What is the United Nations supposed to be doing?

What is the United Nations supposed to be doing?

The challenge the United Nations faces today is that the vast majority of people have forgotten what the UN is supposed to be doing, and why. We have forgotten why the world set it up. Notwithstanding the periodically hortatory nature of its founding documents, the United Nations was not a purely idealistic construct doomed to crash with the passage of time upon the cruel rocks of political realism.

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By Matthew Parish

For anyone who has read Michael Soussan’s notorious memoir Backstabbing for Beginners, about his career as an intern in the United Nations during the “Oil for Food” programme in which the United Nations administered a corrupt regime of providing humanitarian relief to sanctioned Iraq in the 1990’s, one might imagine the United Nations to be nothing more than a multi-course meal of flick-knives for breakfast. There is a lot of talking, a lot of time-wasting, a lot of money spent on things it should not be, and an unprecedented level of political intrigue at every level that discredits the institution as a whole.

Unfortunately much of this image is accurate. But not all is. There is some logic to the United Nations, or it would never have been founded from the ashes of World War II. The challenge the United Nations faces today is that the vast majority of people have forgotten what the UN is supposed to be doing, and why. We have forgotten why the world set it up. Notwithstanding the periodically hortatory nature of its founding documents, the United Nations was not a purely idealistic construct doomed to crash with the passage of time upon the cruel rocks of political realism. This was an institutional structure approved and joined by Joseph Stalin, who most people may be able to agree was not one of life’s great idealists. Mao Zedong spent colossal efforts lobbying to ensure that the People’s Republic of China could join. There must have been a reason for it all.

The central problem of international relations is one of credible commitment. This is a term from law and economics. It deserves a level of explanation. In order to thrive, people have to cooperate, and so do companies. The way they cooperate is by one party promising another that they will do things, each in exchange for the other: I will do this, if you will do that. These mutual promises are called contracts, and they are the basis not only of commerce, but family relations (e.g. marriage) and even the operation of government (statutes and laws, that set out rights and responsibilities of the governed and the governing).

To be effective, contracts generally require someone other than the parties to enforce them. If someone breaks the contract then a third party will intervene. Some contracts do not typically require a third party to play this enforcement role. They are sometimes known as “point-to-point contracts”. They are contracts created in a market or souq. I buy some vegetables from you. I pay in cash. You hand over the vegetables. I walk away. The contractual terms involve very little more than an immediate exchange of goods for money, and hence an enforcement mechanism is rarely necessary.

Nevertheless the economy of the market can only get us so far. Sophisticated commerce – and sophisticated government – requires contracts whose rights and obligations are extended in time and space. I buy something on eBay or Amazon when I live in New York. The vendor lives in San Francisco. There is no instantaneous exchange either of money or of the goods. There has to be some trust, and trust is created by an enforcement mechanism. If you breach your side of the bargain, then I will be able to force you to comply with it or, at the very least, to punish you. There will be a price to pay.

There are, very roughly, three methods of enforcement although they overlap. The best one is called courts – if they are fair. You pay money to lawyers and (indirectly – through taxation) – to judges, and they decide who is right and who is wrong if a dispute arises. If the party who is wrong does not wish to do what the judge has decided they must do to remedy their wrong, then the force of the state will be used to compel them to do that. This can be a very effective way of procuring trust – in other words, of ensuring that when people sign contracts they create credible commitments. That is because the costs of litigating a dispute are so high that most times you are better off just doing what you agreed to do. Ultimately you will be forced to do that anyway, in most cases, if your opponent cannot afford a much better lawyer, and if the judge is approximately fair.

The second-best method of creating credible commitments is reputational risk. In some societies, the way contracts are enforced is because people know one-another, whether through families or otherwise, and a person who does not stick by the rules will be talked about. One might ask “who cares if other people talk about me”. The answer is that other people may not enter into contracts with such a person in the future. This is what it means for one’s reputation to be damaged. This system is imperfect, because the mechanisms for managing one’s reputation (or managing the reputation of another) may have very little to do with the rights and wrongs of the matter at hand. People’s reputations may be trashed justifiably or unjustifiably. For this system to work, it requires something of a concentrated monopoly in the capacity to trash reputations to be held by wise people. This may be rare.

