Before the Change at the Helm of the UN
No. 4 2016 October/December
Aleksandr Gorelik

Russian diplomat, former head of the UN Information Centre in Moscow (1999–2014).

Why Nations Find It Hard to Be United

Similar to its status in the last twenty to forty years, the United Nations is still a landmark on the global political landscape. It is still the forefront for key events to unfold, a shrine to secure a blessing for a crucial agreement (say, the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015), and a resort to amplify a technical arrangement. New York City remains the Mecca of global diplomacy.

No matter how hard some “modernists” may wish, the UN cannot renounce its conservative foundations and rational principles of law enshrined in its Charter written at the end of World War II. The organization’s unique legitimacy remains its trump card in the system of global governance. 

The UN also has the convening power that brings people from 170-180 countries to various summits and conferences. The UN documents they adopt put forth ideas for building a world of tomorrow and engaging in intellectual design. 

And yet, since the beginning of the 21st century, the world has changed rapidly, even unexpectedly, often catching the UN off guard. It turned out that globalization could increase inequality between countries and the people who populate them (the somewhat naïve idea of the Global Village entertained in the late 1990s is long gone). Tolerance and cross-cultural dialogue are undermined by aggressive extremism, terrorism, and other such threats. Liberalism (strictly speaking, not a UN principle, but close to it in terms of law and freedoms) is overloaded with a number of opposite meanings. Political correctness does not seem to be a magic wand any more. 

A Jumbled World

The UN’s vision is based on the recognition that the world is not a fair place to live in and improving it is a collective responsibility. However, fairness is an elusive concept, while the balance in global affairs constantly needs to be “corrected.” Since that is easier said than done, UN strategies and programs always face a reality check, with varying degrees of success.

In today’s world, brimming with problems that have neither consensual origins nor obvious solutions, UN leadership does not look guaranteed. Its priorities become all mixed up and resources are further depleted as states tend to slap extra mandates on the UN (meeting only feeble resistance from UN bureaucrats).

In October 2015, the UN pompously celebrated its 75th anniversary. High-flown speeches, historical buildings, bridges, and monuments around the world illuminated in blue light from Sydney to Moscow to Paris to Cairo, films, interviews, and online campaigns—the overall effort intended to send across one message: This is our organization, the world needed it yesterday and needs it today; by changing alongside us, it will be needed tomorrow too. 

These were not routine or meaningless phrases. Still, complements and congratulations often revealed concern and confusion, which is hardly surprising since the UN jubilee took place amid manifest entropy in world affairs.

Hard power has once again become a valid argument in disputes. Russia’s refusal to fit itself into a unipolar system has resulted in direct confrontation of major powers. The rise of India, China, and other Asian countries results in new challenges to the dominance of the collective West.

National sovereignty is back with a vengeance as one of the main principles of international relations and this has affected the UN directly. In fact, its raison d’etre is largely based on countries agreeing to delegate part of their sovereignty to this international organization. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has no illusions about this. “In today’s world, the less sovereignty is viewed as a wall or a shield, the better our prospects will be for protecting people and solving our shared problems,” he told the UN Security Council. 

This being the case, there is still a need to solve many problems (from nuclear non-proliferation to the Ebola virus), and challenges and threats will not wait for the current drole de guerre froide (phony Cold War) to go away. Pragmatism appeals for joint work in New York, Geneva, Vienna, Rome, Nairobi, Bonn, Bangkok, and other UN sites. In fact, work continues on practical and mundane issues, while geopolitics gets even more confused.    

Whatever one may think about the UN, the organization tries to promote pluralism in international relations. Thus it would be shortsighted to expect all (or key) countries to have similar ideological positions after “the end of history.” Habitual complaints by the mass media or politicians about the “paralyzed” or “incapable” Security Council, or regular criticism of the UN for staying aloof or betraying its own values, look naïve and cunning.

An organization whose masters are member-states cannot but be a hostage of uncertainty when the previous rules of the game, written and unwritten, become eroded.

Law Or Loose Concepts?

Written rules are those that codify international law. For the UN, the supremacy of law is not only the cornerstone of the concept of multilateralism, but also the central element of good governance on the international and domestic stage; meaning that the UN sets the standards of conduct for countries and their citizens. This issue has been addressed lately in seemingly perfect statements at special meetings of the UN General Assembly and Security Council and during various consultations and talks. 

