A World Without the UN?

Critics of the United Nations point to its failure to intervene in humanitarian crises and to maintain global peace and security. Some claim that the organization has reached its expiration date, that the world no longer needs such an impotent governing body. Yet despite the significant changes in world politics in the last 60 years, collective action among nations is still necessary to assure peace on a global level, argues Ernesto Zedillo. Transnational cooperation is more pertinent than ever in an age of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation. In order to deliver real results, however, the UN must undergo large-scale reform. Creating a clear and just policy for decision-making is essential for the efficiency and efficacy of the United Nations as a whole, writes Zedillo. – YaleGlobal

A World Without the UN?

Ernesto Zedillo
Monday, March 14, 2005

Not so fast! The first question that must be posed is whether a system of collective responsibility to pursue peace and security still makes equal sense for the strong and the weak countries of the world. I believe it does. The weak want to know that if they're threatened by another country the international community will not be indifferent. The powerful know that even if they had the resources to wage war successfully against any potential aggressor state, it would be better to spare those resources if their security and national interest could be indubitably protected by other means. They also know that today's security threats are very different from traditional intercountry conflicts. Terrorists and other transnational criminals, along with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, constitute perils that no country, irrespective of its economic or military might, can defeat alone. Cooperative and collective action is required.

The next pertinent question is whether the nearly 60-year-old United Nations can be the institution to organize and deliver that collective action. I say it can be, as long as the institution is reformed and strengthened to perform its essential functions effectively. It would be a monumental mistake to condemn the UN to extinction, either by decision or neglect. Eventually, but probably only after we'd endured a dramatic increase in violent conflict and its destructive consequences, it would become imperative to invent the UN anew.

If Deficient, Fix It

Those who would like to see the UN totally marginalized – or even extinguished – rejoice in pointing to its failures in preventing or quickly resolving many serious conflicts that have occurred since it was created. These critics speak as if the UN had power of its own with which to address and solve the crucial issues of peace and security. They overlook the fact that it is solely up to the member countries' leaders to make the key decisions. In fulfilling its core mandates the UN can be only as good or as bad as its members make it. As the great Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello wrote shortly before he was killed by terrorists in Iraq in August 2003: "When member states make a mess of their own rules or disrupt their own, collective political architecture, it is wrong to blame the UN or its Secretary-General." Indeed, the latter two should be held accountable for those matters delegated with full authority to them but not for those where the responsibility lies wholly with the member states.

One of those matters is, of course, reform of the UN itself. Reform has been discussed by country members for far too long, with no meaningful agreement reached on even the most elementary issues. Fortunately a new attempt is being undertaken. A good starting point for these discussions is an independent report requested by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and published in December. This report, "A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility" (available at un.org/secureworld), does much to clarify the present threats to international security and suggests how the UN can realistically be adapted to cope with those threats. It does not shy away from considering some of the most contentious issues of contemporary international relations and UN functioning.

Basis for Reform

The report endorses the possibility of military intervention for humanitarian reasons, thus running against the traditional interpretation of the principle of nonintervention in internal affairs. Further, it puts forward five basic criteria of legitimacy for authorizing the use of force. It addresses openly the problem of failed states. It speaks frankly of the UN General Assembly's lack of vitality and focus on the important issues of the day. It accuses the UN Commission on Human Rights of suffering from a legitimacy deficit that undermines the overall reputation of the UN. But most significantly it calls for restructuring the UN Security Council in such a way that those countries that contribute most to the organization financially, militarily and diplomatically would have the strongest influence in its decision making. Transforming the Security Council is by far the most important reform; the council makes the decisions on the use of sanctions and on military intervention and is, therefore, the ultimate enforcement instrument of the international community.

Admittedly, when it comes to specific ideas for reforming the Security Council the report proves less bold than its analysis leads one to expect. It opts for formulas that would hardly overcome the council's proverbial failure to reach collective decisions. However, Kemal Dervis, Turkey's former economics minister and architect of its successful 2001-03 stabilization program, puts forth a more innovative proposal in his new book, A Better Globalization: Legitimacy, Governance and Reform (Center for Global Development). Dervis' approach is consistent with the notion of recognizing differences of power in a redesign of the council. Currently decisions in the Security Council are reached using a one-country-one-vote procedure. Dervis lucidly makes the case for a Security Council in which decisions are made with a system of votes weighted by each member's relative geopolitical and economic importance and in which supermajorities would be required on the most important subjects.

Serious consideration should be given to this and other thinking-outside-the-box ideas for UN reform that serve the strong and the weak alike. Otherwise anarchy, terror and war could become the rule rather than the exception in our world.

Ernesto Zedillo, director, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, former president of Mexico; Lee Kuan Yew, senior minister of Singapore; and Paul Johnson, eminent British historian and author; in addition to Forbes Chairman Caspar W. Weinberger, are now periodically writing this column.

© 2005 Forbes.com. This article appears in the March 28, 2005 issue of Forbes.