Posts tagged ‘un reform’

September 5, 2012

The U.N.’s peacekeeping mandate is just fine, thanks for asking

The world has yet to reach the point where there is a dearth of articles on the United Nations whose assumptions are off-base. The latest in this series has the provocative title of “Has the U.N. lost its peacekeeping mandate?” Written by Brian P. Klein, a former Foreign Service Officer in Japan and Council on Foreign Relations Fellow, the essay takes an absurd number of shortcuts and liberties with the actual work of the U.N. to somehow reach a conclusion that I don’t entirely disagree with. In the interest of setting the record straight, we begin.

Now that Kofi Annan has stepped down from his position as U.N. Arab League Envoy to Syria and peacekeeping troops are being removed from the country one has to wonder – does the United Nations have any role to play in conflict resolution?

Right off the bat, we’re confronted with an unforced error by Klein. There were never, I repeat, never peacekeeping troops inside of Syria. ‘Troops’ gives the impression that there were forces of the traditional sort first employed in 1956 by the United Nations Emergency Force separating the Egyptian and Israeli armies, the kind who carry arms with the mandate to shoot in self-defense and act as a buffer between clearly defined sides. What he probably meant to refer to was the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria, whose goal was to oversee a ceasefire. But these were unarmed Observers, whose mandate was to watch and report, which they did under increasingly difficult circumstances.

As to the second point, Klein’s argument suffers again from failing to define the terms he uses. Conflict resolution encompasses a multitude of areas, including the provisions of Chapter VI for mediation before violence, an area that the Security Council has actually been lacking in providing lately. Had he been arguing, as many have, that the United Nations was not designed to suppress intrastate violence, vis a vis interstate warfare, he would be given more leeway by me. As he was not, we carry on.

The reality is that the Annan Plan, which supported an interim government to shepherd Syria into a post-dictatorship future, was doomed from the start. Bashar al-Assad was to unilaterally step down in the middle of ongoing hostilities while his forces held the momentum against a popular uprising.

The Annan Plan was, in fact, always unlikely to succeed, but not entirely for the reasons Klein lists. Rather than being an inherit flaw in the plan, as Mark Goldberg noted at UN DispatchAnnan was never truly given the support needed to succeed. We can’t be certain what would have happened had Russia in particular buckled down and pushed Assad to accept the terms of the Annan Plan. However, without that support, Assad would have never accepted the terms. Further, I’m confused as to what Klein suggests would have been a more feasible scheme for Annan to have pitched or what a more ideal move by the international community would have been.

Al-Assad of course played the statesman, met with U.N. officials and allowed troops to enter Syria. No one was fooled for long. His military began an all-out assault soon after Annan’s plane took off. Helicopter gunships and fighter jets strafed cities as civilian casualties mounted. Nearly $17 million was authorized for the 150 military observers and 105 civilians. While a paltry sum considering the more than $7 billion peacekeeping budget, that money could have funded, for example, 2,400 water projects for creating wells to bring safe drinking water to over a million people in need.

His argument that 2,400 water projects could have been funded sounds convincing. But why would that money have been best spent producing wells? Why not inoculating against common diseases? Why not funding a spread of human rights literature?

What Klein touches on here is a less specifically about the United Nations, than about the management of limited resources.  All organizations, be they IGOs or governments, face these questions, and there will always be disagreements on how their resources are best used. There will also always be suggestions that these resources are being used improperly, no matter what the target.

Instead, United Nations’ efforts lengthened by weeks if not months a concerted move by regional powers to openly oppose Syria’s indiscriminate attacks on its citizenry.  The General Assembly then voted to censure its own Security Council for failing to do more.

Klein conveniently ignores the fact that Arab League itself went to the United Nations in support of its peace plan for the region. Following the first veto of Russia and China, the League only returned to the U.N. after the failure of its own observer mission, rather than the U.N. butting in on the initiatives of the regional organization. That the Security Council found itself unable to agree on a course of action actually did little to prevent either the meeting of the “Friends of Syria”, nor the funneling of arms by Gulf states into the hands of rebels.