But things go in circles when it comes to the most sensitive issues like the use of force, interference, or justice. UN officials have become used to the fact that in difficult situations powers tend to turn to international law a la carte and pick up what they like at the moment. Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Patricia O’Brien admitted in an interview in 2013: “Our legal advice is given in the context of the political reality that we face. That is not to say in any way that our legal advice is designed for political purposes.” Such casuistry often comes in handy for UN lawyers when they need to respond to accusations of using double standards (for example, in international tribunals or the International Criminal Court, even though strictly speaking they operate autonomously from the UN). 

So, the UN keeps falling in the same trap. It can hardly avoid it since its “stakeholders,” primarily major powers (but middle ones too), have developed the habit of applying norms of law selectively. While declaring their commitment to the rule of law, they do not hesitate to use political arguments, albeit draped in legal intricacies. 

This happened with Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, and Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014. The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine (or R2P as it is commonly referred to in international organizations) was badly damaged during the crisis in Libya, and the initial elation among UN senior officials over the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi gave way to confusion and bitterness.

They, although this is rarely admitted, have come to understand that the West simply used the UN for its own strategic interests. There is no need to prove the ambiguity of the R2P concept, which was approved at the UN Summit in 2005 as a guiding principle, but which threatens to erode the sovereignty of any “offender” state. Having burnt its fingers in Libya, the UN Security Council now can only approve indirect references to the “responsibility to protect” (Cote-d’Ivoire, Yemen and so on).

Hopefully, the latest events’ lessons have been learnt. Sober-minded diplomats in the UN cannot fail to see the danger of ad hoc decisions and the impatience of “interventionists.” Their views have been explicitly summarized by Law Professor Michael F. Glennon: “Achieving justice is the hard part; revising international law to reflect it can come afterward. If power is used to do justice, law will follow.” But in order to stay away from Realpolitik and insist that there is no first-rate or second-rate equality among states, top UN officials need no-nonsense firmness, which they do not always have.

Politics, Stupid

Meanwhile, the usual situation still prevails when the UN gets involved in virtually any big conflict and tries ex officio to grope for a framework to resolve or regulate it.

This is borne out by the nuclear deal with Iran, intended to resolve one of the most complex and precedent-setting international security problems. On the one hand, the UN was directly involved in this process. The Security Council adopted six resolutions which legalized international pressure on Iran. On the other hand, the UN did not participate in the six-party diplomatic marathon (although the European Union did).  

When the long-awaited breakthrough was achieved in July 2015, the UN Security Council stepped in again. It adopted a framework resolution, full of undertones, which drew a line under years of negotiations, lifted international sanctions, and at the same time established the Council’s key role in settling possible disputes and claims over future supplies of weapons and military equipment to Iran.  

However, attempts to give the UN a free hand in resolving the crises in Syria and Ukraine were fated to end differently. For all the fundamental differences between the two crises, these efforts revealed similar trends and collisions.  

The turmoil that started in Syria in 2011 deeply divided the Security Council and narrowed the room for consensus to several general paragraphs in its texts. Diplomatic battles led to four vetoes by Russia and China. Their opponents attempted to leave the gridlocked Security Council and take the matter to the General Assembly in order to pass a resolution similar to the “Uniting for Peace” one adopted in 1950. Meanwhile, the HR Council in Geneva and the UN human rights system in general, nudged by the anti-Assad majority, did not spare accusations against Damascus.
The Secretary-General and the entire UN establishment had a really difficult time. The bloody conflict, which spawned five million refugees and six and a half million displaced persons, did not only damage the UN’s image, but also undeservedly scapegoated it. By going from diplomatic phrases about the “collective failure” of the UN to undisguised criticism of “influential states” and “narrow national interests” pursued by regional players, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as one could expect, gradually added a spoon of tar to relations with each of them.   

But nothing could be done without a global political and organizational framework. An agreement at the Security Council, spearheaded by Russia, on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles in September 2013 helped rescue the situation. By the end of 2015, the International Syria Support Group, driven mainly by Russian-U.S. joint efforts—but still associated with the UN negotiations in Geneva—shifted the search for a settlement to a more practical path, albeit with great volatility. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is now trying to consolidate this fragile progress. 

