The UN: An Instrument That Requires Skill
No. 3 2003 July/September

Giandomenico Picco is Personal Representative of the
Secrerary General for the United Nations Dialog Among

Giandomenico Picco

It has been passionately argued over the last few months that
the impact of the Iraqi crisis on the UN would be devastating. Many
of those opinions were uttered as the conflict was approaching. Yet
there have been other predictions of gloom concerning the fate of
the world organization in the past.

Similar dire opinions were also voiced in 1999 when some member
states decided to use force in Kosovo without UN approval. There
was no UN Security Council meeting, nor a single resolution
implying that the use of force was being contemplated. The UN was
not part of that decision-making process and its forum was not used
to debate the issue either. Yet the UN survived the Kosovo crisis;
chances are it will survive the aftermath of the Iraqi crisis as

The engine of the United Nations depends upon two different
elements which, when they successfully connect with each other,
create the dynamic for action: “legitimacy and participation.”
Those who seek international legitimacy for their actions are
entitled to it by offering their participation in the
decision-making process to other member states; those who are
offered participation return their legitimacy. If neither side is
prepared to offer what they have, then the engine of the UN fails
to accomplish its goals. I like to call this process an
international social contract among the members of the
international community, which are of all sizes and powers.

The basic purpose of our modern institutions, born after the
French Revolution, has been to create a collective decision-making
process so as to keep the whims of the individual – namely the king
– as the symbol of individual irrationality, at bay. These
institutions would then bring into the forefront the collective
processes which are seen as a guarantee of rationality.

In some ways, the success of the UN in creating a collective
decision-making process at the international level has been quite
remarkable. No member state has yet decided to abandon the world
body; none has submitted, so to speak, its letter of resignation.
It has survived possibly the most trying of historical times to
date, namely the Cold War era. It was at this time that the
ideological struggle produced the longest and deepest paralysis of
the world body. And yet neither of the two superpowers moved to
reduce the size of their representational offices at the UN
headquarters in New York. Indeed, every single new state that has
come into being has applied for its membership.

The UN still attracts more heads of states and of government to
its meetings than any other international institution. Like any
institution the UN is an instrument, and like an instrument its
appropriate implementation is up to the actors of the international
scene, namely the member states. It could be argued that the UN is
as good as the ability of its member states to use it.

Politics has always affected the world body; after all it is a
political organization first and foremost. Perhaps not too many
would remember that for 41 years, that is, until the autumn of
1986, the Security Council’s Five Permanent Members did not meet
together as a group. Today, this has become something of a habit
which many seem to take for granted. Politics has made the Security
Council work like it did not in the past. The British, together
with the Secretary General of the UN at that time, encouraged this
development which would change the image of the UN for 16 years –
that is, until our present day. This change was not written into
the Charter nor mandated by anybody.

By the mid-1980s there were certain individuals who read well
through the ‘eyes of the present’ to understand that the Gorbachev
phenomenon would have a direct effect on the working of the UN. It
did, accompanied as it was by a particular war of a historically
unique kind, which was being waged at the same time: it was the
first war (Iran-Iraq) where both East and West were on the same
side (Saddam’s). Afterwards, other momentous developments made the
headlines: the Afghanistan agreements for the withdrawal of the
Soviet Forces, the independence of Namibia, the end of the civil
war in El Salvador, the liberation of the Western hostages from
Beirut, they are all events which carry a clear – though different
– UN signature, and they all happened before the formal end of the
Cold War. Indeed, the Cold War actually came to an end for the UN
in 1986.

The key success of the UN was to see the change coming just
ahead of the curve and to prepare itself for the transition. This
was admirably achieved.

The UN has been most successful when the Security Council and
the Secretary General have played different roles as part of a
well-choreographed ballet where both utilize their best abilities.
That is what happened during those early years of ‘the new

The Five Permanent Members (5 PMs) worked together then, and
several times in the 1990s, because they entered into the
‘international social contract’ where they were able to offer their
participation and legitimacy into the decision-making process.

Indeed, the Kosovo war happened outside the parameters of the UN
exactly because that deal could not be struck. That deal was
re-established rather quickly when the UN was asked to enter the
postwar phase which was the reconstruction of Kosovo.

The Iraqi crisis appears to some observers to have brought that
unity to a halt. However, it may simply be that the world has
continued to change and that the very concept of alliances on which
much of the deals in the UN were made has also come to an end. I
would submit that it has.

What we have witnessed is the end of alliances based purely on
ideology, which reinforced agreement on all of the issues, all of
the time. Indeed, the present world seems to be rather
characterized by alignments as opposed to alliances, created on an
individual basis according to the situation. Thus, friends can be
united on some issues and in disagreement on others. The Iraqi
crisis was a case in point, and as a result the world has not come
down, it has simply changed. The alliances which guaranteed total
allegiances are gone and, more truthfully perhaps, alignments have
emerged based on individual issues and not on ideology. The UN is
not immune to this.

In some ways we are actually witnessing a higher level of
international democracy than ever before in the last 60 years;
countries seem more inclined to choose their position on each
separate item, rather than on dogmas and pre-ordained ideological
priorities. Of course, this makes the international system more
difficult to manage.

