Strategies for reforming the United Nations

If reform is not attempted and achieved, then increasingly the Great Powers of today are just going to ignore the United Nations and its bureaucracy, which may entail a return to the dangers of the Great Powers model of diplomacy of the nineteenth century: only vastly more dangerous (and costly), because the arms races have developed so substantially since then.

By Matthew Parish

The United Nations came into being in 1945. During the some seventy years of its existence, it has slid slowly but inexorably into dysfunction and decay. The problems associated with its operation have become so bad that the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council routinely issue statements condemning its actions and operation. One way of understanding this decline is to study the history of the organisation, which has been remarkably complex – indeed too much so, and there is a reason for that. It starts with the organisation’s mandate, which was never adequately defined.

The initial purposes stated for the United Nations were exceedingly broad. They included maintaining international peace and security, and taking collective action to achieve that; developing friendly relations between nations; achieving international cooperation in economic, social, cultural and humanitarian ways; and promoting human rights. Nevertheless the principal international focus was upon promoting peace and conflict resolution. Chapter VI of the UN Charter authorises the Security Council to issue decrees calling for peaceful resolution of disputes between states. Chapter VII creates a regime for the Security Council to use sanctions, military force or other coercive measures to maintain or restore international peace and security. A Military Staff Committee would oversee the armed forces made available to the United Nations in undertaking the measures authorised by Chapter VII.

The Security Council, the Military Staff Committee, and the placing of national military forces at the disposal of the United Nations, were the cornerstones of the UN Charter’s aspiration to create a global government. That is what one imagines is being created if one reads the United Nations Charter afresh, without regard to the institution’s history. The idea was that the Security Council would itself take the most important military decisions in the collective good of nations, enacted by an international military force with international military management. The United Nations could thereby enforce its own decisions.

Things never worked out like this. The first substantial test was the Korean War (1950-1953), in which the United Nations decided to take military action to intervene in the conflict on the Korean peninsula but the US troops that participated did do under the auspices of a UN Security Council resolution. The resolution did not make express reference to Chapter VII, and there is a semantic debate as to whether the language of the resolution – which recommended that UN member states take such action as necessary “to repel the armed attack and restore international peace and security in the area” – actually complied with the language of Chapter VII. Nevertheless the result was clear – US troops intervening in the Korean War under a United Nations flag but subject in practice entirely to a US chain of command. This set the precedent for future Chapter VII military operations: the Security Council would not in fact direct or undertake military operations itself. Instead it would authorise member states to intervene in other states’ affairs under United Nations auspices. The Military Staff Committee never was.

For a while afterwards, Security Council decisions authorising the use of force were relatively few and far between because one or the other Permanent Member of the Security Council would exercise their veto in the context of the Cold War. In many cases where military interventions did occur the military action in question would typically be dominated by the armed forces of a single member of the Security Council. In other words, the United Nations became a flag of convenience for a single member state (or a small group of member states) to execute foreign interventions – where the five permanent members of the UN Security Council could agree. By reason of the stalemate within the permanent five member states during the Cold War, the staff of the United Nations have ventured to do all sorts of things aside from its anticipated main focus, many of which have found as their inspiration the unusually broad language of the purposes stated in the UN Charter.

This has found expression in a phenomenally wide range of international organisations and UN agencies all over the world. The very vast majority of these new agencies and missions have been ad hoc. That is to say, they were not anticipated by the original UN charter and instead they have been the creatures of separate conventions or UN Security Council or General Assembly resolutions, which under the terms of the UN Charter have no authority to create new UN agencies. There are several hundreds of these agencies worldwide, distributed across the world and many of which have offices in towns and cities so numerous, with staff numbers in each case so incalculable (there are many UN agencies in respect of which no clear public figures exist for the number of employees), that this public administrative structure has ventured far from the ideals of transparency that should serve to discipline every public sector bureaucracy. We are now at the stage where one can only guess at the global budget of the United Nations and its hundreds of myriad agencies and offices, but those estimates are in the region of not less than US$65 billion per annum. At times this pervasive complexity is potentially distracting of everyone from the principal founding purpose of the United Nations, namely to keep the peace in the face of international conflicts.

The result is that the United Nations sought to become a global government but without the essential machinery of government, namely the decision-making procedures to take and enforce decisions. Instead it became a bureaucracy without power. The proliferation of ancillary agencies and institutions, as pretences of governmental activity, ultimately reached a stage at which multilateralism is now under pressure and has been for some time. Limited budgets are being over-stretched. The UN infrastructure cannot be renewed through lack of funds. The effectiveness of the United Nations is in doubt, because there are so many agencies with overlapping and unclear mandates. Corruption, misuse of funds and senior staff misconduct have become too commonplace and tolerated to too great a degree. External perceptions of the United Nations, amongst both principal donor states and the international general public, are at rock bottom. The institution’s history has been punctuated by a series of scandals or shocks to which not enough attention has been given.

