Global Policy Forum

A UN Reform We Can Support


By Stewart Patrick

Knight Ridder
March 20, 2005

Tomorrow, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will recommend sweeping reforms to the United Nations in a report to member states. The climate is hardly auspicious for grand designs. Acrimony over the oil-for-food scandal, revelations of criminal misconduct by peacekeepers in Congo and congressional calls for Annan's resignation have brought U.S.-U.N. relations to a new low. By nominating John Bolton as U.S. envoy to the United Nations, U.S. President George W. Bush has signaled his intent to keep the world body on a short leash.

But there is at least one area of potential common ground. Annan is calling for a new Peacebuilding Commission to improve the United Nations' performance in preventing failure of countries and launching post-conflict recovery. The Bush administration has signaled its support in principle.

What explains this return to multilateralism by a unilateralist administration? Simply, the White House has learned from painful experience in Afghanistan and Iraq that failing states are dangerous, and that stabilizing war-torn countries is hard work requiring robust national and international capabilities. At home, the administration has created a new State Department office to coordinate future U.S. involvement in postwar reconstruction. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has ordered a greater focus on counterinsurgency and stability operations.

The broad outlines of a U.N. Peacebuilding Commission came in a December report to the Secretary-General, generated by the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. The panel recommended that the Security Council create a new body to help countries "avoid state collapse and the slide to war or to assist countries in their transition from war to peace."

This idea is a winner. As panel member and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft has argued, current U.N. efforts to prevent conflict, conduct peacekeeping and assist reconstruction are woefully fragmented. A Peacebuilding Commission could improve the coherence and continuity of U.N. policymaking. It would advise the Security Council on integrated strategies for crisis countries, link the security and development components of U.N. involvement, and help discipline the unwieldy collection of U.N. agencies. It would also provide a standing forum to ensure that national governments, international financial institutions and U.N. agencies remain focused on post-conflict countries.

But as always, "the devil is in the details." The panel report is frustratingly vague on key issues, from the structure and membership of the commission to its mandate and budget. To gain Washington's endorsement, Annan will need to accommodate U.S. preferences on three key principles. First, the Security Council must be in charge: to have real impact, the commission must be subject to the decision-making authority of the Security Council. Some developing countries are pushing the Commission to report to the Economic and Social Council or the General Assembly. But both institutions are dysfunctional and impotent, and the administration will rightly insist that the Security Council alone should determine when and where the commission engages.

Second, membership must be limited to those that bring something to the table: membership is bound to be a controversial issue. The core members of the commission should include the permanent five members of the Security Council, augmented by major troop and financial contributors. The World Bank, IMF and U.N. Secretariat should also participate on an ongoing basis. Moreover, the commission should be flexible enough to include other observers, including regional organizations and affected countries, on a case-by-case basis.

Finally, the commission must not break the bank: the strained U.S. budget has reinforced Washington's traditional demands for U.N. fiscal discipline. The administration and congress will insist that any personnel and resources for the commission and adjunct offices be offset by cuts elsewhere. They will also cast a skeptical eye on the US $250 million U.N. Peacebuilding Fund proposed to accompany the commission. To secure it, Annan will need to underline the modesty of the U.S. contribution and the long term cost savings of a UN rapid response capability.

In his speech in Halifax, Bush committed the United States to a strategy of "effective multilateralism." The Peacebuilding Commission offers an early test case of this commitment. If the Secretary-General can satisfy U.S. concerns, the Bush administration must live up to its side of the bargain and support a positive change that will help make the United Nations a more effective partner.

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