Archive | 12:52 pm

Structural Adjustments:  The UN Anticipates an Unsettled New Year, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Dec

The P-5 make every effort to avoid legal constraints on their actions, and they have been almost entirely successful in doing so. James Paul

If the United Nations is to survive, those who represent it must bolster it; those who advocate it must submit to it; and those who believe in it must fight for it. Norman Cousins

Laziness is nothing more than the habit of resting before you get tired. Jules Renard

Another year has come and gone, and we are about to be inundated with declarations of intent to change our ways: to lose weight, be kinder to strangers, cut back on alcohol, or any number of other “resolutions” designed to fix whatever we have concluded has been “wrong with us.”

Much like the resolutions that proliferate in the multilateral policy space that we inhabit, most of our personal declarations are likely to change little in real time and space, as they seriously misrepresent the degree to which habits can be altered by intention alone.  Rarely can we “talk our way” into change.  The habits which largely define our lives – for good and for ill – are thick and persistent.   They help organize our place in the world and at times even bring us comfort.  But they also divert energies from pursuing the summits that we might otherwise attain, from re-imagining our direction when the current one has lost its vitality, from staring our challenges in the face instead of giving in to the material and technological distractions of the moment.

Habit is not a prison, but we make it seem like one when we stop asking hard questions, when we stop “wrestling with our demons,” when we settle for what is good enough “for us” alone, when we give in to the urge to “relax” before our tasks are complete, indeed even before we feel tired.

This formula applies to institutions as much as individuals.   The UN is one institution that is thick with habit largely in the form of protocol, a place that can barely tolerate those who dare to ask the next hard question, voices for whom the UN in its current form is “necessary but not sufficient” to address looming threats from ever-more-powerful weapons, climate-related shocks and growing economic inequalities. Laziness is generally not an issue for the UN – diplomats and other stakeholders often work long hours and face many deadlines – but so much of the work is directed towards generating statements that are eerily similar to the largely ineffectual statements which preceded them.  Given the nature of the UN and its often-squabbling member states, the tendency here is to “double down” on consensus language rather than ensure that this language – and the tangible commitments which it implicates – are appropriate to the levels of threat we now actually face.

As we enter this New Year, there are significant differences in evidence regarding the direction that this institution should go.   For instance, under significant pressure from the US, the UN’s Fifth Committee recently agreed on a 2018 budget that included $285 million in spending cuts.  The assumption underlying this decision is that the UN is in some respects a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy that needs to better live within its means despite a host of growing global challenges – especially in the realm of peace and security — to which the UN is now expected to respond effectively.

For others, the problem to be addressed is related to the degree to which the UN Secretariat is able to exhort for change, but not to insist upon it, and certainly not to boldly organize the resources of the UN system to address current threats in a timely and effective manner.   The more time we spend inside the UN, and we have spent thousands of hours in its conference rooms and chambers over the past 12 years, the clearer it becomes that the secretariat is still largely beholden to large state interests.   The “leadership” which the global community needs and anticipates from UN officials is  — sadly so – both subject to and compromised by the demands (and even whims) of the states that pay its bills and issue its visas.

For us, it is the power imbalances of the UN system – mostly beyond public scrutiny – that define the UN’s “habit” and limit its potential for the internal changes that can better address external threats.   And nowhere are those imbalances more pervasive – and perhaps hazardous to the overall health of the UN system – than in the Security Council.

As noted in a fine study recently released by James Paul, Of Foxes and Chickens, changes in the dynamics of power characteristic of the Permanent 5 members (and especially of the US and UK) have largely been cosmetic in nature – changes as likely to reinforce existing dynamics as set them on a more hopeful course.  Paul rightly gives the Council credit for (among other things) recognizing climate threats, committing to the full integration of women in peace processes, and engaging in meaningful relationships with regional organizations to address security threats throughout Africa. But he also (like many of his contemporaries) chides the P-5 for their failures to work effectively with other UN agencies and offices; to respond to threats before they erupt into full-scale conflict; turning a “blind eye” to some conflicts currently in motion (such as at the moment in Cameroon, Venezuela and even Yemen); positing humanitarian access as a substitute for hard-nosed conflict resolution which is its primary, Charter-mandated task.

And then there is the “bullying” that Paul identifies – of the elected members of the Council, of other UN states and agencies, of the Secretary-General and (his for now) cabinet.   Moreover, Paul chronicles well the archaic protocols that marginalize all but the P-3 (US, UK, France) and allow politics to stain the language of Council resolutions, the processes that brings such resolutions to a formal vote, even the determination of Council members to ensure that so-called “binding” resolutions are fully implemented.  He also understands better than most that the veto power which is the sole domain of the permanent members is exercised mostly behind closed doors – as yet another means for demanding concessions from elected members without a club of their own to wield.

Perhaps most discouraging is the tendency identified by Paul for the permanent members to hold themselves beyond the reach of the international law that they forcefully proscribe for others. This “do as I say, not as I do” mentality undermines confidence in Council decisions and reinforces the belief that power – not law – is still the guiding premise of global affairs.  As bad a guide to parenting as this mentality is, it has even more serious consequences for international peace and security, as we are likely to experience throughout the coming years.

Finally, Paul recognizes that all this comes at a high cost that dwarfs any budgetary concessions won by the Trump administration or other states.  This “habit” of power imbalances and accompanying bullying discourages bold ideas and initiatives by smaller-states and secretariat officials alike.  It also dampens what gusto remains in the global public to believe that the UN is truly the place to identify and address the wolves baying at the door.  There is truly a high price to be paid – beyond the fiscal ruminations of the Fifth Committee — once global constituents conclude that the “thickness” of the UN’s habits have largely rendered its peace and security promises moot.

It is probably too much, as many commentators have argued, to expect any meaningful Council reform, certainly not in the short term.   But as one small contribution to (hopefully) smoothing out some of what promises to be “rough edges” in the year to come, I offer the following:

In counseling one essential element in shifting habitual behaviors that have long outlived their usefulness is to ascertain levels of personal commitment.  In effect, how badly does the client want this change to happen?   In many such instances, the depth of commitment foretells levels of grit and determination needed to identify and ultimately divert “bad habits.”

Such (important and largely missing) information gleaned from the P-5 and other large states would be helpful for the entire UN community and beyond.   How badly do the major UN “players” want this system to function as an effective means to collaboratively assess and address global threats?  What changes are they sincerely willing to entertain in order for the UN to become what we spend too much energy now trying to convince others that it already is?

As the calendar flips over to 2018, an anxious global public needs to know if our erstwhile guardians of multilateral institutions are playing for keeps or playing largely for themselves.  For unless the powerful states resolve to make the UN more effective and less habituated, to generate healthier balances between global and state interests, the years to come are likely to be rockier and more frustrating for all of us than they need to be.