The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, Episode 1, with David M. Malone

October 6, 2020

President Barack Obama chairs a UN Security Council meeting, September 2009, New York, NY.
CREDIT: White House/Pete Souza/Public Domain

ADAM READ-BROWN: Hello. My name is Adam Read-Brown. I'm the editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Carnegie Council's quarterly peer-reviewed journal, published by Cambridge University Press.

Today it's my pleasure to welcome you to the first episode in a four-part series that the Council is producing this fall to mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, called Looking Back to Look Forward. This series builds on the work of the Fall 2020 edition of Ethics & International Affairs. That issue featured a special collection of nine essays on the United Nations at 75, organized and guest-edited by Dr. Margaret P. Karns. To explore that content we encourage you visit eiajournal.org.

For this video and podcast series we are honored to have Dr. Karns serving as our host. She will be interviewing some of the authors from the journal's collection as well as some new voices. Dr. Karns is professor emerita of political science at the University of Dayton, and since 2015 she has been a visiting professor in the global governance and human security Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has published widely on UN peacekeeping, post-conflict peace building, global governance, and the future of the UN system.

In this first episode Dr. Karns is joined by special issue contributor David Malone. His co-authored essay in the journal, along with Adam Day, is titled "Taking Measure of the UN's Legacy at 75," and it focuses in particular on the Security Council. In their conversation today they will explore the dynamics of the Security Council, humanitarian action, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and much more. We are delighted to have David here with us today to share his insights from years of diplomatic service and from his current vantage point as rector of United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan.

With those introductions I will hand things off to Dr. Karns to get things started. We hope you enjoy the interview.

MARGARET KARNS: Thank you, Adam. It has been a privilege to work with you in editing this special issue of "The UN at 75," and I can think of no one more appropriate to interview in launching a series of interviews with authors in this special issue of Ethics & International Affairs on the United Nations at 75 than David Malone, a longtime Canadian diplomat, including its ambassador to the United Nations in the early 1990s, and currently a UN under-secretary-general and rector of the United Nations University (UNU) based in Tokyo.

Prior to joining UNU Dr. Malone served as president of Canada's International Development Research Centre, and still earlier as president of the International Peace Academy, now International Peace Institute, in New York, two research and policy development institutions. David has also held academic posts, including one now with New York University's School of Law, and he has published extensively, including two excellent editions of his co-edited book on the United Nations Security Council, and his co-authored Law and Practice of the United Nations book, as well as a book on India's foreign policy with the intriguing title Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy, written after his service as Canada's ambassador to India in 2006–2008. David is currently serving in his second term as UNU's rector.

Welcome, David, and thank you for agreeing to lead off this interview series. I think the last time we were together was a number of years ago in Ottawa, but it is wonderful to be with you again in this virtual way, and I was delighted when you accepted my invitation last fall to write a piece for this special issue of Ethics & International Affairs on the United Nations at 75.

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated recently that the United Nations remains "an indispensable actor in facing contemporary existential threats from pandemics to climate change and nuclear nonproliferation." Yet you open your essay with a rather depressing list of challenges that you and Adam Day, your co-author, think stymie the United Nations, from geopolitical divisions and fraught relationships between the United States, China, and Russia; to internal ossification, institutional sprawl, internecine dysfunction; and the challenges of climate change and new technologies.

You also talk about three areas where you think the United Nations has been and potentially remains most impactful: addressing major conflict risks through the Security Council; shaping and driving key ideas on development and human rights; and generating action to meet urgent humanitarian needs, of which there are many in today's world.

Would you share some of your thoughts on these areas where you think the United Nations has a possibility to remain relevant?

DAVID MALONE: Great, Peggy.

First of all, all praise to the Carnegie Council. I have been a beneficiary of its work for many years. I have also been a reader and contributor to the global governance journal for many years, so I am delighted to be with you and very grateful to the organizers of this video.

Most of our viewers may think of the United Nations as a unitary and coherent actor, but it was never designed as a unitary and coherent actor. The United Nations is composed of most importantly the Member States. Member States make the major decisions and authorize the major expenditures of money, and so the Member States are the most important group, but others play important roles too.

After the United Nations itself was created, over the years many specialized bodies of the United Nations were created, a large number of them very useful, a large number of new intergovernmental forums were created, treaties were agreed, and treaty bodies then had to emerge, the bodies responsible for monitoring the implementation of treaties. So it has become a fairly tentacular system rather than a unitary system.

