem to have the support—by the way, they also delete members from year to year for noncompliance with reporting requirements and program design, but I won't go into their numerous projects and their numerous goals, some of which I've been involved in.

Certainly one can say that if Trump feels the United States and that countries themselves have no role to play or should play much less of a role in the United Nations, many companies around the world as well as academic institutions are playing an active role today and I think accomplishing quite a lot of good things.

THOMAS WEISS: The question is, do I agree?

QUESTIONER [Mr. Berenbeim]: I'd like to hear your thoughts.

THOMAS WEISS: You ought to answer this question. A visitor from Maryland working on a Ph.D. dissertation came in to chat this afternoon, and much of our conversation revolved around the extent to which you can better fold into this complicated fabric of global governance the non-state sector.

Several years ago I came up with the notion of the two United Nations I talked about today, the Member States and the people who work for the organization, and a third United Nations consisting of everybody else who had anything to do with trying to address problems that were discussed or operations that were underway, development, humanitarian, or what have you. The role of voluntary organizations has always actually been growing in a concrete way in terms of helping deliver other development or humanitarian assistance. It has also been essential over the years in trying to push the first United Nations of Member States on women, the environment, or what have you, and actually push the second United Nations, which always is not ahead of the curve, in trying to move ahead with problems.

Most recently, the for-profit sector, the one that you're talking about, has become part of the conversation and sometimes part of the solution, but more part of the conversation. This is a catch-up act after years of trying to keep the for-profit sector in a cage in the corner, not part of a conversation. It has now become much more a part of the conversation, and I think it probably will continue to grow.

However, Member States are still Member States. They are the ones who are going to have to sign treaties, respect treaties, and develop the laws that allow your corporations and my non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to become an integral part of the solution.

I think it is a mistake, however, that said, to think that corporations and activists crossing borders and three people from Cleveland with the same T-shirt are going to stop the problems that we're talking about, anything from mass atrocities to climate change, etc. We still need those states, and we still need intergovernmental organizations, but your corporations, NGOs, the media, and experts have to be folded into the conversation, and that change has begun, and it will continue.

QUESTION: My name is Larry Bridwell. I teach MBA students at Pace University, and I teach international business.

One of the key developments in the last 40 years has been economic growth because of globalization. The famous statistic is that 30 years ago 40 percent of the world lived in absolute poverty, and now it's less than 10 percent. One of the key institutions for this has been the World Trade Organization. I've gone to various UN events, and I've heard you and employees tell me that the WTO is far more important than the United Nations when it comes to reducing poverty, and you mentioned the UNDP, so we've had all of this economic growth, and the WTO has been key. When we watch what Donald Trump is doing, we have right now this attack on rules-based trade.

My question to you is: Shouldn't the focus be on the WTO and its dispute-settlement process to continue the international trade that has benefited so many low-income people in the world and that we should continue to have this economic development that has taken place at the grassroots level and continue to support and maybe further empower the WTO?

THOMAS WEISS: I would totally agree with what you've said, not that it's the most important intergovernmental organization. It certainly is key. It's not part of the United Nations.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Bridwell]: It is.

THOMAS WEISS: But there should be a dotted line to it.

In addition to the Security Council it's the only part of the intergovernmental apparatus that has a kind of enforcement provision, and it's that judgment and enforcement provision as I tried to hint that may be a real problem next year because I don't understand how any of what the Trump administration has used as a justification for tariffs on steel and aluminum can be packaged under national security terms.

The suits that are going to be there are certain to go against the United States, and I would guess the reaction will be to pull out of that organization, which will enfeeble it and once again I think play into the hands of the newest member, China. As you point out, the benefits for 700 million people in China and India from growth over the last 15 or 20 years—largely driven by trade but not totally driven by trade—have been substantial, the biggest poverty-elimination program in history. I suspect that that is going to be the next target for the administration.

QUESTION: I'm Kristin Liebling.

I have worked for nearly 40 years in the United Nations, mostly in economic development and most recently in peacekeeping. I look very much forward to reading your book and to getting your insights into the reform process and what is needed and what could work. As a former staff member, we never had enough money to do what we needed to do, never had enough in any of my areas of operation.

But one of the things that I'm curious to know from you is: What are your thoughts on prospects for the reform of the Security Council?

THOMAS WEISS: [Makes his hand into the shape of zero.] Would you like more detail?

It's clear. We can get everyone in this room and lots of other places to agree that the world of 1945 is not the world of 2018, and guess what? The Security Council—

I'm going to sound a little self-serving here. I wrote an article in 2003 on why it was politically impossible. This article still is cited 15 years later as one of the 10 most-cited articles on this thing, and they keep saying, "Will you redo it?" I say, "There's no reason to redo it."

The numbers change a little here and there. It's obviously aberrant, but every single solution brings up as many problems as it solves, and the politics of this I find are poisonous.

The secretary-general has to say he's for it, but he should spend absolutely no time or limited time in trying to do anything about this because I, of course, keep saying in my lifetime, and obviously I'm getting closer to the end so maybe I'll still be right. I'm not trying to be right, but I really think the chances of this happening are virtually nil.

