Expert Commentary

Changing the UN will be Difficult

Zalmay Khalilzad
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

From the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union in 2015, to the protectionist rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump, the concepts of multilateralism and liberal internationalism appear increasingly under threat. The United Nations is perhaps the most visible symbol of these values, and despite its successes, its failures as an institution have led some countries – including the U.S. under the new Trump administration – to question the value of the UN, and even their financial contributions to it. The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad to ask what the real value of the UN is to U.S. policy, and where the institution’s future may lie in the years ahead.

The Cipher Brief: In your mind, what is the current state of the United Nations as an institution?  In recent years, what are the greatest successes that the organization has had and what areas of improvement remain?

Zalmay Khalilzad: First, I think the institution faces serious challenges, and its future role needs to be examined. One challenge is that the United Nations was established after World War II, and the world has changed a lot since then. The UN hasn’t updated itself to keep pace with all the changes in the world for it to be relevant and effective.  That reform must take place.

But, at the same time, changing the UN is very difficult, because it requires broad agreement among member states to make any significant change. That’s not easy because of differences in interest and differences in perspective. This is the dilemma that the UN faces. It needs to adapt and change, yet that process is very difficult. That dilemma could undermine the institution further over time.

TCB: Is this need for reform the result of a change in the UN’s mission or is it more organizational in your mind?

ZK: Well, it’s both. Organizationally, there is a gap between states that contribute a lot – like the United States – and the role and influence that they have on budget issues inside the UN. This means increasing pressure to contribute less to the general budget of the UN and more to specialized agencies, which the U.S. believes serves its interests and values.

Second, a lot of resources get wasted because the UN General Assembly passes mandates, which are very difficult to get rid of, even if they are no longer relevant. These mandates develop a life of their own, and some countries develop an interest in continuing with conferences and meetings and publishing reports about an issue that is no longer relevant.

There were over ten thousand mandates, for example, passed by the general assembly in my time as U.S. Ambassador to the UN. Now, I’m sure that number is much higher. In order to get these mandates off the books, you need a decision of the general assembly and many countries form blocs within the assembly that work on the basis of consensus between their member states. And if there is one member that objects then there is no consensus. Therefore, the mandate will not get removed, and irrelevant meetings and reports continue. This is just one of many management issues.

With regard to the security council, there is also a feeling that the global power structure is changing and this body, which was created just after the second world war, is no longer representative of the world as it is. There is pressure now to change the security council because of this, but I think the whole organization is in need of reform, and I don’t think it makes sense to just reform the security council without reforming the rest.

When I was at the UN, I embraced the idea that only if there is a reform of the entire institution can we look at reforming the security council, because the U.S. would have to ratify any change in the Senate, and I don’t think that could happen without a reform of the other issues.

TCB: What could this more holistic reform look like? What would make that reform palatable enough to be ratified by U.S. Congress?

ZK: On the security council, a new category of non-veto holding members could be added. During my time, we favored adding Japan as a permanent member. There were also other ideas to make it more representative, but there is so much disagreement. The Pakistanis would want to be added if India were added, for example. The Chinese don’t want the Japanese to be added. We were among the more open-minded countries in the discussion but our position was always that any security council reform must come as part of the overall reform. We thought the security council worked better than many of the other UN organs. Also, many of the proposed reforms would diminish the powers of current permanent members of the security council, including us. So we were all concerned about diminishing that power without other changes to the organizational structure that we thought were necessary.

TCB: From what you see right now, what do you think U.S. priorities are under the Trump administration concerning the UN? What should U.S. priorities be and where do you see this administration going?

ZK: It is too early to tell. It appears from statements by Trump’s new Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, that greater attention will be paid to who votes for and who votes against the U.S. agenda in the UN, and that countries who vote against will be held accountable for that. The policies on the wider range of things that the UN deals with have not been expressed yet.