I think António Guterres does a fantastic job of telegraphing what's important for the world that the United Nations can crystallize. But for all of us who agree with him there are many people even inside the United Nations and amongst Member States who may not agree with him, so the United Nations is far from a unitary actor.

That's why I try to think of the United Nations in several dimensions. First of all, in what areas has it been effective at producing concrete results? In what areas has it been successful at producing global standards?

It has been actually remarkably successful at creating global standards, which was kicked off by the inspiration of a great American woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That created the impetus for a vast range of treaties on human rights which now represent a benchmark. Even if these human rights standards are violated at times by nearly all countries and by some countries nearly all of the time, those standards will endure. Even if the world descends into war, when it comes to its senses eventually these standards will be a beacon of hope toward a better world. So I think that's very important.

But I think what captures the imagination of the public often is conflict-prevention management by the Security Council when it can be moved to prevent conflict and try to manage it. 

I think humanitarian action has become a much more important activity of the United Nations in the past 30 years, and the United Nations has developed critical skills in coordinating not just UN actors on humanitarian action but also many other field actors, bringing international organizations together with voluntary bodies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others, whose work is very important in the humanitarian field, bringing them together with the Red Cross organizations, which do fantastic work around the world in the humanitarian field. This is, I think, tremendously important.

Finally, I think the United Nations after in a sense wanting to be a critical actor on development programming has actually now found its vocation, which is much more one of encouraging new ideas on development and setting new goals for development, starting with the Millennium Development Goals and now the Sustainable Development Goals. The money was never at the United Nations for development, it was always principally at the World Bank and to a lesser degree at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and in the regional development banks. It was nearly everywhere except the United Nations.

So it was always delusional of the United Nations to think that operationally it could be the critical actor, which it wanted to be but couldn't be for lack of money, and I am glad that about 35 years ago the United Nations started figuring out that on development it had to identify a new vocation, and it has been in my judgment quite successful in this vocation of setting goals, standards, experimenting with its own programming—we have learned quite a lot from UN programming, which has always been on a fairly modest scale, and which today the World Bank and the regional development banks are much more open to learning from. The cooperation amongst the development actors is infinitely better today than it was 40 years ago or 60 years ago. So there is good news along with sometimes grim news.

MARGARET KARNS: Very good. Thank you for that overview, David. To be sure, the United Nations' efforts at goal-setting go back a long way, and the challenges of coordination do as well. To have a little bit of a positive view of those is good.

I would like you turn your attention for a few minutes to issues of peace and security and particularly the role of the Security Council, which you have written so much about. You served as Canada's permanent representative on the council in the early 1990s, a period that has been widely described as one where the United Nations was able to function much as the Charter and its founders intended because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and an era of previously unknown cooperation among the permanent five Members.

Even Secretary General Guterres has warned recently of the danger to the United Nations from the deepening rift between the United States and China at present that some have called a possible "new Cold War." I wonder if you would elaborate a little on your own thinking of the future of Security Council efforts to deal with threats to international peace and security.

DAVID MALONE: I think indeed the constant tussling between the major powers—it isn't just the United States and China; there have been major tussles also between the United States and Russia, the European permanent Members with sometimes China and sometimes Russia and sometimes the United States. The Security Council has become a much more contentious place than when I knew it in the early 1990s, as you point out. I was an ambassador back then, and Canada was co-chairing the Sanctions Committee on Iraq, the first Sanctions Committee of the "modern era," so to speak, for the United Nations.

It was a very hopeful period, the early 1990s, because the Cold War had actually in international relations ended first at the United Nations, when the five permanent Members of the Security Council in 1987 started meeting with each other very quietly to see if they could come up with a solution to the Iraq-Iran War, which is somewhat forgotten today but was an incredibly murderous conflict. Because President Gorbachev had fundamentally different views from his Soviet predecessors on international relations, they found out all of a sudden that there was common ground on conflict settlement, so they were able to propose to the rest of the Security Council after meeting secretly amongst themselves for some months a peace plan for the Iran-Iraq War. The rest of the Members were a bit miffed that they had been left out of the discussion, but they adopted the plan, and lo and behold, after wrangling a bit further, so did Iraq and Iran, and that war ended. The troubles of Iraq didn't end, but that particularly murderous war—much more so than the Iraq-Kuwait War, which we all remember I think—ended. The Cold War in many ways came to a conclusion in the Security Council before it did in Europe, so to speak, on the ground with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

