Insuring against war - the role of the United Nations in the modern world

Insuring against war – the role of the United Nations in the modern world

The UN requires a root and branch change in the way it hires, trains, promotes and retains its staff. The organisation must redefine its purpose, and then it must use its resources ruthlessly to pursue those objectives over any others. This is not going to be easy, and it will require meticulous and continued attention on the part of UN member states. But it is not an impossible task either, if approached with suitable levels of diligence and focus.

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By Matthew Parish

Why does anybody care about the United Nations? For a numerical majority of its member states, the answer is obvious. The United Nations manages substantial budgets in the fields of development economics, peacekeeping, support for refugees, assistance for the impoverished and political institution-building. States want the money. That is why it is important to be pliant towards visiting UN officials. But this money must come from somewhere. It comes from donor states.

Of the 193 member states, the top 20 donor states contribute some 84 per cent of the UN’s budget while the bottom 135 countries contribute less than 0.1 per cent each. The mechanics by which these contributions are calculated are confounding in their complexity but ultimately irrelevant for our purposes. The bigger question is why the top 20 countries effectively subsidise operations in the other 173 countries, and pay for a bureaucracy to do this. The United Nations is a substantial exercise in financial redistribution from wealthy states to poor ones. Why do wealthy states act in such a way?

One might be inclined to answer this question by analogy with conventional explanations in political economy for the existence of social welfare systems: groups of comparatively under-privileged people form common interest groups to lobby what is hoped are tolerably responsive democratic institutions to redistribute income in favour of the less well off. The incentive on the part of a responsive government institution to accede to this pressure is the ballot box. Nevertheless this logic does not lend itself towards easy transformation to the multilateral sphere. The reason is that at the UN level, the wealthier states cannot be forced to pay progressive taxes, whether by way of democratic process (the United Nations General Assembly is a system of one state – one vote, but its resolutions are mostly non-binding) or otherwise. The poor cannot vote the rich out of political office. The United Nations was intentionally designed like this. The UN Security Council – in which most important transnational authorities are vested – contains five permanent members, each of which are nuclear powers and therefore against whom very little can be enforced if they are truly intransigent – and each of whom has a right of veto over any motion.

The donor states might contribute to the United Nations as a means of buying influence with the recipient states. But this begs the question why they don’t buy this influence directly through bilateral aid and development programmes. The United Nations bureaucracy is bloated and hence inefficient. A proportion of a donor state’s contributions are lost amidst the administrative system. Moreover the United Nations inevitably anonymises, at least to some degree, donor contributions. How is one supposed to buy influence, if the source of the funds intended to buy the influence is obscured?

Some people say that we ought to care what the United Nations says and thinks. The United Nations has a Secretary General, who from time to time pronounces his opinions about issues of geopolitical pertinency. It also has a High Commissioner for Human Rights, who pronounces similar such opinions rather more frequently. The United Nations is replete with committees, Under Secretaries General, Special Representatives, Special Envoys and even institutions describing themselves as courts that purport to deliver opinions, judgments, resolutions, decisions and commentaries upon the actions of states about all sorts of things that states may do. But so what? The world is full of NGO’s that do such things as well. Why should we accord the United Nations privileged status in the weight we ascribe to their views? The institutions of the United Nations that describe themselves as judicial are particularly unusual, because unlike normal courts they have no way of enforcing their judgments and are reliant upon the states that comprise and voluntarily fund them to do so. Hence they can hardly be conceived as independent.

The reason why the 135 countries referred to above might care what all these UN voices have to say is not perhaps so hard to divine. If they do not treat the United Nations with due courtesy, then their funding and subsidies may get cut off. But again the bigger mystery is why the donor nations care about any of this. Several observers have concluded that they do not. That may be so. Donor nations are free to ignore the United Nations. But why do they contribute to such a structure?

Dreams of the prevailing virtues of international law as a mutually civilising process of common benefit to the community of nations in creating a commonwealth of states aspiring to some higher purpose beyond the anarchy of the jungle are just that. They are dreams. History disproves these dreams.