The contract between legitimacy and participation remains valid,
it is just now harder to obtain. In other words, the UN still works
in much the same way but it is just more difficult to go through
the collective decision-making process. Of course, we are living in
a one-superpower world but we are also living in a world where
everybody is vulnerable: from the smallest to the largest powers we
are all vulnerable to international terrorism, contagious diseases,
economic and financial upheavals (as we live in a highly globalized
economy) and certainly to ecological changes. Thus, in a curious
way we have to adjust to an international system based on one
superpower, as well as to a relatively newly discovered “equality
in vulnerability.”

Indeed, it was this recently discovered “equality in
vulnerability,” fully demonstrated on September 11, 2001, that is
the source of the need for the U.S. to show its might. Few would
doubt its real power, however, the show of military force is
probably best explained as more of a domestic necessity for the
U.S. than anything else. The September 11th effect on America may
have been underestimated by many across the world; it would be a
further mistake to allow that underestimation to persist. The
economic slowdown of the world economy, and perhaps more
importantly of the U.S. economy, has made the question of the
volatile cocktail of “superpower and vulnerability” ever more

Would the war against Iraq have taken place without the events
of September 11th?

Whatever the answers, all of these developments have affected
the United Nations because they have affected the international

The simplicity of alliances of the Cold War era is out, and the
complexity of issue-based alignments is in. The predictability of
behavior by members of an alliance is a thing of the past. Since
September 11th, the major U.S. concerns are related to security,
and the perception of being a primary target of terrorism. These
concerns have even come to supersede economic issues – a position
that may not be completely shared by Continental Europe but perhaps
is shared by Russia, China and India. The competition for the heart
and soul of Islam in the Muslim world is on; a peaceful competition
for the heart and mind of the West is also underway.

Priorities seem to have changed unevenly for the member states
of the international community. To be sure priorities have always
been different if we look at the entirety of the UN membership, but
recently we have come to understand the different priorities of the
5 PMs of the Security Council. Security, terrorism, economics,
international law, human rights, environment, all has a different
level of ranking according to the government in question.

Yet, if some had been surprised at the discord which emerged
among the 5 PMs before the Iraqi war, many more were undoubtedly
surprised at the agreement which was reached as the Security
Council adopted Resolution 1483, which consented to lift sanctions
against Iraq, as well as recognized the authority of the occupying
powers in Iraq. More agreement was reached few days later with
Resolution 1484 on the dispatch of further UN troops – under French
Command – to the DRC. Has the rupture been already contained? Or is
it rather further proof that consensus is no longer the consequence
of alliances, as has been argued, but proceeds on an issue-by-issue

To be sure, in the last few years the Security Council has
produced two resolutions which are quite remarkable in their scope
and political consensus: Resolution 1373 which deals with ways to
confront terrorism worldwide, and the already mentioned Resolution
1483. In the aftermath of September 11th, the consensus among the
Council members on the fight against terrorism was indeed so wide
that it even affected domestic legislations across the globe. Some
observers even venture to say that the text was ultra vires, and
the Council had gone beyond its legal powers. As it happened none
of those voices were more than a whisper since the consensus was
not only strong but wide in its support. Equally unprecedented was
Resolution 1483 which was passed on May 2003 and concerned Iraq. In
fact, those two unprecedented resolutions have shown that the UN
Security Council does matter and does have a role in major critical
issues of peace and security more than it did 30 years ago.

Is the UN equally relevant on all issues? Of course not, but
this is hardly the consequence of the recent Iraqi crisis or of the
policy of one superpower. Was the UN a player in the Vietnam War,
or in the conflict in Northern Ireland? Was it relevant in the
conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or in Kashmir for that
matter? How many countries objected to UN human rights
investigations over time? Is “multilateralism a la carte” a recent
phenomenon or is it a rather old one? Is it the domain of one
superpower or it is germane to several countries?

What seems to have recently changed is the way countries,
especially major countries, interrelate with each other. It is more
difficult to take for granted the behavior of any one country, just
as it is becoming more difficult to play a completely unilateral

The international social contract which is at the core of the
UN, namely “legitimacy against participation,” seems to be still
the way things are worked out among the intergovernmental bodies of
the world institution; the Iraqi crisis has in fact demonstrated
this, for better and for worse.

Furthermore, in Resolution 1483 the reconstruction of the unity
among the 5 PMs was achieved through the role given to the United
Nations in the nation building process in Iraq. Thus, the
appointment of a Special UN Representative for Iraq “whose
independent responsibilities shall involve reporting regularly to
the Council on his activities under this resolution,” became the
vehicle which allowed different positions to be reconciled. In this
case, like in many others in the past, the role of the Secretary
General was properly used to the benefit of all. And indeed this is
an important role for the Secretariat of the UN: to offer an extra
devise to the member states when it is required in order to reach a
convergence of views and pursue common objectives.

Much has being written about reform of the United Nations over
the years, and much has been said about changes in the various
organizations. But little attention, if any, has been reserved
about the fact that no matter what the structural changes, the
quality of the individuals serving the world body still makes a
tremendous difference. The quality of the individuals serving the
UN, as in any other human endeavor, has much to do with the ability
and courage to take on responsibilities and to be accountable. At
certain times in the past this world body was chaired by a
Secretary General who attributed the failures of the UN to the
institution itself as if that somehow exonerated him. Fortunately,
this is not one of those times, for Kofi Annan is certainly not
that kind of Secretary General.

The Iraqi crisis will not make the UN irrelevant, but the
inability to adapt to change might. We should remember that
bureaucrats and politicians fear change, leaders and statesmen
thrive on it.