Can you disabuse me of that notion?

QUESTIONER [Ms. Liebling]: Sadly no.

THOMAS WEISS: I still remember the German ambassador—because my last name seems like I should be German, and my grandparents were, but you know—in 2003 I thought he was going to hire an Irish or Italian mafia to come after me.

Don't go after the messenger. This is the politics, these are the reasons why. If you can't get this small commission, threats challenge and should change—they come up with two proposals. You have 14 or 16 people, whatever it was. How in the hell are you going to get 193 states to agree?

I actually, even though it's aberrant, I think one should just set that aside for the time being. There are lots of things that could happen and should happen, and I guess I would concentrate on those.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I'm Francois Dubois. I'm also a former UN official. I have an easy question for you.

THOMAS WEISS: Très bien. Très facile. [Good. Very easy.]

QUESTIONER [Mr. Dubois]: Thank you. You mentioned the 75th anniversary in 2020 of the United Nations, but we have before that a very important anniversary, which is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in Paris as you know on December 10, and we celebrate the 70th [this year]. With all the wonderful work you've done to promote and protect our wonderful organization, what are you going to do to celebrate this 70th anniversary?

THOMAS WEISS: I would love somebody to invite me to Paris, and I'll come up with an answer.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Dubois]: We'll do it together. Bonne chance. [Good luck.]

THOMAS WEISS: Actually, I have to say that a research project that I was involved with for 10 years on the intellectual history of the United Nations, human rights is really one of the crown jewels on the ideational front and also on the implementation front. We can go on and on about how many people sign it and don't pay attention and on and on, but the relevance of human rights it seems to me is incomparable to what that issue was in 1947 and 1948. The institutional structures have improved. The Human Rights Council is not the answer to all our prayers, but it's I think a step in the right direction from the Commission on Human Rights.

My own view about human rights actually—I oftentimes cite the expression that Eleanor Roosevelt used. She said, "This is like a grapevine." I don't know what vintage you'd like me to talk about. It just sort of expands and wraps itself around whatever is available and constrains states.

If they were totally unimportant, states wouldn't spend so much time trying to pretend that "That ain't so" or that "We really didn't do that" or "We really don't need these monitors to come in and give us a hard time." I think it's really one of the key ideas.

I don't know that the 70th anniversary is any different from the 69th. One needs to keep banging away at naming and shaming the people who don't pay any attention to it.

QUESTION: Hi there. Benjamin Ethan Aguilar. I'm an undergraduate student at Gordon College in Massachusetts. I've been studying international development, specifically around humanitarian aid.

Historically, humanitarian aid, whether that be bilateral, multilateral, or whatever it may be, has more often than not been an integral part of development of lesser-developed nations or countries.

However, as we know, there has been varying effectiveness of such operations. You can take the infamous 2010 crisis of Haiti or others as you may please, but I just wanted to know what new measures have been taken to prevent such crises from occurring again or preventions? That's something that I'd really love to know.

THOMAS WEISS: Great question about prevention. Those of us who have an income tax deadline of the 15th of April and don't get around to it until the last minute have to understand why we don't prevent crises very well either in the international arena.

Steps have been taken to try to get better information, obviously. In my view better information ain't the problem. We knew what the hell was happening in Rwanda several months before it broke out. There were all kinds of cables, telegrams, reports, etc. But we're making efforts to generate better information.

The real problem with prevention is that nothing is more important, and nothing has less payoff for states that invest in it. There's no political payoff from stopping the genocide in Rwanda, whereas two months later one can come up with $1.5 billion overnight to deal with the problem.

That little example spawned what I would call the "cottage industry" of prevention. As a result of that, which you could clearly say: "Wait a minute. April, this happens. You can't do anything in April, May, June. Finally the French do something at the end of June, July, and lo and behold, in September we have $1.5 billion to pick up the mess. Can't we do something earlier?"

That was actually, as I say, the origin of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. It spawned a huge number of efforts to look into the dynamics of acting earlier: How do you act earlier, are there incentives, etc.?

But I daresay we're not any closer to preventing things. I think we're modestly better at reacting. We are just awful at preventing.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Aguilar]: I guess if anything I was more talking toward the sort of aid trap that many scholars and some academics tend to point toward, let's say when you throw money at a problem. I was more talking toward the question of what mechanisms would be in place to prevent such I guess overextension or overreach of NGOs or other non-profits in that sense?

THOMAS WEISS: I'm sorry. Overreach in what sense?

QUESTIONER [Mr. Aguilar]: The overreach of NGOs in their involvement in certain crises, reconciliation efforts, and that sort of thing.

THOMAS WEISS: I'm not going to say they're overreaching. They can't replace states militarily, politically, or even logistically. I'd say that the real hang-up here, as in the real hang-up in lots of things, is Member States who frequently lament after the fact the inability to act. Everyone from the former Secretary-General Annan, who said this was one of the worst things that happened under his watch as head of the Department of Peacekeeping, to Bill Clinton or [Susan] Rice, who basically apologized for doing nothing.