As far as the ‘censure’ of the Security Council by the General Assembly, the actual event lacked the drama that Klein infused into the action. A resolution condemning Syria’s ongoing abuses included a preambulatory clause, a framing of the issue to translate into non-U.N., “deploring the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions”. In other words, shame on the Council for not agreeing on sanctions. A big difference between that and a censure in the diplomatic world, and one calculated to move certain members of the Council. That said members of the Council didn’t vote for said resolution is unsurprising.

The absurdity of the U.N. divided against itself is compounded by the poor track record of stopping violence. Despite the main charter of the U.N. beginning with lofty ideals to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression…” the supra-national force has never been a realistic fighting military. It lacks the command, control, intelligence and weaponry to stop war once it has begun.

Klein’s argument has some historical merit. The United Nations envisioned by Roosevelt involved ‘Four Five Policemen’ acting in unison to combat the world’s ills, and put down revisionist regimes who sought to overthrow the world order. That vision became the Security Council’s Permanent Members, who, by the design of the Soviet Union, were given a veto over the actions of the Council should their own interests be at stake. From the very beginning, the Security Council was created to only act when all the Great Powers were in unison. Barring that unity, as here in Syria, it can’t unleash its military forces against a given target.

The early years of the United Nations also saw the rejection and/or ignoring of two crucial mechanisms to so enforce the peace as placed in the Charter. The Military Staff Committee of the Security Council was meant to be composed of the Chiefs of Staff for the Armed Forces of all the Permanent Members, providing tactical advice to the Council as it fulfilled its mandate of keeping the peace. It exists to this day, a vestigial organ of the Council, which has not briefed its members in over sixty years.

So too provisions for Member States to place divisions of its air force available to the United Nations for immediate use at a moments notice evaporated soon after the Charter’s signing. Initial Cold War mentalities, soon followed by a desire to limit the strength of the U.N. precluded such steps from being taken. I’ve argued previously that should the Council continue to insist on launching new and more complicated peacekeeping and peace enforcing missions that the MSC should be revitalized, the air forces should be provided to the U.N., or both.

Despite all that history in his favor, Klein still seems to have forgotten instances where the full authority of the UN were unlocked, giving way to “all necessary means” resolutions of the Council. With those three words, we’ve seen free rein for the armed forces of its members, the United States in particular, to carry out the Council’s mandates. We’ve seen it in the 1950s in Korea, in the 1990s in Iraq, and, somewhat creatively, in Libya in 2011. The former two were the sorts of interstate conflict that the United Nations was specifically designed to counter and bring to a halt.

With the world economy tilting dangerously towards stagnation, U.N. budgets will inevitably be forced to shrink. The world body would therefore be well advised to focus on its humanitarian strengths and less on the intractable, hard-scrabble world of armed conflict.

This paragraph is in essence advocating getting rid of the Security Council, one of the few bodies that is actually empowered to act and bind states to its decisions, and keeps several members of the Permanent Five in the U.N. to begin with. Moving on!

This isn’t the first time that poorly conceived efforts failed to turn aggression into peaceful resolution. In the 1990’s, U.N. forces were withdrawn in the face of overwhelming evidence of Rwandan genocidal atrocities. In Kosovo, it took then President Bill Clinton committing U.S. forces to protect a Muslim minority from being massacred by their neighbors.

Again with the lack of distinction between interstate and intrastate conflicts. Rwanda was a disaster, and yes, U.N. peacekeeping troops were withdrawn. However, this was due less to the ability of the United Nations than the will of the Member States. No states at the time were willing to increase the mandate of the protection force in Rwanda, despite calls on the ground to do so, and in the face of increased violence opted to simply terminate the mission. The specifics of this incident keep it from fitting neatly into Klein’s framework.

As for Clinton’s foray into Kosovo, yet another intrastate conflict, it’s still shaky whether NATO acted in accordance with international law when bombing Serbia. So to be honest, not sure if he’s advocating removing the provision that only the U.N. Security Council can authorize the use of force from its position as a basis of current international law.

These days, violence still flares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite a U.N. presence dating back to July 2010 that now numbers over 23,000 personnel (including 19,000 in uniform) and a budget of $1.4 billion. To keep the peace in Darfur, Sudan (17,000 military) and newly created South Sudan (over 5,500) the U.N. is spending nearly $2.5 billion. And with all those forces in place, tens of thousands still flee fighting as the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. Doctors Without Borders highlighted in an August report the ongoing health crisis in Batil Camp, South Sudan with diarrhea causing 90 percent of deaths and malnourishment rates in those under two years-old hitting 44 percent. Of all the tragedies of war, these are imminently solvable problems, and yet too many continue to die because of misallocated priorities and resources.

