Monday, July 20, 2009

The Future of the United Nations

The United Nations was created out of the ashes of the League of Nations, an organization originally established to perpetuate world peace by creating a global forum where conflict could be mediated with words instead of weapons. Unfortunately at present time with regards to this goal the United Nations is nothing but an organization that receives a large amount of distain and reticule. Soon legitimate consideration and discussion, instead of just passing commentary concerning the future of the United Nations and its role in the world will be required. Of the issues that would encompass such a discussion two important questions take center stage. First, has the United Nations actually met its designated purpose? Second, if the United Nations has not lived up to its expectations, what steps need to be taken to change the status quo?

Addressing the first question, it is important to properly define the role of the United Nations envisioned by both its founders and its present day actors. The overarching goal of the United Nations was to prevent the onset of a military conflict equal to or greater in scale to that of World War I or World War II and so far no conflict has occurred that can be characterized as World War III. However, the propagation of nuclear weapons could be given more credit as a deterrent against World War III than the United Nations. In addition, some would argue that the real purpose of the United Nations was to reduce the number of significant conflicts or atrocities in the world, not simply neutralize the occurrence of large-scale war. If this is the case then the United Nations has performed poorly, but the cause of this failure stems from a lack of engagement not a lack of success after engagement.

Fortunately the reason for the failure of the United Nations is rather simple to identify, unfortunately it is very difficult to solve because it is ingrained in the very foundation of the United Nations. The failure is derived from too much concentrated power among diverse sources. Getting nations with diverse cultural, economical and ideological viewpoints to agree is remarkably difficult. Such a difficulty is only enhanced when one of five specific nations has the ability to submarine any legitimate binding action which it may perceive as a threat to its own personal interests. Think of it this way – imagine that for any piece of legislation to pass through the House of Representatives both the House Majority and House Minority leaders along with the respective house whips would have to unanimously vote in favor of the legislation. Take a wild guess how many pieces of non-mandatory legislation would pass? Such is the situation that exists in the United Nations. No wonder it is such a ‘shock’ why the United Nations does not accomplish more with regards to its world peace initiative.

Unfortunately from the beginning the United Nations seemed doomed as a meaningful entity in shaping global events and acting as a global peacekeeper. The negotiations that created the United Nations steadily moved from the idyllic goal of uniting the world against a single group that elected to cause trouble to the disjointed sphere of influence power structure seen now. One of the reasons for this transition was the role of the Soviet Union. After World War II the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two dominant power bases in the world. However, both sides were wary of one another and their corresponding roles in the United Nations. This fact was especially true for the Soviet Union, believing that the United Nations would simply be a pawn of the United States and the West, utilized as an avenue to destabilize the Soviet Union through indirect means. Overall due to the feelings regarding communism at the time, such a concern was warranted. Therefore, the Soviet Union demanded the ability to negate any decisions made by the United Nations that it did not agree to, thereby eliminating the possibility of the United Nations being used to destabilize the Soviet Union or hindering its global activities. The lack of Soviet Union participation in the United Nations would strip it of any legitimacy, thus the request was honored. Clearly the United States could not allow the Soviet Union to be the only powerbroker in the United Nations and nationalistic fervor from its allies, Britain and France despite waning influence on the global stage, lead to their demand for a seat at the proverbial table. This mindset resulted in the creation of the Security Council and the veto. It is ironic that the very thing that was created to make sure the United Nations would have some level of significance precludes it from having genuine significance.

In past years it was ideology that limited the influence of the United Nations largely stemmed through the debate between capitalism vs. communism. In the present the economic philosophy of capitalism vs. communism is no longer the political football it once was and now simple economics handcuff the United Nations. Expansive national economical interests certain countries have in ‘trouble’ countries influence the United Nations to inaction in effort to protect those interests. This complicated linked economic relationship network derails the peer-pressure tactics of the United Nations where every other country in the world threatens some form of economic or military consequences against the offending country.

In addition the United Nations can exemplify the worst in international cooperation due to the tiered system generated by the existence of the Security Council. Nations that are members with no access to the powers of the Security Council are akin to little children that have no authority to defy the wishes of their parents and little to any influence on the decision-making process. It is true that there are 10 rotating seats on the Security Council, but none of those seats have veto power. In some respects the creation of the United Nations can be related back to the Constitution of the United States and the debate between large population states/commonwealths and small population states/commonwealths regarding the structure of the federal government.

Obviously in the debate the representatives for the large population states wanted a unicameral legislative branch under the rational that states with the larger populations should have the most say in the federal government because its residents would be most affected by federal policy. Of course the representatives for the small population states objected to a unicameral legislature because, and rightly so, they felt that such a system would confine their states to a 'second-class' standing instead of being on equal footing with the larger population states. Such a system would be difficult to change because few individuals would move from a position of greater power to one of less power, thus generating a high probability that large states would always remain relatively large and small states would always remain relatively small. The founding fathers realized the small population states to be essential to the formulation of the United States, so a bicameral legislature was created to facilitate the wishes of both the large population states and the small population states.

In the formation of the United Nations the input and opinions of the smaller less powerful countries were not considered important to the functionality of the United Nations, so no system was established that allowed for the smaller countries to properly voice their opinions where they would be legitimately considered. One could argue that the ‘one country’, ‘one vote’ system in the General Assembly is the fairest possible, but because nothing the General Assembly does, outside of monetary issues, is binding, its level of fairness is moot. Basically the real decisions in the United Nations are made by the Security Council and some other more powerful non-Security Council members and everyone else is just window-dressing for the illusion of cosmetic fair play.

