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Can the United Nations Be Reformed?


United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on 2 December released his much anticipated report on internal reform. But most of the debate about the future of the UN revolves around the question of American power and influence.

Can the United Nations Be Reformed?

Soeren Kern | Elcano Royal Institute for Strategic and International Studies | December 23, 2004


United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on 2 December released his much anticipated report on internal reform.

The report proposes to reshape the UN to make it both more effective and more equitable.

It contains many sensible proposals that touch on everything from nuclear proliferation to looming pandemics.

Nevertheless, most of the debate about the future of the UN revolves around the question of American power and influence.


The UN Confronts Irrelevance

The UN High Level Panel Report titled “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility” is the most comprehensive blueprint for change in the organisation’s 59-year history. The report was authored by a panel of 16 independent experts appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to evaluate the current threats facing the world, and to recommend changes the UN could make to deal with them. The 95-page report contains 101 proposals for dealing with six areas identified as being the greatest threats to security: continued poverty and environmental degradation, civil war, conflict between states, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and organized crime.

Most attention has been focused on the report’s proposal to expand (but not reform) membership of the UN Security Council from 15 to 24. The report is more pragmatic than bold by proposing two models for doing this: one would have six new permanent and three additional temporary members; the other would give the Security Council nine new seats, all of them temporary. But neither option would extend veto power beyond the existing permanent five (P5) members of the Security Council, a point that is sure to sharpen the debate in the General Assembly.

Candidates for a permanent slot in the expanded Security Council are already lining up: Brazil, Germany, India and Japan have agreed among themselves that they all should be permanent members. But each has opponents, and excluded countries will be unhappy. Argentina and Mexico both question whether Brazil should be Latin America’s representative on the Council. Pakistan, predictably, has misgivings about India’s claim to permanent membership, while China and South Korea just as surely dispute Japan’s. And the Italians fret that making Germany a permanent member would leave Italy as the only major European country without a seat. The panel calls for geographic balance, but what country should represent the Muslim world? What about Africa? And why should China have a veto if India does not? Indeed, attempts to reform the Security Council are sure to reignite perennial national and regional rivalries; considering the political sensitivity of enlargement, it may be that no change will ever actually be feasible.

In any case, after the US invasion of Iraq without UN imprimatur, the debate over the credibility of the Security Council has shifted far beyond the question of adequate representation to whether the group can curb US power. Indeed, the report proposes bringing the doctrine of what it calls “anticipatory self-defence” (which includes pre-emption and prevention) into the fold of UN-authorised collective security. The panel says that any good argument for preventive military action should be put to the Security Council in the future. If it refuses to authorise an attack, then countries will have to use persuasion, negotiation, deterrence and containment, the report says. In a clear post-Iraq message to the US, the panel says: “for those impatient with such a response, the answer must be that, in a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk to the global order is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action”. Any American president would dismiss this as high-minded blather. Indeed, domestic political considerations guarantee that the US will continue to insist that its own interests take precedence over international law.

Yet the key obstacle to real UN reform remains unchanged: The decisive veto “a single blocking vote that outweighs any majority” that the P5 will neither relinquish nor share. Although decisions of the Security Council currently are made by the affirmative vote of 9 of the 15 members, the power to veto any such decision allows the P5 not only to block action that compromises their interests, but it also provides a bully pulpit for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. The P5 are unlikely to cede their pre-eminent position in international politics. Indeed, the self-interest embodied by the veto will continue to determine if the Security Council does or does not act when the next crisis emerges.

Another factor also appears unlikely to change: the vital role the US plays in the success or failure of the UN. US sentiments toward the UN have been deeply ambivalent ever since the organisation was first founded in 1945, and the new proposals for reform will perpetuate these feelings. Indeed, America’s inability to convince the Security Council to endorse military action in Iraq marked a watershed in US relations with the UN, turning many Americans firmly against the organisation.

Indeed, detractors have been quick to dismiss the reform proposals as another UN illusion. Moreover, by highlighting the monstrous oil-for-food scandal as a symbol of UN incompetence, they have launched a fierce political counter-attack to discredit the UN with the aim of trashing the report (which curiously lacks proposals to address UN malfeasance). In the words of one Washington insider: “it’s payback time for the UN. The bills are coming due for the UN’s non-cooperation on Iraq.” In California, a group called “Move America Forward” has launched a media campaign that favours kicking the UN out of the US. And some members of Congress have gone so far as to openly call for the Secretary General’s resignation. For the moment, Annan says he has “resigned” himself to having a good time. He has also pledged to make 2005 a “year of change”. But this seems unlikely. The US will make life difficult for Annan; and they will pressure him to become more of a secretary and less of a general.