Klein chose the wrong example to highlight his argument by far. MONUSCO is one of the most effective peacekeeping missions, and most strongly empowered to protect civilians. In July, MONUSCO utilized attack helicopters in conjunction with the Congolese Army to protect civilians against the M23 militia. The Congolese government even wants the Security Council to increase MONUSCO’s mandate. Unless Klein is saying that the U.N. should as a matter of blanket policy ignore states that actively ask for help in enforcing peace and protecting civilians inside its borders, contra the second pillar of the Responsibility to Protect, this seems pretty cut and dry.

Further, all of Klein’s arguments about providing for greater humanitarian aid in lieu of U.N. peacekeeping missions preclude two things. First, how much worse would the violence be on the ground without the presence of these missions. Second, how on Earth the NGOs and other humanitarian agencies he cites would be able to do their jobs lacking proper protection from active conflict. It’s not as though aid workers aren’t in enough danger as it is operating in war zones or places where violence is still the norm post-conflict. Is he suggesting that NGOs begin hiring of armed mercenaries to provide that service?

Security Council resolutions, sanctions and other tools of the diplomatic trade do very little to change the on-the-ground reality of war. Arms continue flowing across porous borders despite calls for embargoes. While world leaders make grand speeches defending their non-intervention or the inalienable rights of humanity in the green marbled U.N. headquarters, countries continue to act with or without U.N. sanction. Spending on “political affairs” and “overall policymaking, direction and coordination” accounts for nearly 40 percent of the United Nations’ current $5.1 billion operating budget. Peacekeeping operations total another $7 billion for 2012-2013.

Klein is right in that sanctions don’t completely alter the rules of economics; as the demand remains, the supply will find a way. What he doesn’t mention is that those arms embargoes he scorns exist give states the right to enforce them, through means such as stopping ships on the high seas. He also remains correct that states who don’t like Security Council decisions are not likely to follow them and will seek ways around them. There will always be those, individuals and states alike, who seek to circumvent those rules, but to act as though the world would be a better place without them is a fallacy.

Less sarcastically, he is correct about the absurdity of the U.N. budget spent in operating costs. Part of it comes from just how sprawling the United Nations system is; efforts to make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing are costly. But were the U.N. as a whole to be judged by the same mechanisms that monitor NGOs spending, it would receive a failing grade.

Yet where the United Nations excels, in disaster relief, health initiatives, education, and support for refugees, programs remain woefully underfunded often requiring public appeals with Hollywood A-listers to bolster their sagging budgets. Few would argue against feeding a malnourished child on the verge of starvation with Angelina Jolie passing out the collections tin. Many would argue for weeks and at considerable expense, mincing words in watered-down, grand sounding political statements on the inherent value of peace.

Certainly, peacekeeping has done some good, but the disproportionate amount spent on these efforts, with such poor results overall and over such a long period of time, need re-examination. A U.N. force has maintained a presence in the Western Sahara since 1994 and has been “stabilizing” Haiti for the past 8 years, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Again, poor example. The International Crisis Group recently released a report noting the folly of withdrawing MINUSTAH from Haiti too quickly, stating “it would be foolhardy to rush that process given the serious gaps in consolidating security and justice. Despite the voices advocating for a more rapid exodus, it is unlikely that full departure can or should be accomplished before a third peaceful handover of democratic power takes place at the end of the Martelly presidency, five years from now, which also should correspond to the completion of the second five-year police development plan”.

His overarching point that UN projects that directly impact people on the ground are sorely underfunded does stand, however. The fact that the humanitarian fund for Syria remains under half-pledged, let alone received, is saddening. However, to pull that funding directly from peacekeeping operations would exacerbate problems elsewhere. As noted earlier, the determination of how to divide limited resources is vexing, and should be vexing. If it weren’t, the process would be lacking any sort of analysis or reflection, which would result in a worsening of any organization’s effectiveness.