The third-best method of creating credible commitments might be called “arming yourself to the teeth”, or the “Wild West” method of justice. You and I agree something. If I decide you did not comply with your side of the bargain, we meet in a square at dawn and I shoot you. The main problem with this method of enforcement is that you might shoot me instead. Moreover my assessment of whether I want to escalate the matter to the square at dawn might turn out to have very little to do with my assessment of the merits of the matter. I might just make up an excuse, because I want to shoot you and I think I can do so before you shoot me. Perhaps I was just able to buy a bigger gun since we signed the contract. One soon starts to wonder what the point of signing the contract was In the first place.

These three narratives more or less amount to the history of civilisation. Nations tend to develop from the third to the second to the first, and perhaps this is what Stanley Kubrick was trying to tell is in her superlative motion picture ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. As an aside, the reason I believe societies develop in this direction is because for intelligent people, the first method is better than the second which in turn is better than the third. Intelligent people tend to get their way: this might even be regarded as the definition of what it is to be intelligent. Hence societies develop from brutalism to civilisation.

Now we come to states.

States need to cooperate in the same way as do people. The problem is that states are not very good at cooperating. States are very good at signing contracts. We call them treaties. States have always been good at this. Yet they are not very good at sticking to them. While states may agree all sorts of things between one-another, they may later just decide that they no longer want to do the things they promised they would. Or, they may decide that they want to accuse other states of not doing that which they agreed that they would, for whatever purpose. That is because states have an unfortunate habit of seeking benefit in what economists call “comparative advantage”. It is better for one state if it is stronger than its adversary state, even if the consequence of this is that both states are worse off than in a situation in which the states are of equal power.

The reason states seek comparative advantage, rather than cooperation for absolute advantage, is because as a general matter states operate in the third scenario above of credible commitments. They are always concerned that their adversary state might insist that they meet in the square at dawn. The best way of foreclosing that risk is to have comparative advantage. It is much better for one state that it is stronger than its adversary. If every state thinks like this, we have a race to the bottom. States go around trying to belittle each other in order to obtain maximum comparative advantage. On important lesson history may teach us from the first half of the twentieth century is that if states become too powerful (superpowers) and relentlessly pursue their comparative advantage, then there are periodic world wars and everything is totally destroyed.

One solution to the fact that states appear to be in stage three of the development from barbarism to civilisation might be to give everyone nuclear weapons, and this was the stage three solution the superpowers devised early in the second half of the twentieth century. It was rather dangerous, as the Cuban Missile Crisis showed. Soon the nuclear powers realised that, to paraphrase the fictional Peter Sellers character Dr Strangelove, there is no point having the ability to destroy the entire world unless you tell everyone else about it and then you talk to everyone else to resolve your problems. Hence hotlines and the like were set up. So there was peace between nuclear powers. But there was no world peace in general. Indeed history since the end of World War II has been particularly bloody, as nuclear powers have decided to fight proxy wars in the territory of non-nuclear powers rather than fighting one-another directly.

Moreover nuclear powers have a most understandable inclination not to let any other nuclear powers emerge. That is because in a scenario three model of credible commitments, the overwhelming comparative advantage of unilaterally having nuclear weapons (i.e. one’s opponent does not) is something that a rational state must do everything possible to maintain. Moreover nuclear states are in a strong position to prevent non-nuclear states from becoming nuclear. They can use their nuclear status as a lobbying tool to impose economic and political sanctions upon aspirant nuclear powers. And, in the final analysis, they can blow them to pieces. The foregoing must explain some of the logic to the current crisis in North Korea.

Every rational state actor surely understands that the foregoing state of affairs is not a good way in which the world is run. The world, armed to the teeth, needs its diplomacy to progress from stage three to stages two and one. Otherwise we are all going to die after the next Wall Street Crash. That is why Stalin and Mao approved the founding documents of the United Nations. They did so not because they had faith in the professed liberal ideals of a multilateral system – at least, not intrinsically so. They did not believe that states automatically reciprocally comply with treaties and all one needs to do is to create an international secretariat imbued with aspirations of good faith, whereupon the world’s problems all evaporate. Rather the progenitors of the United Nations were trying to civilise inter-state dialogue: gradually, but inexorably.

The problem with method one for creating credible commitments between states is that there is no global government, no global court system and no global judicial enforcement mechanism. Where the United Nations uses force, it has to borrow troops from its member states. This is very different from having its own army whose genuine fealty lies towards the United Nations. That is because the United Nations has no effective method of compulsory tax-raising. It is reliant upon its member states for donations which, although expressed as mandatory, are essentially voluntary as we are now seeing. Traditional substantial donors to the United Nations, including the United States and my country the United Kingdom, are threatening to de-fund the United Nations if it does not improve what it is doing. The United Nations has no tax-collectors and bailiffs to enforce its funding demands. From this it follows that the United Nations cannot have its own independent police, armed forces, courts or judges. Those authorities cannot be independent if they are at the mercy for their funding upon the parties against whom they might be expected to serve as adjudicators and enforcers.

