American Enterprise Online
December 1, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd

Tomorrow, a special panel appointed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is expected to release its proposals on reforming the United Nations. With the bulk of the reforms leaked last week, we already have a good idea of what Annan’s exquisitely UN-sounding “panel of eminent persons” will propose.  

Panel chairman Anand Panyarachun, a former Thai prime minister, vowed “to focus on the fundamental causes of failure of the UN system to take collective action.” If that was the goal, the panel of eminent persons—“relics trying to reform a relic,” as one diplomat sneered in the Economist magazine—have missed the mark.  

The recommendations, as leaked to the Economist and BBC, include: 

-Creating a “peace-building commission” to serve as an early warning system for global hotspots and, if necessary, lay the groundwork for military intervention;

-Developing a structure for preemptive intervention, but only after five “criteria for legitimacy” are met—the threat must be defined, the purpose of intervention must be clear, intervention must come as a last resort, intervention should be proportionate to the threat, and intervention should improve the situation;

-Expecting member states to protect their own citizens; failure to do so, the BBC reports, could trigger intervention by the Security Council;

-Maintaining the current veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council (UNSC)—the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China and France;

-Expanding the UNSC from 15 to 24 members, with six members from each of four regions—Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe; and

-Examining the prospect of adding new permanent members to the UNSC but not granting them veto power.

Given the UN’s systemic problems, the reform plan is akin to shuffling the chairs on the deck of the Titanic—or perhaps better said, adding chairs to the deck. After all, the UNSC is certainly not going to become more effective by adding more members. It seems the very opposite would afflict a bigger UNSC.

Nor is it going to be easy to add new seats. Granting permanent, albeit veto-less (and hence, toothless), membership to Japan, Germany, India and Brazil amounts to a slap in the face for those who want in the permanent club. And it worries their regional rivals: China doesn’t want to make room for its World War II enemy Japan. Italy wonders why Germany should be granted a seat. Pakistan would go ballistic if India won a permanent seat (pardon the pun). And several countries, from Mexico to Chile to Argentina, would resent a Brazilian seat.

Expecting member states to protect their own citizens sounds nice, but in many cases citizens need to be protected from their own governments. And creating a special committee to monitor and defuse trouble spots seems redundant, since the five permanent members of the UNSC are already supposed to do just that.

When Annan announced the creation of the panel during his annual speech to the General Assembly last year, he warned that “We have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945, when the United Nations was founded.” Delivered just months after the invasion of Iraq, an invasion he erroneously called “illegal,” Annan’s implication was hard to miss. In Annan’s view, wars like the one in Iraq—wars that end pariah regimes, wars waged without the UN’s explicit blessing, wars led by America rather than the UN—are the problem.

But his diagnosis is wrong, and these prescriptions will prove ineffective. The problem with the UN is not American power or the size of the Security Council or an inability to get a handle on preemption. It’s not even regimes like Saddam Hussein’s or Kim Jong Il’s. The problem with the UN is the UN itself. It simply cannot respond to threats to peace, let alone anticipate them.

Just consider the record of the Security Council. Its responsibility, according to the UN Charter, is “the maintenance of international peace and security.” After more than a half-century of failure, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not working. Of the dozens of wars and threats that emerged since its founding, the UNSC was able to mobilize for concerted action on arguably just two occasions—Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990. Of course, the first was a fluke, thanks to Moscow’s shortsighted decision to boycott a Council session; and the second proved to be a post-Cold War aberration. Not even in those mythical days of “multilateralism uber alles,” when Bill Clinton sat in the Oval Office, did the UNSC work effectively. Recall that the UN failed in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq—and that was just in the 1990s.

If it cannot summon the will to react when Serb militiamen rampage through Srebrenica, or Hutu gangs descend on Tutsi villages, the notion that the UNSC would ever authorize preemptive action against a gathering danger is laughable. And those “criteria for legitimacy” are completely subjective, as we saw last time in Iraq and as we will see next time in Iran or North Korea or Syria: After all, from the Bush administration’s perspective, the threat posed by Saddam was defined, the purpose of intervention was clear, intervention came as a last resort, intervention was proportionate to the threat, and intervention improved the situation. Other UNSC members would disagree on every count, as we saw prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Recall that the Bush administration was initially disinclined to go to the UN for permission to invade Iraq. But after being persuaded that the UNSC would rise to the occasion, Bush decided to take the UN route to Baghdad. Yet when Bush and Powell arrived at the UN, they were ambushed:

It took eight weeks in late 2002 for the Security Council just to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to comply with existing resolutions. Once it passed, half the Security Council refused to enforce it. French President Jacques Chirac even dispatched his foreign minister on a global tour to organize an opposition against Bush and Blair. In fact, when Britain circulated an eleventh-hour compromise requiring Saddam to pass six military tests to prove he had disarmed, France actually rejected the plan before Iraq. Taking a page from Orwell, Chirac condemned the war because it was "undertaken without the approval of the United Nations"—even though military action was justified under 16 separate UN resolutions.   

France’s behavior is a symptom of the UN’s allergy to military force—and contempt for US leadership. I fail to see how Annan’s reforms, no matter how well intentioned they may be, will change that.

These problems are not new. In fact, Winston Churchill, a founding father of the UN, worried that some would use the UN to make mischief rather than build peace. “We must make sure that its work is fruitful,” he warned in 1946, “that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action and not merely a frothing of words.”

Almost six decades later, we still haven’t succeeded.