It is incumbent on major donors like the U.S., Japan and the U.K., which collectively fund nearly half of annual peacekeeping efforts, to weigh in heavily on reform. Direct the limited amount of resources to programs that make a difference and stop relying on antiquated dreams of stateless noble actors bequeathing peace from above. Build on peace from the ground up instead.

Finally, a policy point that we can fully agree on! The United Nations should do more to help prevent conflicts before they reach the state of continued violence. It should also be in the business of building peace post-conflict. If only there was some sort of Peacebuilding Commission within the U.N….

In all seriousness, I agree with several of Klein’s points regarding the allocation of limited resources and his desire for the United Nations to highlight areas where it has historically shone. However, his thesis that the United Nations does more ill than good when it comes to ‘conflict resolution’ is one that is both poorly argued and not backed up by empirical evidence.

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June 29, 2012

I’m Not Mad, Just Disappointed: Failures of Transparency and Accountability at the UN

Readers of this blog will be well familiar with my attempts to protect the UN from scurrilous attacks and slander. It’s a sad truth that the United Nations is often beset by its critics as being a weak-willed and corrupt institution, overabundant in ways to erect roadblocks to progress and lacking in its oversight. Sometimes those critics, unfortunately, hit the nail on the head.

In the case of roadblocks, often the structure of the body is at fault, with Member States exploring ways to hinder inquiries and reports that reflect poorly on its interests. The most recent example is the delay in the release of the Group of Experts report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent weeks. The report is mandated by the Security Council as part of its sanctions regime against Kinshasaa and the a late-drafted annex to the latest deliverable points fingers at the Rwandan government for sowing insurrection in the DRC. The United States sought to hold off on the publication of the damning annex, first citing procedural reasons, then asking that the Rwandan government be able to review before release. Eventually, the US agreed to allow the document to be published in full, with the Rwandan government immediately issuing a statement of denial.

The Group of Experts report incident is less representative of the UN as organization, and more reflective of its role as collection of states. However poorly stonewalling in the Security Council of technical reports reflects on the body, though, it is still a political creature by nature. The Secretariat, on the other hand, has done little to help change the stereotype of an organization riddled with mismanagement. Indeed,  the lack of desire for transparency shown by the permanent staff at Turtle Bay seems absolute, even when the revelation of misdeeds serves its own interests.

A prime example of the latter comes in the UN’s incomprehensible handling of the situation surrounding peacekeepers assigned to Haiti. Following the accusation that Nepali blue helmets had inadvertently introduced cholera into earthquake-ravage Haiti, the UN managed to display precisely how not to handle a crisis. Despite evidence to the contrary, the United Nations refused to acknowledge its role in the spread of the disease, complicating efforts to treat the outbreak. Rather than stepping forward, accepting responsibility, and rotating out the Nepali contingency, the attempt to ward itself from criticize only provoked greater mistrust from the Haitians it was meant to protect.

The Haitian incident reflects the UN’s unease at responding in an accountable manner to external criticism. Even more unfortunate is its inability to handle internal criticism. After facing the fact that its Ethics Office is less than adept at handling cases of misdeeds by upper level staff, the General Assembly authorized the creation of the UN Dispute Tribunal in 2009, granting it binding authority to impose decisions even on top officials. The Secretariat has pushed back since its inception to attempt to weaken the body, but the Tribunal handed down its first decision recently, slamming the UN Ethics Office for its lack of protection in the case of whistleblowers.

This report from al-Jazeera provides more details on the case and its outcome:


On the one hand, I sympathize with those within the Secretariat who have to handle such cases on a regular basis. As indicated in the article, and detailed in former Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Marrack Goulding made clear in his memoir, there are often forces at work preventing the effective management of employees. Among those issues are the system by which states are provided as near ‘equitable geographical distribution’ in staffing opportunities as possible, resulting in a quota system that doesn’t effectively bring on the most qualified staffers. Also, the system by which complaints regarding worker efficiency are processed is often met with an uproar that dwarfs the same in various national governments with retaliatory accusations are the norm in this climate.

