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The UN Security Council: First and Lasting Impressions

8 Aug

The following is by Shannon Rogers, a cadet at West Point who has been in residence in our office to explore the UN and its various policy organs. Shannon accompanied GAPW to what we felt was an important debate organized by Argentina on “cooperation between the UN and regional and sub-regional organizations in maintaining international peace and security.” The presence of so many Foreign Ministers in the Council testified to the urgency of creating strong, flexible and mutually respectful relations between the Council and regional arrangements.   Shannon was asked to pay attention both to the content of the meeting and also her ‘sense’ of the room as someone who does not have access to Council deliberations but whose professional life is potentially impacted by Council decisions.

The UN Security Council: First and Lasting Impressions

The United Nations holds a certain prestige especially to those unfamiliar with its campus, members and politics. Even more so, the elite and powerful Security Council is held in such high esteem it sets in motion many expectations, not all of which disappoint. My first – and most likely only – experience at the Security Council was quite enlightening regarding the realities of its power and bureaucratic limitations. The Council room was large and impressive, with a large mural on the far wall and a large circular desk allowing the 15 members, many at the level of Foreign Minister – to engage each other in high-level discussions that have varying implications for the global population.

Off the Council floor was the seating for other diplomats, the press and non-governmental organizations, rising as a theater does, to allow spectators to watch the drama unfold that in part dictates our common future. Despite the formal attire, there was a very informal feel to the room as the diplomats mingled and sought to talk to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the presiding leader of the meeting President Kirchner of Argentina, delaying the 0930 start of the meeting.

The dialogue in itself was impressive for an outsider. The topic of discussion was “Cooperation between the United Nations and regional and sub-regional organizations in maintaining international peace and security.” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was the first to brief. It was easy to get lost in his clout as Secretary General and not notice his relative lack of enthusiasm for the topic, at least compared to his Question and Answer session with the World Youth Council the day before. The Secretary General was followed by high representatives of the regional organizations present and then opened up to statements by council members. The African Union represented by Ethiopia underlined the importance of the entire meeting by noting that “The UN needs a strong AU and the AU need a strong UN.” Each organization stressed the need for more accountability, transparency and cooperation for the resolution of challenges specific to their region. There was at least variety and some urgency during that part of the discussion. Once it was opened to the Council members however, the remarks became more monotonous.

It is often only upon reflection that disappointment sets in. In this case, it was so easy to be swept up by the grandness of the room and the titles of the people within it. This is what the United Nations relies on:  its ‘soft power’, its reputation to broker agreement in the international community. The room was full, and had I not received training in a military order characterized by lots of full birds and stars on uniforms, I would have been intimidated. I could easily see how others might be, but it is not a man in a pressed suit that I fear. These delegates socialized while other stakeholders waited for the event to begin; diplomats were on their phones during briefings; they were reviewing their own speeches while another was speaking. Inattention has a harsher consequence than simply being perceived as disrespectful. On the battlefield, a lack of situational awareness gets soldiers killed.

Government policy leaders may not always see the impacts of their conduct first hand, but the world relies on them to do their jobs to the best of their ability, including being on time, properly prepared and focused. As a future soldier, I consider myself to some extent a pawn of the decisions made by these people. These diplomats are the arbiters of my fate; they dictate where I move across the chessboard, ever so tactically, in order to fulfill the security goals that they establish. I have to be able to trust that these people with this incredible power are wise, and that they are committed to overcoming human weakness, pride and greed. And as a future military officer, I expect diplomats to behave with the same professionalism that I have to display, and that their countries would surely hope to be represented by. The frustrating lack of depth and attentiveness of the conversation fostered the disturbing realization that the UN is indeed a bureaucracy as much as it represents hope for the world.

Shannon Rogers