Both of the aforementioned problems are compounded by the fact that the United Nations relies on its member nations for everything; it has no permanent stand-alone status in the global community. The United Nations does not have its own standing army, but instead is reliant on the combined forces volunteered by certain members to neutralize conflict. The United Nations has limited economic power or influence because it does not participate in the global economy outside of its charitable arm, so economic sanctions and influence is again dependent on member nations. For the most part the more powerful countries simply do whatever they want regardless of the 'official' position of the United Nations. In their eyes if the United Nations approves of their action(s) that is great, but if it does not, whatever, the opinion of the United Nations will not stop them. The funny hypocrisy of this attitude by the stronger countries is that they expect the weaker countries to fall in line with the 'official' position of the United Nations even when they themselves do not.

These two major problems with the United Nations need to be addressed if the United Nations is going to evolve and be relevant in the coming decades as a means to end a majority of significant conflict, not just World War sized conflict. The problem of inaction due to the Security Council veto is easily addressed by removing the significance of a single veto from United Nation edicts. Simply change the policy of the United Nations so if an issue only receives a single veto from a permanent Security Council member, the issue still becomes the official position of the United Nations and a binding resolution from the Security Council. If a certain position receives two or more vetoes then the veto is upheld. Installing this updated system would ensure that at least two powerful nations object to the action or position of the United Nations; thus its ability to act cannot be handcuffed by the special interests of a single country. Unfortunately the probability of the nations making up the Security Council accepting this change is small because it enforces the very thing that these nations most feared when establishing the United Nations, the global community acting against or opposed to the wishes of that particular country.

Any opposition would be odd though, for with the dilapidated state of the United Nations regarding military and strategic issues in the modern era, one wonders why the Security Council nations would be bothered by this counter action. As previously indicated whether or not the United Nations favors a given nation is treated as a passing thought to the leaders of the nation in question, not as a significant factor that would prevent action. Perhaps the lack of respect given to the United Nations stems directly from the power of the single veto, remove that power and the United Nations becomes a much more significant threat.

Addressing the second concern requires more thought, tact and negotiation. Regarding imbalance, little significant change has occurred in narrowing the divide between the strong countries and the weak countries, with only a few notable exceptions, despite the advent of globalization and advances in technology in the last half century. Therefore, it would be hard to argue that nations that have no significant influence from an economic or military level on the world should have equal input regarding the actions of the United Nations.

For instance the United Nations system can be related to the following example. Suppose you have 3 individuals, A, B and C that are deciding between various solutions to solve a problem. Person A is responsible for supplying 85% of the physical and financial resources to the solution and person B and C only supply 7.5% each; however, each person has one vote when deciding on the actual solution. This situation does not appear to be fair in that each individual gets an equal say in the decision-making process, but person A has to contribute the bulk of the resources to execute the decided upon solution regardless of whether or not he agrees with it. Although the resource expenditure distribution should not matter if the optimal solution is attained, typically the complexities of the decision-making process when many different parties are involved make it difficult to uncover that ideal solution, especially when countries tend to look after their own interests. One rational for reform could suggest that the stronger countries have been screwing over the weaker countries for decades, so it is time for the stronger countries to ‘take one for the global team’, but it is unlikely that such reasoning would be positively received.

Also there is the question of what is to be done about nations that once had significant influence, but now no longer do? Clearly it is difficult for a given country to acknowledge that their influence and relevance on the world stage is no longer significant. For instance besides the fact that is possess nuclear armaments what real influence does France still have on the world? Once the era of oil and fossil fuels ends what influence will Russia have? Would it be appropriate to replace these nations on the Security Council with more upstart nations such as Brazil and India? Should veto power on the Security Council simply be reserved to the 5 or 6 nations with the highest GDPs? During the time that Kofi Annan was the U.N. Secretary-General, one of the issues he tried to address was this difference between 1945 influence levels and present day influence levels, but little came of it.

The best option may be to invoke the representative nature of the House of Representatives. Each nation in the United Nations would be allotted a specific number of votes pursuant to their relative GDP. Under such a dynamic the more powerful and wealthy nations would still have a significant amount of power, but the smaller nation s would not be powerless in the decision-making process. Adjustments in vote allotment based on GDP position could be made every five years. However, under such a system the influence of the Security Council would have to change, a change that is currently undetermined.

Overall it appears that if the United Nations is going to make a legitimate effort at curbing all forms of global violence its member states need to move beyond the reliable staple of a short-term cost-benefit analysis. Most conflicts that are not mediated by the United Nations are regional conflicts with little benefit to outside interests. Therefore, intervention in these conflicts takes more of a humanitarian role instead of a strategic or economical one. For example outside of express reasons of morality, United Nation involvement in Darfur seems to incur greater detriment than benefit.

If the above philosophy switch is too daunting, if member nations continue to rely on cost-benefit analysis, then perhaps like so many things, the role of the United Nations must simply evolve to maintain relevance. With all that has been said about the performance of the United Nations on security issues, it does a fine job acting as a mediator or middleman for the distribution and operation of humanitarian programs that may not otherwise exist without the United Nations. Outside of the Oil for Food program, which was corrupted by a small number of individuals, one is hard-pressed to find valid criticism of United Nations lead humanitarian and charitable efforts. Therefore, should the future of the United Nations simply be that of a humanitarian entity and not one that involves itself in the broader disputes of the world stage? The answer to that question would be largely influenced by the resources and time saved by eliminating the brunt of the major military engagements participated in by the United Nations. If the number is large then it is worth looking into diverting some/most of those resources to the humanitarian division; if the number is low then transferring those resources will make little difference in enhancing humanitarian effectiveness.

The first step to United Nations reform and renewed legitimacy is to define its present day role, then based on that role define the elements that need to be enhanced, redistributed and eliminated to better achieve that role.

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