At the beginning of 2014, the crisis in Ukraine became a complex and sensitive issue, which had to be addressed by almost the entire UN system. Adopted by the UN General Assembly on March 27, 2014, Resolution 68/262 outlined a diplomatic framework by advising countries against recognizing Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea. This decision, passed by a not absolute (100 for vs 69 against or abstentions) majority, created the background against which further events unfolded. 

They included two Russian vetoes in the Security Council, fierce debate about whether Crimea had been annexed or if it had just reunited with its mother country, Russian efforts to get the “anti-constitutional coup” in Kiev condemned by the international community, Ukraine’s attempts to deploy a UN peacekeeping operation in its eastern regions, and many other things. In an important legal episode, Russia blocked a resolution in the UN Security Council that would have set a dangerous precedent by calling for establishing an international tribunal not for mass and systematic war crimes, but specifically for an isolated MH17 accident in Ukraine.
At any rate, it was again important for the authority of the UN that the Minsk II agreement, although reached without its negotiators, had been “blessed” by a Security Council resolution in February 2015.

As one could expect, the rhetoric and wording used in New York with regard to Moscow were less harsh than those applied in Strasbourg (Council of Europe), Vienna (OSCE), or Brussels (EU and NATO). In the field, that is, in Ukraine, the UN stays in the background since it has come to a logical conclusion that it would be much more appropriate for the OSCE to handle this issue. That said, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva has set up a special monitoring mission, which is trying to remain even-handed. For that reason different parts of its reports regularly anger Kiev, Moscow, and the unrecognized republics in Eastern Ukraine.    

The United Nations Development Program, UNICEF, the World Food Program, WHO, and other UN agencies joined in providing humanitarian assistance. Their projects were, and still are, useful, but not always as significant as the UN would like them to be. Clearly, they are not among the priorities of the donors who are overstrained as it is (in the spring of 2015, only five percent of the requested $316 million was provided).

On the Peacemaking Front

Geopolitical woes have overshadowed UN peacekeeping efforts, which is not fair since some 125,000 people, including military, police, and civilians, are involved in seventeen missions. In total, more than 170,000 people are participating in UN security and stability efforts worldwide. Their combined budget exceeds $9 billion a year.

But real successes are scarce today. In fact, this has always been the case. A cynical observer can rightfully say: “UN peacekeeping, by its very nature, is always in crisis.”

But then what could one expect if the Security Council (i.e., world mainstream powers) gives tricky mandates to its peacekeepers who have to fulfill them in an increasingly dangerous environment. Any such operation is not a military, but an essentially political one, which means that the range of risks is quite wide and, most importantly, peace has to be restored in situations where no proper conditions for it exist yet. In Darfur, South Sudan, Congo, Mali, and the Central African Republic, UN peacekeepers not only have to play the pacifying role, but also help societies heal their deep wounds and encourage reconciliation efforts, which are often at odds with the notion of justice.   

In addition, the “profile” of internal conflicts is changing. There are fewer large-scale armed hostilities, but there is more everyday violence. As United Nations Development Program Administrator Helen Clark has observed, an estimated 87 percent of deaths directly resulting from armed violence are rooted in organized crime and gang activities.
The result is a permanent time crunch, the urgency of crisis at hand (for example, a series of sexual scandals involving UN peacekeepers in Africa), which weaken the strategic approach, and a constant lack of well-trained personnel and resources. In 2015, an operation on average involved 9,000 more personnel and was expected to last three times longer than a similar mission in 2010. 

But then, things are not so bad. Peacekeeping contingents are deployed amid chaos and in places where no one else has the courage to go. (It is no coincidence that major countries, including Russia, commit only a handful of troops to such operations). “Blue helmets” have become more professional, a fact not only UN officials have acknowledged. The “muscular” style (that is, the use of deadly force in certain situations) previously considered mainly in theory is increasingly often used in practice. Indeed, in Congo a UN intervention brigade is armed with helicopter gunships and artillery systems.    

In some cases outside involvement really succeeds in rebuilding war-torn institutions, retraining combatants, reducing unemployment, and providing people with means of existence. This work often involves the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank, and the European Union.