Nevertheless the United Nations has tried to emulate method one institutions. It has established a number of international courts, but none of them work very well for precisely reasons set out above. It has created peacekeeping forces, and endowed them with distinctive uniforms (“blue helmets”) and legal mandates established in international instruments. The United Nations has tried to create things that look like laws: General Assembly resolutions, for example. But these have all, more or less, been elaborate constructs. Talk of giving the United Nations an independent army has never come to fruition. UN Security Council Resolutions seeking to enforce or implement international court decisions are often blocked.

That is because, some very rare historical examples aside, states virtually never genuinely agree genuinely to pool power into new institutions with authority over more than one state. In the very rare historical circumstances in which this has happened, it has taken place extremely gradually and more by stealth than by design. States are much better at splitting up (two new Presidents to be happy with their titles, rather than just one) than they are at joining together.

One course the United Nations has been trying to pursue may have been to move too quickly from stage three to stage one in the quest to create credible commitments between states and thereby avoid a new series of international security catastrophes. I am not saying that there should be no international courts. I am saying that we have to think much more carefully about what those courts are realistically capable of doing, and to plan the development of the United Nations accordingly. One of the problems with the United Nations at the current juncture is that nobody much cares about what it is doing, because it has become discredited. The United Nations aspired to do things in category one that it could not do because it was moving too quickly. Nobody was thinking about this problem, and therefore the system created more bureaucracy, confusion, waste and chaos in lieu of more perfectly effective institutions. In other words, the United Nations tried to cover up its own failures, although those failures were not really the fault of the United Nations. Its member states had imposed upon the UN system a series of aspirations that it could not hope to achieve – at least, not so quickly. As any peacekeeper will tell you, institution-building takes far longer than the usual temporal perspective of any democratically-elected politician (i.e. the next election).

So what do we do now? We do not need to demolish all of these institutions. Instead we need to realise their limitations and work with them to improve them in the right direction. We may need to slow them down a bit. The UN’s member states are becoming frustrated with the amount of money the UN is spending – it is their money. Their tolerance for spending more money may be limited. So we need to pause and regroup. We need to assess the effectiveness of different parts of the United Nations, sweeping away some cobwebs of inefficient bureaucracy and better applying the resources we have to those functions in the United Nations that more clearly operate effectively.

It is no good replying with the commonly-heard refrain that efficiency does not matter because UN member states’ contributions to the organisation’s budget are so fractional as regards national budgetary expenditures that member states’ actions towards the United Nations are not motivated by money. That assertion has been proven false. UN member states are now threatening to, and are, withholding UN funds. Whether because they think those funds could be better spent elsewhere, or because they think that doing this may give the UN an incentive to act more usefully, funding of the United Nations is now an issue. If the UN does not show a willingness to reform, it will go bust. If nothing is done then I believe it will go bust very soon: within the lifetime of the current Secretary-General. This would be a catastrophe.

What does the United Nations do well? Its critics do not often give the United Nations enough credit for what it does do properly. Those things lie in the spheres of methods two and three in the creation and sustenance of credible commitments. As to method three, the officers of the United Nations serve as diplomats of last resort. When nobody is talking anymore – and that seems to be a major problem now, as we apparently slide into a new Cold War – we need a group of diplomats who can still negotiate and speak behind the scenes, often behind pretexts that they are doing other things. One is reminded of the line of Jim Hacker in “Yes Minister”, in which he observes that the best place to discuss foreign policy is at a funeral. That is because nobody is asking you to hold a press conference; there are no expectations; nobody can criticise you if the talks went wrong. When pistols are about to be drawn at dawn, the United Nations can remind everybody that this is not a particularly good idea. Generally the United Nations does this very well.

The other thing the United Nations can do well – but it can also do it badly – is in the sphere of method two. The United Nations can serve as an arbiter of states’ reputations in upholding bargains. One must recall that all rational states – and I think we must assume states in general to be rational or there is no point thinking of international relations as a branch of political science at all – want the United Nations to do this. That is because all rational people want contracts to be enforceable in some way. If they did not, then they would not sign them. The current state of affairs, in which treaties are sometimes respected by nations and sometimes not – does not benefit anybody. It just creates paper that people may or may not later find it convenient to comply with. If the United Nations could serve as an ever greater impartial arbiter of reputational standards amongst treaty-makers, it might become more mature.