One answer to this paradox is to deny that it is a paradox. Donor states simply should not and do not donate, and they should and do ignore everything that the United Nations does. But this approach bypasses the gnawing question of why states established the United Nations in the first place, and then let it grow. The only answer one can fall back upon is that donor states were guilty of some sort of temporary but extended idiocy – they were dreaming – and they are waking up from the dream and the best thing to do now one has divested oneself of the illusion is to ignore what one previously created. But any theory of international relations that is premised upon the serial stupidity of states from which incompetence they are one day suddenly liberated must have something wrong with it.

To write off the United Nations as the ravings of a group of neo-socialists with liberal domestic tendencies, determined to impose their value systems upon the world, is surely too quick even if there might be an element of truth to it. If this is all there were to the United Nations, then the project would surely have died long ago. After all, the Soviet Union collapsed long ago and they had nuclear weapons. Would the United Nations not be expected to have collapsed sooner, were it based upon such flimsy ideological foundations?

The lingering value in the United Nations, that it is now easy to overlook, is that it serves as an Insurance policy against war. Armed conflict is as hugely costly as it is an inevitable and recurrent theme within history. Moreover war is not just costly for the state combatants. It is inevitably costly for many or all wealthy nations, who become drawn into other countries’ wars because they have political or commercial interests in the region in question. This is virtually an inevitable consequence of being a wealthy nation. Wealthy nations might virtually be defined as such by their propensity to project power beyond their borders. So they get sucked into other people’s wars around the world, even though for the most part they may have no desire to be so.

How does a Great Power resolve other countries’ wars so as to minimise the expense those wars may cost them? It might be tempting to reply that they do so through bilateral diplomacy, in the same way as they solve any other foreign policy problem. But things may not be that easy. Often Great Powers find themselves fighting foreign wars through proxies. They are not even supposed to be there. Hence negotiating with anyone becomes very difficult. You cannot negotiate if you are not supposed to be there. Moreover wars between proxies can last for a long time: until they burn themselves out through stalemate. Modern warfare is not about Great Powers sending armies to face one-another on the battlefield. Those times are long gone, memories of them eroded by the rifle then the tank then the nuclear bomb. Now wars tend to be more contained affairs in which the parties officially in conflict are constrained by the fact that they are proxies for far more powerful Great Powers, with nuclear weapons behind them, that cannot enter into direct confrontation because that would entail mutually assured destruction but those powers do not want to pay the political price of losing face either.

Hence wars are no longer fought to the end. They are fought to aggravated yet lingering stalemates, in which the Great Powers and their proxies realise that they can go no further without dangerous escalation but in which nobody wishes to back down either. Wars being economically irrational as well as humanitarian catastrophes, none of this makes any sense. Wars never do. But we humans have a propensity for engaging in them. The challenge for humanity is therefore how to manage this perpetually recurring and harmful phenomenon.

We live in a period of relative global peace. None of the United States, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China exhibit a current propensity to engage in war with one-another, either directly or via proxies. Conflicts worldwide are being resolved. But this will not last. The reason why not is that to the extent there is global economic growth at the current time, it is unevenly distributed. History teaches us that there is no greater a catalyst for civil conflict than this. So civil conflicts are going to be back on the horizon, and soon.

The underlying logic to the United Nations, conceived in the aftermath of World War Two, was as a mutual fund to insure against the risks of future wars, to create mechanisms to defuse them, and thereby minimise the costs to the Great Powers of their inevitable participation in them. Those mechanisms included an institutional structure of international bureaucrats, a series of budgets to apply to zones prone to conflict with a view to mitigating the likelihood of war or, where conflicts do occur, their intensity; and a series of international fora always available as channels of diplomacy of last resort. These are necessary because war, ex hypothesi, entails a failure in diplomacy. Precisely because war is virtually never rational, the fact that wars have started means that people cannot have been talking to one-another as rationally as they should have been. The United Nations provides an opportunity for people to try again.

