Don’t Write the UN Off – Here’s Why

Strategic View

The Trump Administration budget includes deep cuts to some U.S. agencies, including the State Department and Environmental Protection Agency, as well as U.S.  foreign aid. The cut includes the U.S. contribution to the United Nations, which accounts for 28 percent of the UN budget. The Cipher Brief spoke with former Canadian Permanent Representative to the UN Paul Heinbecker about how a U.S. retreat from the UN might affect the organization and, more broadly, what challenges and opportunities this frequently maligned institution faces in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. 

The Cipher Brief: What is the current state of the United Nations as an institution? Where has it experienced success and where has it failed over the last decade?

Paul Heinbecker: I don’t think anyone believes that the UN is in robust good health; it has had its problems, but those problems are essentially created by the member countries.  

Multilateral cooperation is based on generalized reciprocity, in which states make common undertakings and agree to act cooperatively. That is true for the United Nations as it is for other multilateral bodies. The states have agency and the five permanent members of the Security Council are the key actors. When the UN membership agrees, especially when the members of the Security Council agree, almost anything is possible. When they disagree, there is stasis. In the latter case, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to point your finger at First Avenue in New York, because the problem really lies in Moscow or Washington or Beijing, or some other capital.  It doesn’t usually lie in the hands of the UN Secretary-General.

When I talk about the United Nations’ success and failure, I don’t mean the success and failure of the iconic building in New York and the Secretariat that’s housed there. I mean the UN as a collection of member states that succeed or fail together, because it’s really up to those states to take responsibility for resolving issues. The UN Secretariat can make proposals but it can’t force any of its member states to cooperate. Misunderstanding of what the organization is and exaggerated expectations of what it can do is partly responsible for the disappointment that is sometimes felt when dangerous issues go unresolved.

It is important to know what the UN is, and what it is not. The General Assembly is not a parliament; the Security Council is not the organization’s cabinet; and the Secretary-General is not like a CEO or head of government. According to the statute of the United Nations, the Secretary-General is the chief administrative officer, and he only has two powers beyond his administrative responsibilities for keeping the building functioning and the lights on. He can put issues on the Security Council agenda if he thinks that those issues present a threat to international peace and security, and he can use the UN’s bully pulpit to exhort member states to better behavior. The more successful Secretaries-General have been very good at the latter, particularly Dag Hammarskjold 50 years ago. Kofi Anan was also a surprise to the membership in his capacity to go over their heads and appeal to the better angels of the international order.

The UN Charter constitutes the international “rules of the road” that most countries see as being in their interest to respect, most of the time. Partly as a consequence of the universal endorsement of the UN Charter, aggression has been stigmatized, e.g., Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea and its intervention in Ukraine. There has not been a war between major powers since Korea. There is a kind of nonstop concert of nations at UN headquarters in New York, and major countries are engaged in diplomacy with each other on a daily basis, which greatly helps to reduce the risks of conflict by miscalculation or misunderstanding because the parties know each other so well. The UN has brought greater predictability, order, dignity and humanity to the conduct of international affairs.

Over the 70 years of the UN’s existence, its member states have progressively brought the resort to war under the disciplines of the UN Charter. They have also brought the conduct of war under the rules of international humanitarian law, notably the Geneva Conventions, in order to restrict the means and methods of warfare and mitigate the effects of combat. According to the Human Security Research Project of Simon Frazer University, in 1950, the annual rate of reported battle-related deaths per million of the world’s population was approximately 240; in 2007, there were fewer than 10 battle-related deaths per million, a 24-fold decrease. The Syrian war has reversed some of the gains made and time will tell whether the numbers portend a new trend or an exception to the old one.

Security successes and failures notwithstanding, member states working through the UN have had obvious achievements in the areas of economic and social policy. There has been significant progress on responding to climate change and protecting the environment, on the Millennium Development Goals, on the reduction of poverty, and on the propagation and protection of rights. International poverty, in particular, has been reduced dramatically, although the “bottom billion” remain in desperate poverty.

TCB: How can the security functions of the UN be strengthened? With Libya, for instance, does peacekeeping need to play a larger role, and how so?

PH: Peacekeeping is an area that has suffered from the neglect of most of the richer countries of the international community who basically abandoned peacekeeping for a long time. It appears though that they are becoming more cognizant of their responsibilities. The Canadian government, for instance, is looking to increase its participation in UN peacekeeping.

The reluctance of some of the richer countries notwithstanding, there have been more UN peacekeeping missions abroad in recent years than there ever have been.  Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, there have been 31 peacekeeping missions – compared to 15 in the previous 40 years.  Today there are 39 UN missions abroad, including 16 peacekeeping missions, deploying about 117,000 personnel, including about 87,000 military and 13,000 police, costing $7.7 billion.

The international response to the Syrian civil war has been a calamitous failure. The Russians have used their veto to shield the Syrian regime from action by the Security Council. Still, the UN High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF, the World Food Program have all had their successes in very difficult circumstances in Syria.