But my advice would be for Washington to have realistic expectations of the UN, that the UN can be useful in dealing with some set of issues. I myself found them useful when we were in Afghanistan and Iraq in some of the tasks that needed to be performed in those two countries, which the UN was capable of handling, for example, in handling elections, dealing with development issues, etc. However, on other sets of issues, for instance Middle East issues, the UN has not necessarily been that useful. Issues involving Israel, for example, there is always kind of an automatic majority against Israel that we have tried to work around or diminish in order to increase Israel’s role in the UN. But, on issues of peacekeeping, if we want to carry out a peacekeeping mission, the UN is a place where decisions can be made to send international forces to maintain the peace. However, peacekeeping has issues of its own in terms of efficacy, command and control, etc.

So we need to have a realistic measure of the institution. It can be useful in certain circumstances but less so on other issues.

TCB: One example to support that point might be the Syrian civil war and the state of Syria’s peace talks. How do you read the UN role there?

ZK: Yes, it hasn’t played an effective role. The UN tends to be useful when there is a broad agreement among the members of the security council, but its role is much less useful when there is disagreement between the permanent members. We also need to recognize that the UN is not a sovereign in its own right that solves things; it’s a membership organization.

On security issues, we can block anything we don’t like, but at the same time, this means that the other four permanent members can block what they don’t like. And sometimes this can lead to a kind of stalemate where you can see terrible things happen, yet the UN doesn’t move. And it doesn’t fail to act because the Secretary-General doesn’t want to, but because the security council cannot decide. This means that what happens in the UN is affected by our diplomacy and relations outside the UN, and the UN cannot always bridge the differences between major powers. Those answers often have to be found in bilateral dealings between those powers. But once there is an agreement in principle, then the UN can be activated.

TCB: Do you see a way forward for new UN Secretary-General Alberto Guterres to help those bilateral conversations along, or try to use his influence to reestablish the influence of the UN, especially in humanitarian situations like those we see from the Syrian Civil War?

ZK: He could encourage that, and especially if President Trump’s desire to improve relations with Putin actually pans out, that could help the security council. I’m not predicting that this would happen, but if it did, it could give new direction to the security council. Because usually the western members of the security council – The U.S., France, and the United Kingdom – they can come to an agreement. The Chinese are sensitive on some issues but largely they tend to stay out of resolutions and hide behind Russia. They don’t hold back decisions in the UN. Russia, on the other hand, because of its history as the Soviet Union, acts as the other superpower besides the U.S., although it is weakening and China is gaining.

If there is an improvement in Russian-U.S. relations and there is room for cooperation on Syria, for example, then the security council could take decisions, and the UN could be more productive in those areas. Just after the Cold War, for instance, there was a period where relations with Russia were quite good, and the UN was quite productive and effective. The UN benefited, became more relevant and relied upon to deal with international issues. So, if there is an improvement in U.S.-Russia relations, it could have a similarly positive effect.

TCB: Let’s say that President Trump and the U.S. Congress decide to decrease support for the UN. What would that mean for the organization, and is there a tipping point beyond which the UN starts to really lose influence and efficacy?

ZK: Less resources from the U.S. would, of course, mean that the UN has less resources and would therefore do less. The question is whether the U.S. continues to give money to specialized agencies directly or reduces support for the budget more generally. For the peacekeeping missions, we have a specific formula by which we must pay our share of the mission if the UN votes to engage in that mission.

We’ve done this before. Resources have been held back from the UN, but then we arrived at agreements and support returned. Of course, it is much more desirable to come to an agreement on reforms within the organization, rather than holding back money to force reform.

However, I don’t know where the administration is on these issues. Does it want a particular type of reform? If it doesn’t happen, will it withhold funds to force that? I haven’t seen anything that would indicate that. In the aftermath of the vote in the security council about the Israeli settlement issue in the West Bank, there has been talk that administration officials are unhappy and reacted by saying that we should withhold support from the UN.

However, I didn’t find that compelling, because it was the previous U.S. President who allowed that to happen. It wasn’t that this resolution took place in opposition to what the U.S. wanted. No resolution can pass the security council if we oppose it. This reason is not very compelling for withholding support to the UN. 

The Author is Zalmay Khalilzad

Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad is Counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and president of Khalilzad Associates, an international business consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. He served as U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2007 to 2009. Prior to that, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq (2005-2007) and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan (2003-2005). He also served as U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan (2001 to 2003). Amb. Khalilzad... Read More

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