Despite that, the actions of the UN in failing to protect legitimate whistle-blowers are still inexcusable. And the culture surrounding this attitude goes straight to the top floor in UN HQ. The Secretary-General is known for his mild-mannered nature compared to his predecessor, his desires to push for greater unified efforts towards sustainable development and outreach to the citizens of the states that make up the UN, and his unimpressive joke-telling abilities. The Wasserstrom case, and his gutting of the minimal authority granted to the Ethics Office in 2007, shows another side of Ban, one that is more concerned with preserving the freedom of action of the Office of the Secretary-General than of true reform.

This is a clear case of scolding because I love. The UN is an institution that deserves far more appreciation than it gets, and owes the world a far better system than it presents. The need for greater reforms from top to bottom are apparent to anyone. Challenges faced by would-be reformers in any bureaucracy are daunting, not least due to entrenched mindsets and long-time benefactors of the current system. However, reform is indeed necessary, less the good continue to be obscured by the bad in the UN system. The Secretariat, and especially the Secretary-General, needs to recognize a crisis at home that it actually has the power to fix, one that affects its ability to fulfill its other missions and in turn hurts the globe writ large. It’s hard to convince the world that you’re a global force for good when you refuse to face up to your own flaws.

April 16, 2012

On Walter Russell Mead’s Unfamiliarity with the United Nations

I was prepared for a quiet morning today, as I assumed that after last weekend’s flurry of activity at the Security Council, I might have a bit of a respite. Oh, there’s a new Presidential Statement on the DPRK that was approved today, the first monitors are arriving in Syria as part of the resolution that passed on Saturday, and Sudan bombed a UN peacekeeping mission’s camp in South Sudan. But nothing other people couldn’t cover. Then I was linked to this piece on Walter Russell Mead’s blog, titled “The United Nations Today: A Case Study in Failure”. And my blood pressure skyrocketed. Rather than sputter incoherently at the screen, as was my initial plan of action, I’ve decided to go through the article paragraph by paragraph, in true Fisking style, and point out each and every bit of wrongness in this article. I hope you enjoy.

The United Nations is being flouted and ignored more often than usual these days — and the consequences are, as usual, nil.

…And we are off to an amazing start. With this opening line, we clearly establish the tone that we’re going to see from the rest of the article, one that stresses that the United Nations is an organization of decreasing relevance on the world stage. You can see why I might have a problem with this.

In Syria, arriving UN ceasefire monitors are greeted with artillery barrages. Iran continues to ignore resolutions on opening its nuclear facilities to inspectors. And North Korea merrily flouts UN resolutions as it fires rockets and tests nukes pretty much at will.

It is true that the ceasefire on the ground in Syria is shaky at best, though the scores of dead daily we’ve seen in recent weeks has ebbed into an estimated 14 dead yesterday as a result of an ongoing crackdown. However, it  has to be noted that the purpose of observer missions runs on parallel tracks. The first, the one that most often is associated with such missions, is to shame and pressure the instigators of violence into halting their efforts. The second, less considered, is to have a neutral set of eyes on the ground, able to report cogently on the actual situation. Previously, thanks to limiting journalists freedom of movement, governments have had to either rely on opposition movements’ numbers or the reports of the government in Damascus.

As for the Iranian point, negotiations this past weekend went off better than expected, with a new round set for May. That these talks are occurring at all is due to the incredible pressure that has been brought to bear on Iran since its nuclear program was first found in contempt of the IAEA. Four rounds of sanctions have been placed on Tehran, each stronger than the last, sanctions that were enacted by the Security Council as a consequence for defying the resolutions Mead mentions. And, as noted, the sanctions levied upon the DPRK for its previous missile tests are set to be strengthened by the Sanctions Committee of the Council that deals with North Korea in the wake of its most recent provocation. All of these actions against Iran and North Korea are because the international community, and the Security Council in particular, have found them in contempt of the law.

The reality is that the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. There used to be a time when General Assembly votes actually meant something. Newspapers used to report its resolutions on the front page. And the Security Council, on those rare occasions during the Cold War when it could actually agree on something, was seen as laying down the basic principles along which an issue would be resolved.

Oh dear, there’s a lack of media coverage of the United Nations. Clearly, that must mean that it’s less important than it was when it was first created. This argument makes little sense to me, as I doubt there’s a correlation between the ebb of front page coverage of the General Assembly and a lack of prestige of the United Nations writ large. And while I would love if Security Council meetings were covered live in prime-time once again, I don’t think that the lack thereof indicates a weakening of the institution.