They were very optimistic mistakes, but in those years mistakes were made, and notably—and I regret to say this—by the United States and Britain because they had very fixed ideas on how sanctions to force Iraq to implement the provisions of the Security Council's Resolution on postwar behavior by Iraq should be implemented, notably through sanctions, and Britain and the United States either didn't notice or simply ignored France defecting from the unity that had existed. China and Russia had defected a little bit earlier, and Britain and the United States just carried on as if nothing had changed and this Resolution could be forced down the throat of increasingly unwilling and critical partners of the United States in the venture. All of this ended very badly, in part with the second Iraq engagement of the United States, which one can judge in different ways but I think is widely now recognized as not a success.

So quite quickly the post-Cold War consensus of the United Nations fell apart because the United States and Britain were both absentminded and arrogant in that phase and wound up with egg all over their faces actually. Tony Blair's reputation never recovered, nor did the second President Bush's reputation recover.

MARGARET KARNS: If I could bring you up to the present, however, which is to think about: Is the Council back in a kind of Cold War environment with the rivalries and the tensions between and among major powers at the present time?

You have also written that you think the 10 elected Members of the UN Security Council could be far more active than they have been. I was interested last week in a news piece to read that Indonesia, for the very first time in its experience on the Security Council, had authored a major resolution on women in peacekeeping. Can you talk a little bit about the Council today and the possibilities or the blockages, and particularly what room there may be for these 10 non-permanent Members to make their mark and to move some things that will enable the United Nations to be somewhat effective on peace and security issues?

DAVID MALONE: Great. Well, there are two major differences between today and the period I was talking about earlier: One is that the West is disunited, so we often have France and Britain not agreeing with the United States. That's a new and in my view unhelpful development in international relations, which also complicates the existence of the Council. But also it is no longer an East-West confrontation. It's more complicated than that. I mentioned that there are three major military powers today—China, Russia, and the United States—so that is more complicated.

This actually creates more room for the elected Members. Many of them don't seem to realize it, but no resolution can be adopted in the Security Council without nine positive votes, and those nine positive votes need to include at least four of the elected Members. So the permanent Members on their own are not enough, and in my view the elected Members have been pathetically timid and have allowed themselves to be successfully intimidated by Russia, the United States, and China—not all at the same time; on different issues by each of them—in order to keep them quiet, submissive, and generally not unhelpful. That is actually the disgrace of the elected Members. So I am delighted to hear of the Indonesian resolution.

I would also like to pay tribute to the role Germany has played during its current term on the Security Council. They have an outstanding ambassador, Christoph Heusgen, and a very good team. They are very energetic. They are constantly floating proposals, but the permanent Members are psychologically at the United Nations in an unreal space. They are hugely important at the United Nations, but Britain and France need to remember that they are only hugely important at the United Nations and that they need to somehow reflect their greater reality in the United Nations by working much more closely with other Member States, including the elected Members. Germany and others have created better bridges between some of the permanent Members and some of the elected ones, and I think that is very helpful.

But I think the elected Members always disappoint their electors because they wind up being frightened of threats by the permanent three but sometimes including also Britain and France, who still have dependent former colonies in many ways. So I think if you are going to get elected to the Security Council, you had better be willing to stand up to the permanent five. Otherwise, you start as a failure, and you will wind up as a failure.

MARGARET KARNS: I would like to pursue this a little further and ask you to talk a bit more about some comments you made in your essay about Council actions on nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and peacekeeping over time as being rather effective.

DAVID MALONE: Indeed.

MARGARET KARNS: In a publication a number of years ago you described some of these actions as "quasi-legislative" or "regulatory," which I think has not been widely recognized outside perhaps narrow UN-oriented circles. Given the shifts in geopolitics that we were talking about a short time ago, is the Council likely to be able to continue to be effective in any of these areas—nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and even peacekeeping?

DAVID MALONE: It remains effective on security in Africa but only when it works very closely with the African Union. The African Union actually calls the shots now on African conflicts when they can agree amongst themselves, which is quite often. So when the Security Council has a clear position from the African Union it can be very successful at funding the action that needs to take place and authorizing the use of force when it's necessary. But the Security Council is unlikely to be effective in Africa without a near-consensus of the African Union, which has been—unnoticed by many observers—a much more effective actor since it arose from the ashes of the Organisation of African Unity to become something more meaningful, attracting more senior-level commitment from African leaders. So that is a scenario where the Council remains effective.