The US and the UN: What Went Wrong?

The name United Nations was coined by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was first used in the “Declaration by United Nations” dated 1 January 1942, when 26 countries pledged to continue fighting together against the Axis Powers.

Roosevelt had been disappointed by the failure of the US Senate in 1920 to ratify joining the League of Nations, and he was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He thus began planning for the post-war international order years before the war ended. As the shape of the international configuration of power began to emerge, Roosevelt conceived of a future world organisation rooted in realpolitik governed by a hegemony of the four great powers…the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union and China…also known as the “Four Policemen”.

Roosevelt and his advisors deliberately divided member rights and roles by establishing a universal General Assembly with the most general functions and a restricted Security Council with authority for maintaining peace and security. Unanimity among the great powers was a prerequisite for action. This arrangement was designed to contrast with the Council of the League of Nations, a general executive committee for all of the organisation’s functions that failed in the security arena because it required unanimous agreement among all states.

The only remaining question for Roosevelt was whether the future UN Security Council could order American troops into battle in defence of international peace and security against its own will. More specifically, would the UN Charter supersede the US Constitution? The American veto in the Security Council was designed to ensure that this would not be the case. Near the end of the war, representatives from 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organisation to draw up the United Nations Charter. The Charter was signed on 26 June 1945; the US Senate ratified it two weeks later.

Roosevelt did not anticipate that just one year later, the very basis of the UN Charter and the unanimity of the P5 would be rendered unworkable by what would become the 40-year Cold War. Indeed, the first complaint before the Security Council, in March 1946, concerned the crisis in Iran. It revolved around the issue of whether the Soviet Union would withdraw its troops from northern Iran as previously agreed. The Soviet Union and Great Britain in 1942 had put troops into northern and southern Iran, respectively, to block a possible German move and to protect Iranian oil. Troops were to be withdrawn six months after the end of hostilities, but the date for Soviet troop removal passed without action.

Although the Iran crisis was finally resolved in December 1946, it was quickly followed by Soviet counter-accusations against the European colonial powers. When Soviet representatives boycotted the UN from January to August of 1950, their absence allowed for the intervention of UN military forces in Korea. The Security Council had become a battleground for the East-West conflict. In serious Cold War matters, however, the UN was a sideshow; its main value lay in containing regional conflicts and preventing them from setting off a larger US-Soviet confrontation.

Meanwhile, the geopolitical earthquake called decolonisation had further unforeseen effects on US-UN relations. With the resulting influx of newly independent member states, the ranks of the UN swelled from 51 in 1945 to 114 in 1963. This radically changed the UN’s voting balance, as well as its priorities. The original gentleman’s agreement on the geographical distribution of non-permanent seats in the Security Council in favour of Europe and Latin America could no longer hold because the new majority from Africa and Asia was so obviously under-represented.

By the early 1970s, the so-called third world had an automatic voting majority in the General Assembly and was not afraid to use it in often radical and anti-Western causes. This development contributed more than anything else to America’s lasting disillusionment with the UN. Rallying in blocs such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77, the third world advocated not only a neo-Marxist “new international economic order”. Their crusade to equate Zionism with racism and similar anti-Israel bigotry evoked growing hostility in Washington and destroyed the bipartisan support of the US Congress that had been one of the mainstays of the UN. In the minds of many Americans, the UN had become a squalid circus.

On the bright side, the Cold War did prevent the resurgence of US isolationism. In fact, the Soviet threat gave rise to a new form of American internationalism that includes security alliances like NATO, which today far more closely approximates Roosevelt’s original concept for collective security than does the UN. (Indeed, the NATO model in Kosovo suggests that in the real world, states have an alternative to going it alone or doing nothing when the Security Council cannot agree on action.) Moreover, the US will never return to George Washington’s classical isolationism of no “entangling alliances”. On the contrary, it will continue to accept international, political, economic and military commitments unprecedented in its history. This engagement, however, is based on an assumption that other countries will do as the US says.