Further, regarding the point made about the impact Cold War resolutions had, this is correct, but only because we existed in a bipolar world at the time. The Council was almost permanently gridlocked, save on the few issues where neither the United States nor Soviet Union had pressing interests. So when the United States and USSR both agreed to something, it was essentially a done deal, as the two greatest powers on Earth had come to an accord. But apparently the fact that we live in a world with more distributed nodes of power works against the UN.

The increasing feebleness of the UN reflects several developments. The first is experience; as more and more actors figure out how toothless it is and how little its resolutions actually matter, more and more governments simply ignore it. And as that happens, it looks even more toothless, and even more governments conclude that they don’t have to worry much about it.

I disagree with the premise of the ‘domino effect’ described here. First, the majority of states that wind up “ignoring” resolutions are paying no mind to those passed through the General Assembly and its corresponding sub-organs and committees. These resolutions have never been taken as binding law, unlike those of the Security Council. The concepts within General Assembly resolutions can become international standards, or actual law through multilateral treaty, which are often organized through mechanisms of the General Assembly. They also serve as helpful precedent for international legalists when attempting to determine the opinion of the majority of states on Earth. As noted earlier, states that ignore the Security Council’s resolutions do so at a cost.

The second is incoherence. The General Assembly is based on an absurdity: the patently false idea that the governments of the world are equal in some real (as opposed to formulaic) sense to each other. India has as many votes in the General Assembly as Chad. As the number of weak states and irrelevant states grow, the political importance of the General Assembly declines to the vanishing point. Nobody cares what a collection of micro states, weak states and corrupt, shambolic states thinks about anything.

Of all the nerve! How dare we have one forum in existence where all states are equal?! What nonsense to have a place where Vanuatu dare talk to a Great Power as though they were each sovereign states as provided under the Treaty of Westphalia and the basis of the state-based system which international relations has existed under for centuries! Also, by the argument laid out here, the General Assembly was strongest during the colonial period when European powers controlled most of the people on Earth. Those “micro states” and “weak states” are the result of decolonization and the explosion of UN membership in the 1960s and 1970s. So noted, Mr. Mead.

The absurd and inconsequential nature of the General Assembly is reflected in the bodies and commissions that depend on it. Groups like the Commission on Human Rights are international laughingstocks and rightly so. At best they are irrelevant; at worse they actively undermine the causes they were, theoretically, established to advance.

The lack of research here is stunning. The UN Commission on Human Rights hasn’t existed for years. As for what they may have meant, the UN Human Rights Council, I’ll just leave this here.

The third is outdatedness. The Security Council represents a 1945 compromise between power realities and political correctness. That is, the UK, the US and the USSR were great powers in 1945. China and France weren’t, but it was convenient to pretend otherwise. Today, a majority of permanent Security Council members aren’t great powers, and there are significant powers (like India and Japan) who aren’t permanent members.

I will concede that Mead has a point here. The Security Council certainly does require reform of some sort to reflect the realities of today’s geopolitics, rather than those of 1945. Good luck though trying to get states to come to some sort of agreement of what that would look like, barring another World War-scale event to reshape the political landscape. Maybe Mead would like to lend his support to the Small 5’s proposed restructuring of the Council. (I will also note that while Roosevelt wanted to groom China to Great Power status as a way to keep Japan down, the potshots at France are actually pretty legitimate).

Also confusing is the statement that a majority of the Permanent Members are no longer Great Powers. I assume the first two he means would be the United Kingdom and France, which is up for debate in my opinion. That leaves Mead one shy of a majority. If he means that Russia no longer is worthy of Great Power status, I’m extremely curious about the metric that’s being used. Militarily, economically, the ability to project force into neighboring regions, the possession of nuclear weapons, I’d say that Russia still warrants the title.

A majority of the Security Council’s permanent members are European states and ex-great powers to boot. This is farcical, and the Security Council’s growing weakness is the natural and inevitable result.

First, I disagree that the Security Council is experiencing a “growing weakness” in the least. Even if such a weakening did exist, I doubt that the make-up of the Permanent Five would have anything to do with it. The Five are still the five legal nuclear states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and each still possesses a considerable degree of military and economic power. That three of them exist (mostly) in Europe is inconsequential to the actual strength they weild.