But that hypocrisy—as I say, there are a lot of people looking at prevention, there are a lot of people talking about—the International Crisis Group is talking about 70 crises that may blow up in the next three to six months, so there is plenty of information around. The question is the politics about trying to mobilize either the resources, political, military, or economic, to do something about it.

QUESTION: Hi. Louis Perez, youth representative to the United Nations from Mercy College.

My question is in regard to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). What are your opinions given that the UNPO has countries such as Armenia move into the United Nations? Do you think that in the future the UNPO and the United Nations could work together to perform more multilateralism in the international community?


QUESTIONER [Mr. Perez]: Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.

THOMAS WEISS: Sorry. I know a lot of acronyms, but I don't actually know that one.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Perez]: It's the organization that basically favors countries that aren't represented by the United Nations, such as like Armenia. In the past, they were members of the UNPO, but then they moved to the United Nations, so it's like a stepping stone.

THOMAS WEISS: So this is the Kurds—

QUESTIONER [Mr. Perez]: Kurdistan is part of it.

THOMAS WEISS: —Native Americans, indigenous peoples here, there, and elsewhere? I actually know precious little about that organization or indigenous peoples except to say that's one of the areas in which one has moved ahead on the treaty front, one has moved ahead virtually not at all on the action front.

Actually, the involvement of indigenous peoples and indigenous peoples' organizations in formulating that treaty has been extraordinary, mobilization of people who know something about the problem under a general UN umbrella. I'm sorry. I don't know much more about it than that, though.

QUESTIONER: I'm Jan Kickert, ambassador of Austria to the United Nations.

I just want to confirm that this is probably the lowest U.S. engagement with its allies in the United Nations, which is particularly tragic in areas like human rights, where the Americans are nowhere to be seen. It's a void in which then countries like China, Russia, Egypt, and the like fill the vacuum. So it's a very bad situation.

But I wanted to pose a little bit of a provocative question because you have also the historical background: Isn't the Trump administration's attitude toward the United Nations just the culmination of a general reserved attitude of the United States toward the United Nations, taking the example that every time an international organization doesn't do what the United States wants, it is bad. International Court of Justice, Nicaragua, the United States was out. The Human Rights Council will certainly very soon not do what the Americans want, and the United States will go out.

Or just a reflection of what the Senate's attitude is in ratifying international treaties and conventions. To my knowledge, the United States is the only UN Member State which did not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, although the United States was one of the main authors of this convention. You can continue: The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also failed, the Law of the Sea, and so on.

So isn't it just a culmination of—I think in The Atlantic it said of U.S. exceptionalism: Everybody else should abide to international law but us because we're different, and we should not be bound like everybody else. This is my provocative question to you: Are we at the culmination of this development of the last decades?

THOMAS WEISS: We've always been on a bit of a roller-coaster ride in relationship to intergovernmental organizations, and you've pointed out when the International Labour Organization (ILO) was seen to be too sympathetic with the communists, we pulled out of the ILO. Pulling out of UNESCO had much more to do with domestic politics than saying anything about Palestine. That was the law, it had nothing to do with the decision that was made.

But the ups and downs are certainly a fact or life, starting with Wilson getting the thing off the ground and the United States not going in it.

But I think if you looked at it over the years, despite the ups and downs you would have to say that in terms of initiatives, in terms of financing, the United States has been a good partner in international affairs and has been a pillar of the United Nations in various ways, not as good as Sweden, but the organization wouldn't be where it is, what it is without the United States. That's why I spent so much time going back to World War II.

It's always about national interest. The question is, what's in your definition? How do you pursue those interests, and what's the best vehicle for getting from here to there? It seems to me if the best—if you don't need allies and you don't need organizations, there obviously is very little role for multilateralism.

I started out by saying that as I say most of us are bitching and moaning all of the time about the domestic implications of what this administration is up to. It's only recently with the trade and hence the WTO, sort of the wider implications, it started with "NATO is obsolete," but then he sort of got off that. There have been these singular events—UNFPA and I also forgot to mention the Global Compact on Migration, there have been these steps—but as yet there has not been a wholesale onslaught. I said that the shots across the bow are actually going to become broadsides this year and next.

I bellow all of the time because I think that this whole issue is not front and center. In most issues it's relationships with our allies, not the implications for the relationships with the allies for the whole order, and that's why I really would like to talk to some fly on the wall from Quebec to understand the difference between "the" rules-based international order and "a" rules-based international order, and apparently that was a huge concession, which then of course made no difference anyway because the statement came out without U.S. approval.

It's a bad moment. There have been other bad moments—the mid-1970s, when we stopped financing various kinds of things and huge arrears—but we've always gotten past them and I think returned to the fold, obviously not in UNESCO, but we came back to the ILO. It seems to me that the cause is not hopeless. It's not lost as yet, but that's why I try to make a little noise.

JOANNE MYERS: Imperfect but indispensable. Thank you very much for talking to us about the UN this evening.

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