In 2015, the UN Secretary-General instructed a team of top-class experts to prepare a report on what needs to be changed in UN peacemaking practices and how. The clear emphasis on preventing outbreaks of violence and internal disasters in unstable countries fully reflects the desperate efforts the UN is trying to take to ward off a tragedy in Burundi that could be similar to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. It is to be hoped that the international community has drawn the right conclusions from that dark chapter in history. 

At any rate, peacekeeping missions face very serious challenges, including the ability to project force promptly and effectively. Moreover, UN peacekeeping missions must curtail various local chieftains and brutal field commanders, and impose viable scenarios for dividing power between hitherto irreconcilable opponents.  

Human Waves and How to Manage Them

Despite putting a huge strain on the entire EU, the current immigration crisis in Europe has only affected the UN tangentially. Yet it has given its agencies a chance to display their experience and demonstrate the actual, rather than Eurocentric, scale of the problem. 

Ban Ki-moon and the heads of the relevant UN agencies (such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, etc.) clearly, but in a “comradely” way, are pointing out mistakes in EU policies and offering advice and help, while making it clear that they would prefer to keep a lower profile. That said, situations cannot be ruled out where UN criticism of a lack of “farsightedness” will sound didactic and will not always hit the target due to the strain that has built up across Europe.

And yet key UN functionaries are absolutely right in saying that what the European Union considers a new challenge is not new for them. The burden of humanitarian operations and programs is truly enormous. In 2015, the UN asked its donors to provide $20 billion for this purpose (six times the amount requested ten years ago).

There is yet one more compelling circumstance UN officials never hesitate to emphasize (which many in the U.S. and Europe prefer to ignore). Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have given shelter to 2.6 million Syrian refugees, a number so large that it dwarfs migration flows to Europe. Kenya continues to receive large numbers of refugees (350,000 in the Dadaab camp alone), and 85 percent of all migrants move between developing countries.

It remains to be seen if the rich world will want to notice the problems of the poor world, its social and economic troubles, and feuds. UN humanitarian officials stress that the only way to avoid new shocks from an influx of refugees is to take preventive measures and invest in the development of exodus countries. 

It is hard to argue with this. But is this the whole truth? The current crisis essentially shows that the efforts taken by UN agencies to encourage modernization in the Middle East and North Africa have been semi-successful at best. Welcomed so enthusiastically at first, the Arab Spring eventually messed things up. As it turned out, international organizations were not able to view the process of development as an entirety of contradictory factors. This explains why the staff in those organizations were so shocked by the outburst of indignation in December 2010 in Tunisia, a country which was considered quite successful in terms of HD Index, a popular indicator used by the United Nations Development Program.

A Central Planning Committee?

Development is the UN’s idee fixе as it tries, quite successfully, to combine idealistic and realistic approaches towards human progress. This long-term “project” hinges not only on funding, but also on priorities and the political choices countries make. Adopted at the UN Summit in September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development convincingly reaffirmed the UN’s potential. 

The Agenda is built around seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, essentially a new ambitious edition of the previous global campaign known as the Millennium Development Goals. Now the focus is on eradicating extreme poverty on the planet in the next fifteen years, even though the overall (economic) situation in the world is not as good as it was at the end of the 20th century.

But the UN has once again managed to orchestrate complex multi-level negotiations and produce a coherent program. The new Agenda has incorporated not only the remainder of the previous Goals, but also the existential problem of climate change (a watershed agreement was adopted in Paris in December 2015), as well as critical issues of energy efficiency, decent work, etc. The scope is much broader than just the economy. Sustainable Development Goals address fundamental issues such as the role of the state in economic processes, democratic governance as a sine qua non for development, and the quality of institutions on a global scale (coordination between the UN and Bretton Woods institutions appears to be one of the bottlenecks here).  

The latter circumstance limits regular attempts to turn the UN (not in word but in deeds) into a central element of the global macroeconomic and financial architecture. For all the flattering terms used in numerous resolutions, as a rule ECOSOC and the UN General Assembly stay away from the real “negotiation room” the key to which is held by the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization. Formally part of the UN system, the first two are now indeed more deeply engaged in the process of coordination. But when the Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System, convened in 2009 by the President of the UN General Assembly, suggested establishing a Global Economic Coordination Council (under UN supervision), their idea was quietly shelved.

