Global Policy Forum

Ahead of the Curve


The UN Strives to Keep Up with a Globalizing World

By Alec Barrett

Harvard Political Review
April 22, 2008

The United Nations was started with 51 members to maintain peace following the world's most deadly war. Sixty-three years later, the Organization's membership has grown nearly fourfold, and it has become the world's highest and most respected political forum. But with two of its original functions-overseeing decolonization and preventing world war-virtually obsolete, the United Nations has been forced to adapt its priorities and leadership. This adaptation has produced varying results, and the Organization faces the prospect of diminishing significance in the twenty-first century.

Some of the U.N.'s problems, like Security Council reform, are unlikely to affect it in the short-term. Others, like globalization and the rising power of regional organizations, may cause a noticeable shift in its role. To ensure its continued significance it falls to the United Nations, and especially to the Secretary-General, to use their unique global visibility and influence to deal with non-state actors and non-compliant states in an increasingly transnational world.

International in a Transnational World

One of the largest challenges facing the United Nations is the rise of transnational actors. "Businesses and non-governmental organizations and other social actors.are increasingly transnational in scope," John Ruggie, former Assistant Secretary-General and current Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor told the HPR. While such actors create a closer, more synchronized world, the United Nations is fundamentally built on the divisions of nation-states. Those divisions lose significance when corporations and international political groups - including terrorist networks - can transcend them.

The United Nations has adapted to this challenge with mixed success. James Traub of the New York Times noted to the HPR that the United Nations has not played a major role in the global war on terrorism, and "it's not clear the mechanism whereby it can." The Security Council has a subcommittee for the issue, but the U.N.'s power is limited to the capacity of member states. On the other hand, the United Nations has had an office to liaise with the private sector since 1998, and continues to benefit from the increasing popularity of corporate philanthropy and other forms of social responsibility.

No Coercive Power

While private sector entities are more autonomous than ever, they are still beholden to the laws of the countries that host them. This is not so with the United Nations and its constituent states, over whom the United Nations has no coercive power due to the right of national sovereignty. Even relatively straightforward principles like nuclear disarmament, children's rights, and more recently environmental protection, have countries unwilling to accept them.

The invocation of sovereignty by countries like Iran, Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe, where violations of various international standards have occurred, has made the Security Council (the only U.N. body that can produce binding resolutions) unable "to take cognizance of these issues, much less do something," Traub notes. Non-compliance with international agreements is not only a problem in and of itself but also in the example it sets for other potential offenders. With no standing military, the United Nations has no mechanism to force countries to cooperate, especially those countries upon whose donations, financial and in kind, the United Nations depends in order to function.

A Global Leader

The first recourse in dealing with any non-compliant country is the application of diplomatic pressure, which is just one of the many responsibilities of the Secretary-General. John Ruggie describes the Secretary-General's role in three parts. The first is that of the "bully pulpit," from which the Secretary-General can try to influence countries or organizations. Second is that of mediator: "the world needs honest brokers," said Ruggie. Finally, the Secretary-General is an administrator, with countless global and regional operations under his management. The Secretary-General's job as moral standard-bearer is difficult, however, considering the political nature of the appointment. After Dag Hammarskjöld, the unexpectedly activist Secretary-General of the late 1950s, "the major powers have made a point of choosing someone who won't step on their toes," Traub observed. Ruggie summarizes the Secretary-General as a leader "in an intellectual sense and in a moral sense," as opposed to one who can act independently.

Kofi Annan, who held the job from 1997 through 2006, did just that, and turned the United Nations into an organization dedicated to the wellbeing of individuals. Annan, a career U.N. diplomat, "had reserves of moral authority that no one had anticipated," according to Traub, and used his position to set a standard for human rights and to change norms that had, for example, tolerated child soldiers for so long. His successor, Ban Ki-moon, still early in his term, has been more conservative in this area. A career diplomat from Korea, Ban was seen as a friendly choice by powerful countries like the United States; unlike Annan, he has been less individualistic about his approach to major world issues.

Looking Ahead

While the United Nation's global role in the future is uncertain, it is clear that a combination of transnational challenges will affect it significantly. On the one hand, the United Nations is already working one-on-one with corporations and other multi-national businesses and NGOs; on the other hand, its mechanisms for dealing with terrorism are still quite limited and require the cooperation of member states. The rising importance of regional organizations will replace the United Nations in some areas, especially in Europe and Africa where political and economic organizations are better equipped to solve problems on the ground.

Still, many developing countries will continue to rely on the United Nations for assistance from its members and the thousands of NGOs that the United Nations coordinates. The issue of sovereignty will not disappear, so it is up to the Secretary-General to apply pressure to uncooperative states; otherwise, a powerful country may fill that role, or perhaps no one will. Ban Ki-moon is an expert diplomat, but may not be the man to exercise the bully pulpit as Kofi Annan did, meaning the UN may lose ground in this area in the short term.

Where does the future of the United Nations lie? Its services are still in high demand: peacekeeping operations are ongoing around the world, and the Millennium Development Goals are yet to be achieved. If the United Nations maintains its position of moral and intellectual leadership in the world, holds its own among powerful countries and regional organizations, and develops mechanisms to interact with transnational actors, the United Nations will maintain the prestige and influence it enjoys today. If not, power will shift to other players who - even if they espouse the same principles that the United Nations does - lack the truly global forum needed to adopt and enforce universal standards. In such a scenario the United Nations will lose the edge that has kept it alive for sixty years and counting.


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