Finally, the UN punches below its weight because it is so badly run. Corrupt and incompetent governments insist on placing political favorites in UN jobs because, well, because they can. Despite commendable efforts at reform, UN bureaucracies remain notoriously poorly managed, inefficient and the whiff of scandal is never far away. The UN designs its objectives badly and spends money inefficiently in pursuit of them.

I’ve said before, and will continue to say, that reforms are needed to enhance both the prestige and operational capacity of the United Nations. I’ll continue saying it, until it happens. But a car that requires a tune-up isn’t unusable, to use a stretch of a metaphor. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has proved to be a vocal advocate for change in the processes of the Secretariat. I’m looking forward to seeing what more the Secretary-General can accomplish in his second term, particularly related to hiring practices.

The picture of course is not all bleak. While most UN peacekeeping operations seem to be corruptly run and poorly managed, they do help tamp down on the violence in some of the places where blue helmets are deployed. And when the great powers really do want to do something together, the UN framework is a useful one for joint action.

And we have reached the only paragraph that I agree with. It took long enough.

I don’t favor abolishing the UN, but unless it figures out how to reform and restructure itself, it will continue to diminish as a force in international life. That is sad; while the world doesn’t need a world government, we could use an effective international body that facilitated international cooperation.

The facilitation of international cooperation is precisely what the United Nations does, as noted by the fact that we haven’t had a Great Power war since 1945. As David Bosco argued in his book “Five to Rule Them”, the UN Security Council acts as a pressure release valve for the Great Powers to vent their concerns about global situations, as well as providing a forum for coordination of response. Also, cooperation is seemed to very narrowly here refer to “prevention of armed conflict”. Anything actions taken by the United Nations not related to international security is cast to the side in this piece, as highlighting successes in eradicating diseases and providing shelter to refugees goes against the premise of massive failure.

In the initial tweet broadcasting this article, the United Nations was referred to as “The League of Nations, Round 2”. While its mission to get more people to click the link and read the article was successful, the premise is entirely misleading and false. The League, with its many structural deficiencies, was unable to prevent the Second World War, while the UN has thus far managed to keep us from a Third, all the while working tirelessly to improve the livelihood of the poorest and most in need. The United Nations needs work, that’s clear to anyone with eyes. But to label it a failure is to ignore both facts and history, something I would expect of a lesser scholar than Mead. I suppose that I have to forgive him; it’s clear from the many glaring errors and falsehoods that he just isn’t all that familiar with the UN.

March 13, 2012

Between the United Nations and the F-35, I’ll take the UN

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding a good nemesis. Not a true enemy, someone who you would enjoy watching crumble. Instead, I mean the sort of person who you know you will agree with absolutely nothing on, but are willing to have the debate with. Today I ran across Brett D. Schaefer, Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. In that role, Mr. Schaefer is the chief critic of the United Nations for Heritage. You can see where the two of us have a problem.

The piece that I stumbled upon today is a National Review article drafted by Mr. Schaefer called “The Costly United Nations”. In sum, the article slams the UN for going over budget in the much-needed renovation of its New York City Headquarters, noting that the final cost will be about $2B, or around 4% over the original budget. As Mr. Schaefer writes:

When the renovation was first proposed, more than ten years ago, the General Accounting Office (as the Government Accountability Office was then called) estimated it should cost from $875 million to $1.2 billion. But the project kept growing — winding up at roughly twice that size under the U.N.’s official, currently approved CMP budget of $1.9 billion.

But even that inflated baseline may be a gross underestimate. Last week, New York architect Michael Adlerstein, the executive director of the U.N. renovation and a U.N. assistant secretary general, informed the U.S. and other U.N. member states that the cost overrun will be not $80 million, but $265 million. And even that new estimate is subject to upward revision, because it does not include certain foreseeable costs.