The situation has not changed since. According to the division of roles, which industrialized countries prefer to soft-pedal, the UN is responsible for development and eradication of the most outrageous forms of backwardness on the planet, while Bretton Woods institutions, the Group of Twenty, the WTO, and newly reached mega-regional trade agreements provide instruments for discussing and solving significant problems of growth, access to markets, competition, and trade.

It is no surprise that many countries with low and middle incomes would like to raise the UN’s “profile” in this field, since it is a much more democratic structure, and logic suggests that the Global South would have an indisputable majority in it during any vote. UN documents repeatedly call for overhauling the entire international system, and to focus profound change on protecting the poorest sections of the population in the least developed countries. Thus, UNCTAD recommends overseeing the policies pursued by countries that issue the main reserve currencies (the U.S. dollar, the euro, the pound sterling, and the yen), ensuring a fairer distribution of the financial burden between sovereign borrowers and private creditors, and keeping the IMF at hand’s length from negotiations between the former and the latter. These ideas sound like anathema to major economic players.

Of course, the UN opposes such partial “marginalization” and some of its negotiation forums, such as Financing for Development, are still in the forefront (as was clearly demonstrated by the conference in Addis Ababa in June 2015). Their documents are impactful in addressing the problems of illegal financial operations, disclosure of tax data, and the transfer of profits to offshore jurisdictions. Leading experts like Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz (we can call them egalitarians) provide strong intellectual support to these UN debates.

However, UN discussions on sensitive issues of macroeconomic coordination and global financial system reform are, most of the time, secondary. Questions of control over financial regulators, acceptable debt burdens for states, and the nature of financial assistance programs are debated mainly at the IMF, the World Bank, and the OECD—organizations where votes depend on the number of “shares” held by big powers or the very fact of their limited membership. 

It is not so easy to make forecasts about how the UN “collectivist” positions will affect the evolution of the supranational integration model. The emphasis will most likely be placed on the redistribution of social wealth on a global scale, encouragement of investment in the real sector of the economy, and greater social equality at the national level.  

In all likelihood, environmental and climate issues will also remain high on the list of UN priorities.

A New Chapter

A new Secretary-General will take the helm of the UN on January 1, 2017. In a sign of the times, it is quite possible that this will be a woman.
But whoever takes office on the 38th floor on East River, s/he will have to deal with the same long lists of problems and short lists of possible solutions. The person will not only be a “secular pope,” but will also engage in settling crises, extinguishing fires, and in diplomatic maneuvering.

The UN will try to create a universal cultural background for the breathtaking changes that are taking place in the world. It will do this by addressing such issues as extremism and violence, sustainable development, human rights, social justice, and the society for all. But in all likelihood, the UN’s global leadership will ever less depend on legitimacy and more on efficiency. One can cautiously expect some crucial moments when its resources (surprisingly modest on close inspection), piled-up mandates, and geopolitical circumstances can call into question its very place in the world.      

At any rate, for the UN to continue to be truly indispensable, international officials and national governments, as well as members of the academic elite and civil society leaders, will have to reach consensus on the way ahead, while avoiding over-ambitious plans, but also half-measures portrayed as full-fledged reforms. Ideally, the UN Security Council, UN finances, the UN system, and international civil service should be revamped.  

This is where the UN can run into two dangers. One is the mercantilism of major and middle powers and political maneuvering geared towards narrowly understood national interests. This is and will be a hindrance to the drawing up of far-reaching measures. The second danger is the inner weaknesses of UN bureaucracy, which is not truly independent of member states and does not always display outstanding skills in efficient management. These problems can be found in any multilateral structure, but they are particularly annoying in the UN Secretariat, too often prone to external influences.

How can a new Secretary-General deal with these problems? Clearly, by making full use of the UN’s pluses, such as its unique experience as the global “cooperative,” the synergy of political, socioeconomic, environmental, humanitarian, legal, technical, and other competences, and certainly by appealing to universal common sense. In fact, the UN has many comparative advantages that are even more valuable in times of global turbulence.

In addition, the UN should preserve its positivist ethics and seek the support of the “global citizen” and public forces for modernization, to which it has been very committed. And then who knows, Pax Universalis may become a reality.