Indeed, some analysts argue that the end of the Cold War has given rise to a new form of American isolationism known as unilateralism. But the US entered the post-Cold War era in a decidedly multilateralist frame of mind. US President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “new world order” and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talked about “assertive multilateralism”. The success of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq had demonstrated that the UN Security Council could agree to take action on critical issues. This golden age of the UN was characterised by a proliferation of UN missions around the globe. Moreover, between 1990 and 2000, the Security Council, led by the US, committed the UN to involvement in more than 20 peace-keeping operations, including Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Georgia, Haiti, Mozambique, Somalia and others; this figure exceeds the total number of operations undertaken in the previous 45 years combined.

But the UN’s performance during the period of “assertive multilateralism” of the 1990s was decidedly mixed. Three of its new operations…Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia…were spectacular failures. These interventions were unworkable because they were fundamentally different from the traditional UN peacekeeping mandates of the Cold War. Those missions did not allow the use of force and usually were concerned with containing conflicts between consenting states; post-Cold War missions were armed and involved pacifying warlords and ethnic or factional leaders, often within a single country. Moreover, political consensus on contentious issues like Bosnia…and now Iraq…was often so difficult to sustain in the Security Council that its mandates for action were inadequate and ineffectual.

In this context, the Somalia intervention was a major turning point for the UN; for the US the episode marked the end of “assertive multilateralism” through that institution. Following the subsequent debacles in Bosnia and Rwanda, the credibility of the UN as a practical force for peace and security atrophied to near irrelevance. The inability of the Security Council to reach a consensus on Iraq was a final indictment of dysfunctional multilateralism. In a world where the US is the leading political, military and economic power, many Americans are tempted to conclude that a benevolent US hegemony would save a lot of trouble and probably be more efficient than any form of international action.

On the day the US invaded Iraq in February 2003, Richard Perle, a leading neo-conservative advisor to the Pentagon, wrote an article for The Guardian that celebrated the death of “the fantasy of the UN as the foundation of a new world order”. Relying on the Security Council to ensure world order and international law, Perle wrote, was a “dangerously wrong idea that leads inexorably to handing great moral and even existential politico-military decisions to the likes of Syria, Cameroon, Angola, Russia, China and France”.

Recognising the slide towards “irrelevance”, Annan declared that the UN had reached a “fork in the road. This may be a moment, no less decisive than 1945 itself when the UN was founded,” he said. Thus he summoned his independent commission to draft a blueprint for change.

Super-Size Me?

In October 1947, just two years after it ratified the UN Charter, the US Senate launched a study of the UN that found serious problems of overlap, duplication of effort, weak coordination, proliferating papers and mandates, and overly generous compensation of staff. These problems have formed the core of the reform agenda ever since.

Indeed, reform has become one of the primary products of the UN system. Scores of independent commissions, government studies and individual scholars have put forward hundreds of proposals, management studies, policy reviews and reform ideas aimed at making the UN work better, decide more fairly or modify its mandate. In fact, the UN has attempted to implement substantial organisational changes every decade: 1953-56, 1964-66, 1974-77, 1985-86, 1992-96, 1998-2000 and 2002-present. Financial, administrative and personnel issues have been the target for so many reform and retrenchment campaigns through the years that one UN insider believes the most useful reform would be to declare a moratorium on reform so that UN workers can get back to their assigned tasks.

The hardest reforms to achieve are those that entail amendments to the UN Charter. This is because the P5 set the political bar for making modifications very high. Contending that their unity was key to making the UN more successful than the League of Nations, the P5 insisted on having individual vetoes over any amendments to the Charter. As a result, the Charter has been amended only three times since 1945; the Security Council has been enlarged once and the Economic and Social Council twice. In practice, it has been nearly impossible to further expand and/or diversify the composition of the Security Council.

But those seeking to expand the number and geographical spread of the permanent members face a dilemma: Should additional permanent members, in the name of equity, be given the very veto power that critics claim is so debilitating to the work of the Security Council? Would not a Security Council with eight or ten permanent members be even more restricted in terms of where it could act, and would not the common denominator for Security Council action be even lower in most cases? Would the associated political paralysis really improve the credibility of the Security Council or serve the broader interests of multilateralism?