On sanctions, for example, the Council is effective when it's also sensitive to the damage that sanctions can create on the ground. If they are willing to modulate sanctions to take into account humanitarian considerations, they are very effective at times.

The Council has on two sets of issues—I won't get into legislation—one dealt with terrorism and one was of other things. The problem was that the Council seemed to think it was enough to legislate, and then action would follow. But actually, countries didn't like being legislated for. They consider their own parliaments sovereign. And the United States, which had become reckless about sanctions on Iraq and sanctioning individuals connected with Iraq, did not recognize that the rest of the world was fed up with this, and it took a judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to sober up the United States because it made implementation of Security Council sanctions impossible, indeed illegal, by EU Member States. That's what it took to sober up Washington, a new reality all of a sudden, new facts. And they came from a court.

MARGARET KARNS: A court that has some teeth.

DAVID MALONE: Indeed. The ECJ has great teeth within the European Union.

MARGARET KARNS: Indeed, indeed.

You have spent a lot of your career working on development-related issues, and the United Nations does have a long track record in promoting development and, as you noted, shifting particularly to the use of goal-setting, target-setting, and so on to push those along.

You make an interesting comment in your essay that the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals currently have undoubtedly helped restore UN legitimacy on development, and that is an interesting way of thinking about it. I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that concept, "legitimacy," for the United Nations that you discussed.

DAVID MALONE: The truth is that the United Nations just wasn't very effective in producing development results. What it was good at was producing hollow debates, a game of ideological ping-pong that would go back and forth with rather hollow disagreements over development theory between delegations at the United Nations, and this produced no positive results on the ground, and the big money still wasn't flowing to the United Nations.

The best decade of the United Nations oddly enough on development programming was the first decade, from about 1955—it picked up a little; there was some experimental programming earlier—to about 1965 because the programming wasn't meant to develop countries, it was meant to learn more about what works in countries. We learned a lot from those experiments. Looking back, it was a very important period and a very creditable period for the United Nations.

But as soon as large-scale development programming became possible because the governments of industrialized countries were prepared to invest through multilateral organizations very large sums of money in development, the United Nations was not the chosen vehicle for this. The big donors trusted the World Bank and the regional development banks more because they were in some ways more coherently managed than the United Nations. They gave more weight to the countries that were providing the money, and that suited the countries that were providing the money. The results of all this were mixed, but they were very large scale; nobody can argue with that.

But the World Bank and the IMF made significant mistakes during the 1980s with their enthusiasm for structural adjustment, which was carried too far in demanding that development countries in effect undergo financial repression which prevented development actually in their countries. So the World Bank and regional development banks lost some of their luster just at the time when the United Nations realized it had to gain some luster by learning new tricks. The path to the new tricks was in effect created by a series of reports, the Human Development Reports, which pointed at new approaches to development, not ideological at all, but new practical approaches: What works? What doesn't work?

The Bank and others became more interested in this. There came to be more of a dialogue about it all during the 1990s, such that by the year 2000, when the Member States of the United Nations agreed to launch the Millennium Development Goals, the Bank, the Fund, and others were very supportive of this. They thought it could be extremely helpful in giving a shared agenda to everybody, and that's what the Goals have done. The Goals are uneven as between countries, but they have had considerable resonance around the world. For example, in Japan two sectors have adopted the Development Goals big time: one is big business, which may see it as a branding opportunity, a popular branding opportunity in fact; and the university world picked up on SDGs big time. And those are two important communities in Japan.

Then the government of Japan became more domestically supportive of the SDGs. So there is a knock-on effective of widespread adoption of a shared idea, and that is what was absent between about 1965 and the year 2000.

MARGARET KARNS: Very interesting. You talk about Japanese universities and so on adopting the SDGs; my own longtime university, the University of Dayton, has adopted the SDGs and is trying to spread them across the curriculum and in activities within the university. It has been a very interesting development, at least to me from afar in this respect, because you certainly do not hear a lot about the SDGs here in the United States more generally.

You mentioned earlier humanitarian action, and clearly there is a series of enormous humanitarian concerns in today's world, perhaps particularly the enormous numbers of people forced to flee, whether from conflict, environmental changes, or persecution, and whether they are classified as refugees, asylum seekers, or the misnomers of "environmental refugees" and "economic migrants."