As things stand, it is far too clear that many states do not trust the judgments the United Nations makes about them or about other friendly or adverse states. The reason for that may be because the United Nations is not holding itself to the highest standards in the judgments it makes. The problem has become so acute that now there is a funding crisis.

How might the United Nations hold itself to higher standards? Offices such as the High Commissioner for Human Rights might bring increased scrutiny and due process to their roles. The High Commissioner is surely a legal officer, forming judgments and taking actions about whether human rights standards – essentially legal standards – are complied with. This might mean exercising ever greater care and discretion in the decisions the High Commissioner makes. This might entail ever more substantial inter-state consensus around the veracity and reliability of the decisions of the High Commissioner. Although it is impracticable within the confines of this article to enumerate all UN agencies that play a reputation-supporting role, this model of scrutiny and due process might lend confidence in the judgments of the United Nations. If the UN wants to serve as a standard-bearer in a quasi-judicial capacity, it must bring judicial standards to bear in what it does.

In short, the United Nations is good at method three enforcement of credible commitments, but it under-sings its praises in this regard. It should do more quiet diplomacy, and it should publicise better what it does. Diplomacy is something that to a great extent must be done in private, because the criticisms one makes in private are often not usefully repeated in public. As Bismarck said, making laws is like making sausages: better that it not be seen. Much the same might be said about diplomacy. Nevertheless the United Nations does achieve a great deal in this field, even though it may consist of things so anodyne as maintaining the peace or preserving the status quo and preventing conflict. Newspapers much prefer bad news to good news, but a great deal of what the United Nations does is quiet, good news. The United Nations is not very good at developing a positive media message for what it does. Most of its media message is incoherent platitudes that fool nobody except those who have already drunk the hemlock. The United Nations should become better at this.

The United Nations should likewise improve its method two projects. The UN serves its member states. It can only incur derision if it fails to do this. It therefore needs to consider more carefully how it may act as an impartial signaller of the proclivities of states to comply with their treaty commitments. It should not act as a moral foghorn, taking sides in contentious and difficult disputes without regard for reason or deliberation. The United Nations must observe due process, undertaking careful and deliberate enquiry, working on a bipartisan basis to ensure that its conclusions are impartial, exercised with caution yet confidence, and ultimately respected. In this regard the United Nations has a lot of work to do.

As to method one, I believe that only once the United Nations has made substantial improvements in method two may method one follow more naturally. Nobody is going to invest  further in international judicial institutions with credible adjudicatory capacity unless they have broader confidence, in a softer setting, that the United Nations is capable of careful and impartial deliberation in a method two context. Then we can move on.

Finally, I think it is appropriate to make a comment about funding. I believe that the United Nations has become so discredited that some dramatic cuts to its funding are now inevitable. Its traditional funders have proceeded beyond irritated, to infuriated and determined. Whether or not they are justified in this is not to the point. It is the reality. Therefore there are going to be cuts. We need to make sure that these failures in confidence in the United Nations are never repeated. But in the interim, we need to find other ways of funding the United Nations. My own tentative view is that we should explore private means of funding the UN. We should never permit massive donors to occupy the ideology of the United Nations, and therefore funding caps from any individual or entity should be avoided, while so-called tied funding (i.e. the provision of funding conditional upon certain projects or goals being achieved) should be entertained only with great caution lest the aspiration of multilateral neutrality be structurally undermined. These comments are only fleeting; the funding of the United Nations could and should be the subject of another, much longer, essay than this.

Nevertheless the world needs the United Nations. The people of the world need it. They might be willing to donate to it. UNHCHR underwent that revolution in the last decade. The UN as whole might consider the same. In undergoing this transformation, it might find an incentive to self-reform, because if it does not improve its reputation in doing things the peoples of the world want it to do then it will lose its financing. Those who are concerned about UN accountability and reform might find an outlet to create institutional incentives for improvement.

We live a new world. In many ways it is very dangerous. In other ways it is replete with hope. In this essay I tried to capture both, and to set out my vision for a new and rejuvenated United Nations Organisation.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He is a scholar of ethnic conflict and civil war, and he has published two books and over two hundred articles. He is an Honorary Professor of Civil Law and Litigation at the University of Leicester and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Bilan magazine named him as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. www.matthewparish.com

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

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