The US has often said that it wants a change in Security Council behaviour, rather than an expanded membership, that preserves and improves the credibility of the Security Council. Indeed, expanding the Security Council will not overcome its core weakness, which is its almost total reliance on US military power. In his September 2002 address to the General Assembly, President George W. Bush said: “we created the United Nations Security Council, so that, unlike the League of Nations, our deliberations would be more than talk, our resolutions would be more than wishes”. He later said: “the objective of the UN and other institutions must be collective security, not endless debate”. He warned that the UN risked becoming irrelevant.

United Nations Against Israel?

In many ways, the UN has fallen short of the hopes of its founders, not because of its staff, but because of its members. Giving equal status to the views of democratic countries and non-democratic countries creates an inherent tension that undermines effective decision-making. Central to the failures at the UN is the membership of despotic regimes that habitually violate the founding principles of the organisation. Indeed, only 85 of the 191 countries represented in the UN are considered democratic, according to Freedom House, the Washington, DC-based think tank. As if to underscore this fact, Syria, which the US State Department lists as a state sponsor of terrorism, in August 2002 assumed the presidency of the Security Council.

Nowhere is the failure of Roosevelt’s vision more evident than in the UN’s obsession with Israel. Even though Israel was created by the UN and is the only democracy in the Middle East, the UN has become a forum for unrelenting attacks on Israel and Jewish nationalism. This is the principal reason why so many Americans dismiss the UN’s legitimacy and actively seek to curb its influence. Israel’s policies are, of course, fair game for legitimate criticism. But the situation has reached absurd proportions: There are 22 members of the Arab League, 56 members of the Islamic Conference (which defend terrorism as a right), and 106 non-democracies, and this automatic built-in majority in the UN has been exploited to the point that 40% of the resolutions voted on by the General Assembly every year are condemnations of Israel. This prompted the US State Department in September 2004 to warn that the US would begin blocking such resolutions. Some members of the US Congress are now calling for democratic nations to establish a “Democracy Caucus” within the UN that would bypass the General Assembly altogether. Still others are pushing for the creation of a Community of Democracies as a substitute for the UN itself.

A double standard towards Israel is also the rule and not the exception at the UN Commission on Human Rights (CHR). Some of the world’s nastiest regimes are disproportionately represented among the 53 countries elected to the CHR. Over the past 40 years, almost 30% of the resolutions passed by the CHR to condemn specific states have been directed at Israel, which also has the distinction of being the only state to which the Commission has devoted an entire item on its agenda. In presentations to the CHR, Palestinian delegates have repeatedly devised new variations on the medieval blood libel, accusing the Israelis of such things as needing to kill Arabs for the proper observance of Yom Kippur and of injecting Palestinian children with HIV-positive blood. In this context, Annan has castigated the CHR for creating “a legitimacy deficit that casts doubt on the overall reputation of the UN”.

In the eyes of many Americans, however, the General Assembly has been completely discredited by its refusal to take a strong stand against the tragedy unfolding in the Darfur region of Sudan. Frustrated by the failure of the General Assembly to pass a resolution critical of human rights abuses in Darfur, US Ambassador to the UN John Danforth tendered his resignation after just five months on the job. “I am concerned that the General Assembly is essentially a place where 191 countries make statements that are not very helpful in solving the problems of the world”, Danforth said. The former US senator “was frustrated because we have to do all this work to get language that everyone can support, so at the end we do not get anything bold and clear”, said Ambassador Abdallah Baali of Algeria, president of the Security Council. An American commentator summed up the bipartisan mood in Washington: “the UN now is dominated by nations of the third world whose values are so distant from our own that they won’t even object to the genocide occurring in the Sudan”.

UN Reform and US Interests

Unilateralism has emerged as the most contentious issue in international politics. Many analysts draw a link between American unilateralism and the emergence of unipolarity at the end of the Cold War. But the post-Cold War presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were marked by multilateral activism in economics, arms control, non-proliferation and other world order issues that was unprecedented in American history.

The US shift to unilateralism began in the mid-1990s as Europeans began to resist a particular brand of American multilateralism that they perceived was advancing the interests of unipolarity. The competing European brand of multilateralism seeks to restore multipolarity. Indeed, the European brand seeks to turn multilateral institutions against the leading power to challenge its hegemony. US resistance to this brand of multilateralism comes across as unilateralism.

For example, Europeans ask why the US opposes the International Criminal Court (ICC). The US asks why the ICC, which has not been approved by the UN Security Council and is rejected by the three largest countries in the world (China, India and the US) should qualify as multilateral. Should a state exercising its traditional sovereign right not to sign such a treaty be branded as unilateralist?