The United Nations was conceived to cater for these sorts of international contingency. Its secretariat was intended to be staffed with experts in the causes and resolutions of civil conflicts. Far from being a pulpit for preaching the views of any individual protagonist, the United Nations was supposed to occupy a position of independent neutrality and thereby bring a voice of reason to civil conflicts that were otherwise inclined to escalate. To an extent this was always something of a fiction, because it rapidly became clear that the bureaucracy of the United Nations would be staffed by individuals appointed thereto upon the initiative of the member states from which they hailed and to whom they therefore owed their primary allegiances. But it was better than nothing. Even if any individual staff member of the United Nations could only pretend to be neutral then the institution as a whole, by reason of its composition by individuals from member states with divergent interests, might roughly approximate to a neutral point of view. Although this aspiration would often be found wanting, sometimes it would work and at least it didn’t hurt.

The idea underlying the United Nations is to create a structure of unusual multilateral diplomats with expertise in a rare field – the resolution of civil conflicts – that might be deployed to mitigate the effects of war. If one reads afresh Chapters VI and VII of the United Nations Charter, the vision of its drafters might be viewed in this light.

What has happened since the inauguration of the United Nations in 1945 is that a fundamentally sound idea, that has plenty to contribute in the modern world of proxy conflicts between Great Powers, has been obscured. Partially this is the result of unrestrained bureaucratic growth. In part there has been a gradual loss of expertise, as working for the United Nations has become perceived in ever less prestigious terms amidst a series of scandals and a general sense of malaise. But the basic idea – of insuring against the likelihood of future conflicts by preserving an expert quasi-neutral bureaucracy devoted to their resolution – remains a good one.

To get the United Nations back to what it was intended to be is not a matter of money. The biggest contributor to the United Nations is the United States, that spends slightly less per annum on the organisation than it does on the US Coastguard. According to 2014 figures, the US Coastguard saves about 3,500 lives per year. The US Coastguard does many other things of value, of course. So does the United Nations. Although it may be hard to quantify, the United Nations assuredly saves several orders of magnitude more lives more per year. For all its abject failings, any assertion that the United Nations is bad value for money must be assessed in that context.

If there is value in the United Nations then that value is surely being obscured by reams of incompetent bureaucracy. The UN is atrociously bad at public relations. It obscures most of the things it does in jargon impenetrable both to the general public and to its donor members who are rightly aggrieved. Nobody is explaining adequately to them what they are paying for. But it is not really a matter of the money, even if (which is certainly true) that money could be far better spent. It is more a matter of the United Nations losing sight of its principal mission which is to serve as a standing force of specialists in conflict resolution. The reason why a donor state pays into the United Nations is because conflicts are inevitable. Once a conflict arises, the insurance policy premiums in investing in the United Nations surely outweigh the marginal costs in resolving conflicts without this unusual species of diplomats of last resort.

When we strip away the now notorious inefficiencies, incompetence and worse of many contemporary United Nations missions, we have an answer to what the UN donor member states are paying for in their membership contributions. The United Nations has become plagued by bad management and poor working practices. The historical reasons for this are complex, but ultimately they do not matter at this immediate juncture. What is required instead is that the management of the United Nations takes immediate actions to restore donor member states’ confidence in its core mission, so that they feel they are getting something worth paying for.

If this does not happen, then those donor states will withdraw their funding and use it for something else. This means that on the next occasion a civil conflict arises in which the United Nations could intervene to reduce the cost of, the relevant experts and administrative structures will not be there. Equivalent domestic structures, although arguably more efficient, do not import the same veneer of neutrality and may carry cultural perspectives that aggravate a confrontation rather than mitigate it. To be sure, not every civil conflict is best resolved through UN mediation, peacekeeping and refugee support. But some are. The goal should be to strip away those aspects of the United Nations that so rightly infuriate UN donor states, while at the same time retaining what is of distinctive value about the United Nations system.

This requires a root and branch change in the way the United Nations hires, trains, promotes and retains its staff. The organisation must redefine its purpose, and then it must use its resources ruthlessly to pursue those objectives over any others. This is not going to be easy, and it will require meticulous and continued attention on the part of UN member states. But it is not an impossible task either, if approached with suitable levels of diligence and focus.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 on subjects in these fields. 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 of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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