The pressure upon multilateralism infects not only the United Nations but also other international structures. An example is the World Trade Organisation, which has effectively ground to a halt because member states are now focusing on bilateral or regional trade relationships. Multilateral agreements have become too unwieldy, and particularly difficult to renegotiate as economies re-align in the face of a global economic slowdown. Multilateral decision-making has become too difficult to implement: with the addition of every additional decision-maker whose consent is needed, the efforts involved in reaching decision increase exponentially. That is why it is more than two decades since a successful round of WTO trade negotiations was successfully concluded. The bane affecting the United Nations has become a disease of every institutional attempt at regional and international cooperation, to the extent that there is now widespread scepticism about the effectiveness of any organisation under the umbrella of which states anticipate working together towards common goals.

The United Nations attempted reform in the 1990’s. The so-called “cluster” system sought to streamline decision-making between different departments and agencies in areas where they were working on common goals or in the same fields. But this may have produced more bureaucracy and procedures, as a new layer of administration was super-imposed upon pre-existing systems. So-called cluster reform could only have been treated as a step forward had it replaced the prior bureaucratic structures. As it was, it rendered those structures more complex. If the cluster reforms procedure is to bear fruit, even some twenty years after it was introduced, then it must be allowed to become more efficient and visible.

The United Nations was established in opposition to and above the Great Powers system of international relations in the 19th Century. The Great Powers system involved a balance of power between a series of major military and economic powers, that in turn would divide the world into different spheres of influence. This system was legitimately accused of ineffectiveness and it was likewise held responsible for the major butcheries of the 20th Century. The problem with the Great Powers system is that the balance of power is tenuous; and the likelihood of the Great Powers clashing with critical results is increased as those powers engage in arms races: the clashes on the frontiers between their respective spheres of influence will be ever more bloody. The question that remains open, and is now confronted again as far on as 2019, is whether there is a better system that can be embodied in the multilateral ideals of the United Nations.

Since the 1980’s there has been a proliferation of non-governmental organisations, the purpose of which is to lobby domestic governments and the United Nations itself. These so-called civil society organisations have arisen in substantial part by reason of the perceived weaknesses of the the United Nations system. Nevertheless in the contemporary era, the non-government organisations themselves are the subject of criticism, as they lobby to amass funds for themselves, whether from domestic governments or multilateral organisations, rather than lobbying for improved outcomes from the United Nations. Indeed it is hard to see how the civil society sector can effectively lobby the United Nations to improve its outcomes, because the direction of flow of funds is from the United Nations to NGO’s rather than the other way round. The United Nations is also very difficult to embarrass publicly, since so much of it operates in secret. Indeed holding the United Nations accountable through publicity is a role the international media would surely gladly undertake if they had access to the greater part of what the United Nations does; NGO’s would play only a very limited role in this method of accountability. Arguably the most propitious method of UN reform is not to add another layer of opinionated organisations in the form of civil society, but rescue or fix the United Nations, which is in fact not hugely costly in comparison with its benefits.

One might draw a parallel between attempts to reform the United Nations and attempts to reform the European Union. We may learn from the evolution of the European Union bureaucracy, which has undergone a number of evolutions since 1952. Changes in decision-making procedures generally inflate the problems of bureaucracy rather than reduce them. With every change in the EU’s decision-making system to seek to make the system more majoritarian (that is to say, abolishing the member state unanimity rule) or more democratic (increasing the powers of the European Parliament), the European Union’s bureaucracy has expanded exponentially and it has become ever more cumbersome. From these experiences we may infer that in the United Nations context, changing the rules of election, number or composition of permanent members of the Security Council and similar such reforms as have been touted in the past are likely to raise more problems and friction than keeping the decision-making system as it is.

Reforming a bureaucracy is always challenging. The following are ways that do not succeed. The first is creating more structures, divisions or sectors through reorganisations or divisions or sectors. The new structures will fight with one-another, which makes everything worse. The second is imposing swingeing cuts. The dangers of firing (for example) 15% of the workforce is that by reason of bureaucratic machinations on the part of the staff implementing the cuts, it is far too easy to end up firing the best 15% of staff, not the worst 15%, and then within a short period staffing numbers may be back up to what they had been before but with worse people. A third unsuccessful method of reforming a bureaucracy is to abolish whole departments or de-fang them. For an illustration of what happens if you try this, one need only look as far as the very recent history of the Environmental Protection Agency. The bureaucracy fights back and finds new ways, in all likelihood substantially more inefficient and with a greater deadweight loss, to achieve the same things as it was doing before. Managers who fight against the bureaucracies over which they preside seldom achieve the reform goals they are attempting.

Yet if reform is not attempted and achieved, then increasingly the Great Powers of today are just going to ignore the United Nations and its bureaucracy, which may entail a return to the dangers of the Great Powers model of diplomacy of the nineteenth century: only vastly more dangerous (and costly), because the arms races have developed so substantially since then. There are very few self-shrinking bureaucracies. The only proven method for reforming a bureaucracy is to create institutional incentives for gradual reform. It is necessary to focus upon relatively anodyne factors, such as self-exposure to the media, freedom of information legislation, common accounting standards, and increased transparency in hiring and retention procedures. UN managers need to explain very clearly to staff what they expect their outputs to be, and then they need to hold staff to those standards so that a sense of meritocracy is incorporated into the standards of the bureaucracy.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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