Moreover, while US unilateralism is frequently associated with UN-bashing, many of the self-styled champions of multilateralism take an essentially tactical approach to the UN, thereby undermining its authority and effectiveness. Indeed, many multilateral negotiations have become surrogate battlegrounds by which middle powers seek to weaken US power and influence.

As a result, the ambitions of many countries to join an expanded Security Council have long been frustrated by US opposition to enlargement. And evidence provided by the US State Department supports the conclusion that expanding the Security Council would undermine US interests. In regular reports to the US Congress, the State Department identifies a number of “important issues” that relate to US foreign policy priorities and records how each nation votes in the UN on these issues. In line with their votes generally, the candidates for permanent seats on the Security Council have a dismal record of supporting US priorities.

Based on these voting patterns, it is logical to conclude that US foreign policy priorities would meet even more opposition in an expanded Security Council than is currently the case. The average overall voting coincidence of all UN members with the US in 2003 was 25.5%, close to the percentage of coincidence in 2002 (31.2%), but down significantly from 43.0% in 2000 and reflecting the general downward trend since 1995, when voting coincidence was 50.6%.

In general, however, 2003 saw declining voting coincidences with the US, even among friends and allies. The average coincidence levels among members of the Western European and Others Group (which includes the US and Canada) was 46.1% in 2003, which is down from 49.9% in 2002, 54.4% in 2001, 61.5% in 2000, 67.1% in 1999, 65.2% in 1998 and 70.9% in 1997. There has also been a growing divergence between the US and the EU, which at 45.5%, is down from 49.5% in 2002, 53.5% in 2001, 62.5% in 2000, 68.5% in 1999, 66.7% in 1998 and 73.0% in 1997.

The Eastern European Group’s voting coincidence also declined in 2003, at an average of 38.7%, which is down from 43.7% in 2002, 48.8% in 2001, 58.0% in 2000, 61.7% in 1999 and 1998 and 68.6% in 1997 and 1996. After the latter group’s meteoric rise in coincidence with the US immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, it largely matched the coincidence level of the Western European countries before its decline in the past six years. The NATO and Nordic countries also decreased in voting coincidence with the US, continuing to reverse the upward trend of the late 1990s. The African and Asian groups, the Islamic Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Latin American and Caribbean group all declined in voting coincidence with the US.

It is tempting to blame American politics and US unilateralism for many of the problems at the UN. But the neo-conservative anti-UN rhetoric taps into deep-seated sentiments across the spectrum of American politics that the UN should be an international organisation, not a supranational government. At the ground level, many Americans believe it is unreasonable to expect any country with the dominant position the US now enjoys to embrace the UN’s multilateral principles. Why should such a nation permit its vision to be cramped by smaller countries that do not share its values? American exceptionalism only makes it harder to accept the self-restraint that comes with collective decision-making. After all, despite all the talk about the increasing importance of soft power, military power remains the hard currency of international politics.

Does this mean that the US will abandon the UN? No. Because of its power, the US may choose to act either unilaterally or multilaterally. And the US will continue to act multilaterally when it is in the national interest to do so, especially when the Security Council acts as a multiplier of US power. But the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy is clear: “we will be prepared to act apart when our interests and responsibilities require”. In short, the Bush administration “or any US administration” will never allow international institutions to limit actions that the US deems necessary for its national security. Indeed, most Americans believe that the only positive check on US power is the vote of the American electorate. And they re-elected George W. Bush by a comfortable margin.


At its core, the UN is a political body, and is only as effective as its member states want it to be. Everyone agrees that the UN needs reform, but there are sharp disagreements about what kind of reform is needed and for what purpose. The US wants to make the Security Council more efficient. But an expanded Security Council will make it more unwieldy than it already is. The UN was created as an instrument to project US power, but new proposals now seek to modify the role of the UN to prevent its most powerful member from using force against rogue states that support terrorism. Despite much high-minded rhetoric, the obsession with national sovereignty still deters governments from making international law and authority a working reality. These differences and political realities that surround them highlight the lack of an international consensus and explain why the battle over reform and for the future of the UN is far from over. For the moment, the Security Council will continue to work according to the golden rule: those who have the gold make the rules.

Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for United States and Transatlantic Relations at the Elcano Royal Institute for Strategic and International Studies. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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