One of the interesting developments has been bringing the International Organization for Migration (IOM) into the UN system in recent years. An organization that was very little known, even by those of us who studied international organizations, is suddenly finding a new role for itself.

But the bigger question to me is: Is the United Nations really capable of rising to the institutional changes that these migration patterns pose for the international community?

DAVID MALONE: I think it can. It is a big adjustment because the numbers of migrants, both within countries and migrants across borders, some of whom are political refugees and others of whom leave because the country has become unlivable but are not really political refugees, so there is a mix of types of people on the move, often internally.

The scale of the phenomenon today is relatively new. It is getting a lot of focus, which is extremely helpful in fundraising for various organizations including leading humanitarian NGOs, which have done a terrific job; the IOM has done a terrific job. It was not well known to the United Nations, but it was very well known to the funders. It was a very well-funded organization. Why? It helped migrants in practical ways on the ground, and that matters. No speeches, work and results.

So I am delighted that it has joined the United Nations as an associate organization. It makes its own rules and its own low-cost culture because it has an admirable low-cost culture, but it has joined in.

So now there is agreement that all of these actors have to work together on humanitarian distress including migrants because there is a great deal of humanitarian distress amongst people who are not migrating also, which, for example, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children's Fund, and a number of the UN's admirable specialized agencies and programs have been working for a long time.

But it lends I would say to the marking role of the United Nations, and a bit to the surprise of onlookers like me has been that it has proven very, very adept at helping to coordinate all these actors, many of which are pretty anarchic and don't easily submit to coordination of any sort. But they also have seen utility in it.

So there the United Nations has found a vocation. It has very high quality staff on humanitarian issues, an outstanding humanitarian coordinator at the moment in Mark Lowcock, a great deal of support from António Guterres, who used to be high commissioner for refugees, and from the deputy secretary-general, a wonderful African woman, Amina Mohammed. That's all working actually much better, and because it has not been problematic in terms of management it attracts very little attention. If it was nonstop problems, the papers would be full of it.

MARGARET KARNS: Right, right, right.

I would like to close with a question about leadership, a question that I have become interested in, particularly in the roles of women. But in this case I will pose it more broadly: Where do you think the leadership might come from for averting a fate like that of the League of Nations for the United Nations looking forward?

DAVID MALONE: I know we are running out of time, so I will be brief about this, and I will speak about a concrete example. There are many different ways that organizations can be well-led. The last high commissioner for human rights was hugely brave, Zeid Ra'ad—a former Jordanian peacekeeper, always a human rights activist, and a fantastic guy—and he really shamed the malefactors, so to speak. But that did not necessarily produce huge results on the ground. It did shame those who deserved to be shamed.

The new high commissioner has a very different background. She is formerly twice president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet—who I admire just as much as I admire Zeid Ra'ad—a very successful president of Chile. She has tried an alternative approach of human rights issues that bring countries together, and there are many of those. They aren't as newsworthy often, but they are very important issues.

Leadership comes in many flavors and in many types in every leader and persuasion, but it needs to be well-thought-through every time. You need to consider unintended consequences of a particular strategy, you need to think about collateral damage, all of that. But I think both those leaders were in very different ways outstanding high commissioners for human rights, and of course Michelle Bachelet is still high commissioner for human rights and may be for many years.

MARGARET KARNS: Thank you so much, David, for giving your time, reflections, and ideas. We very, very much appreciate this, and I certainly appreciate the essay that you and Adam Day contributed to this special issue of Ethics & International Affairs.

DAVID MALONE: It's always a privilege to work with you and also the Carnegie Council, so thank you all very much.

MARGARET KARNS: Indeed. Thank you.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Thanks, Peggy, and thanks so much, David, for joining us.

This has been a conversation between our host Dr. Margaret Karns, and her guest David Malone, as part of the Ethics & International Affairs series, The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, produced by the Carnegie Council.

Again, my name is Adam Read-Brown. I'm the editor of the Council's journal Ethics & International Affairs.

In the next installment of this series, Professor Karns will speak with Maria Ivanova about the United Nations and efforts on the environment and climate change. For more information about this and other Carnegie Council programs, visit carnegiecouncil.org. And for more information about the Council's journal, including our recent special issue on the UN at 75, visit eiajournal.org

Thanks so much for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed the program. 

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