Schaefer goes on to praise Ambassador Joseph Torsella, the United States Representative for Management at Reform to the UN, for expressing “outrage” at the process. Now, before we continue, I want to say that I don’t have any problem with Ambassador Torsella. The man has a difficult job, with a dual nature. On the one hand, he needs to go to the United Nations and butt heads constantly with the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly and the Secretariat, the bodies that appropriate and spend the UN’s biannual budget, and honestly try to convince them to spend less in a time of global austerity. At the same time, he has been tasked with enacting a policy of the Obama Administration’s that I like to think of as the “Cruel to be Kind” Doctrine, to place public pressure on the UN in order to allow other projects to move forward that benefit the United States without domestic public opinion trampling over Administration priorities. It’s a tough balancing act, but Ambassador Torsella does so with distinction, managing to call out issues that the United Nations has without damning the institution as a whole as many in his position would.

In any case, Amb. Torsella has stated publicly on his Twitter account that the UN’s Capital Master Plan (CMP), which is running the show as far as renovation is concerned, to “determine how these additional costs occurred & take prompt measures to reduce them to complete the project w/o new assessments”. Which is all well and good; as I said, that’s Ambassador Torsella’s job. However, Schaefer insists that any new costs associated with the renovation, including those for security enhancements, be taken from the UN’s general budget. This concerns me, as Amb. Torsella has already won a 5% reduction in the UN’s 2012-2013 budget, only the second time in fifty years that the budget has been smaller than the previous yer. While the US does bear 22% of the budget, I’m wondering just where Schaefer believes the UN should divest its money to fund the HQ renovation. From peacekeeping missions that are already underfunded and understaffed? From its development missions, which quietly exceed expectations and belie the meme that the UN isn’t a force for good in the world?

That all being said, I must concede that Mr. Schaefer’s piece isn’t completely wrong. There are legitimate concerns with the acquisitions and prourement process at the United Nations. Papering over the need to enhance transparency and accountability at the UN hurts the organization as much as directly attacking it in my view. What does concern me, as part of a larger picture, is the obsession that organizations and individuals have with damning the UN for being a den of scum and villainy. Yes, the UN Headquarters renovation is running over budget. But as someone who’s spoken from the rostrum of the General Assembly, trust me, the building needed it. Asbestos in the walls, a weird water stain on the wall of the General Assembly, fire codes that haven’t been met since the 1960s, it’s a miracle the building hasn’t collapsed already.

So what we see here is that when a United Nations project goes 4% over budget, the Heritage Foundation pounces. Because it can, as the lobbying arm of the UN is minimal at best, no offence to the Better World Campaign, and thus lacks the adequate heft to pushback against Heritage’s narrative. The UN’s overspending, however, pales in comparison to that of the F-35 project. Despite the fact that the project has gone as much as 64% over its original budget over the last decade, or sixty percent more than the UN’s HQ upgrade, and that the thing is still in development, the Heritage Foundation is still backing its horse in this race. The  Foundation’s Dr. James Carafano went so far as to evoke the spirit of Col. John Boyd, the Air Force’s legendary fighter tactician and developer to push forward with the F-35 in an article that was not well received by some of Boyd’s compatriots. Heritage is also allowed to do this because they can; the defense lobby is one that nobody wants to tackle, and to come out against military spending is unpatriotic, the exact inverse of coming out in favor of the United Nations.

I bring up the F-35 mess because the United Nations is a national security imperative, whether Heritage wants to admit it or not. It may not have the same appeal as achieving tactical superiority in aerial combat, but strategic concerns and decisions are often less exciting that the tactics that go about in bringing them to bear. In short, the United Nations exists as a place where the vast myriad of US foreign affairs priorities collapse into a single space. Nowhere else can we have informal conversations with regimes that hate us and we’re none too fond of in return. Nowhere else can we meet with both China and Russia, our Great Power counterparts on the other end of the “free and open democracy” spectrum, and discuss matters of shared international concern and, more importantly, determine the red lines among ourselves for what each of the P-5 is willing to consider in terms of action. So the cost of remodeling the Headquarters is costing slightly more than originally planned for? Oh well. The building itself houses an institution that we need, and in the grand scheme of things the extra costs that will be assessed to the United States will be minimal and be part of a shared burden. In the choice between Turtle Bay and an airplane that has yet to be approved as operational, or one that suffocates pilots like the also over budget upgrades to the F-22, I’ll take the UN any day.

[UPDATE: In the four hours since I hit “publish”, the Headquarters project over budget estimates have risen to 14.2% over, rather than 4, or a total of $265M. While this is frustrating, I stand by my original argument.]