In Libya, the UN’s authorization of intervention was both a success and a failure. UN Security Council resolutions on Libya set up a military intervention that had two objectives. One was a no-fly zone, and the other was the protection of Libyan civilians from the air. Both objectives were, by and large, achieved. However, UN resolutions also contained a major flaw. There was strong international opposition to placing boots on the ground in Libya. So when the government of Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi collapsed, there was no one there to preserve order and take possession of Gaddafi’s vast weapons stores that were then looted, which undermined whatever stability there was in Libya, but also across the region.

TCB: You spoke before about the power of the Secretary-General to influence members of the UN. What do you think about the new Secretary-General Alberto Guterres, specifically in relation to the Trump Administration?

PH: I think that Secretary Guterres has a chance to be one of the more successful secretaries-general. This is partly a consequence of the selection process which the UN membership has adopted. For the first time that I can remember the candidates for the secretary-general position had to present their views in public hearings and subject themselves to questioning by the member states. In the past, this had been exclusively a prerogative of the permanent five members of the security council.

Requiring candidates to expose their views in front of the General Assembly made it much more difficult for the permanent five members to pick a secretary-general who was weak and incapable of facing up to them on major issues. The five ended up picking, in my judgement, the strongest candidate. Because of his background on refugee issues, I also expect him to appeal over the heads of member countries to the conscience of humanity on this most pressing of humanitarian issues.

How that all works out vis-à-vis the new U.S. Administration, I’m not sure. Mr. Trump has very little experience with the UN beyond its interference with traffic in Manhattan. The comments he’s made have been offhand and deprecating. The threats in his budget proposal to make dramatic cuts in the US’s contribution to UN budget are ill-advised but real and potentially highly damaging. For example UN officials have just declared an emergent famine in East Africa which will require the organization to generate more resources, not less. Without enough timely funding, a lot of impoverished people will die. President Trump’s proposed ban on refugees will fall hardest on the world’s most vulnerable people.

Like most observers, I don’t know where US policy is going to go, but if funding is cut back significantly, other countries are going to have to step up and contribute more. That might satisfy President Trump, but it also might end up reducing US influence and not just in New York.

TCB: The UN as an organization is sometimes derided in the U.S. as an organization in decline, propped up by American funding, but is the opposite actually true?

PH: The total UN budget is a small fraction of the size of the New York City budget. The US pays about 25 percent of the UN budget, according to a formula all members agree to. Canada, for example actually pays slightly more in per capita terms. But it is certainly true that there is no simple substitute for US leadership in the UN, and the IMF, the World Bank, NATO, etc. Others will have to increase their contributions as best they can.

In the ‘90s, there were discussions that the U.S., which was paying about 22 percent of the regular budget and 28 percent of the peacekeeping budget, should greatly reduce its share—to 15 percent. And the administrations at the time – Clinton and Bush – didn’t agree to those reductions because influence in the UN is partly derived from the size of the budget contribution.  They also recognized that no country has benefited more from the UN than the United States has. The U.S. eventually acquitted the debt it incurred to the UN.

China and Russia can be expected to try to replace American leadership. There was a time in the ‘90s when the U.S. government was withholding funding, and I think the end result then was that it made the UN a little more capable of standing on its own. That would not be a bad outcome eventually but the interim period will be damaging.

TCB: On that note, do you see the UN becoming more or less influential as an international talking shop, as an institution. If it is becoming less influential, is there a tipping point in your mind where you would see the UN becoming exponentially more fragile as an institution?

PH: I don’t think so. I think that if the U.S. administration refuses to cooperate with the UN, we will have a difficult time. But most countries will come to the conclusion that it’s not in their interests to let the UN atrophy. Most will think it’s in their interests to continue to shape the efforts of the UN as a collective body.

The attitude towards the UN differs quite dramatically the further you are from Washington. If you take the resolution on the Arab-Israeli issue in January concerning the two-state solution, which laid the blame for settlement expansion on the Israeli government, that’s what the world thinks. You might not get that impression residing in Washington, but outside of Washington and Tel Aviv, many believe that there is an important role for the United Nations as a place where the international community can come together, solve problems where it can and try to manage them where it can’t. And that, I think, will continue.

TCB: Last thoughts?

PH: Essentially, the UN is what you make of it. It’s not an independent body. The Security Council is not a cabinet. The secretary-general is not a president. The General Assembly is not a parliament. These are institutions which were created to be used cooperatively. When the world wants to cooperate, the UN is a pretty good instrument for doing so. When the world doesn’t want to cooperate, the UN can’t compel wisdom.

Despite its problems, I would say that the UN remains indispensable.  To quote Kofi Annan, “the UN is not a perfect organization, but we need it … It is the organization that has the power to convene the whole world under one roof, to come and discuss common issues. It is the one organization that tries to sustain the norms that allow us to live in a peaceful way.”

Strategic View

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