Global Policy Forum

Bound to Fail


By Sebastian Mallaby*

March 5, 2007

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has taken on 'mission impossible.' Everything about the United Nations conspires against him.

On a celebrated Thursday in April 1953, the first secretary-general of the United Nations greeted his successor as he arrived at New York's Idlewild airport, now JFK. You are about to inherit "the most impossible job in the world," he told him. Half a century on, that warning still overshadows the heirs to the U.N. throne. Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean diplomat who stepped into the job in January, jokes that he has taken on "Mission: Impossible." This is the humor of the gallows.

Ban became the world's top diplomat after a 36-year career in South Korea's foreign-policy establishment, culminating in a two-year stint as foreign minister. His selection was the result of backroom deals rather than a merit-based contest, and his life has not prepared him for the role of charismatic statesman. South Korea is wedged between mutually suspicious powers-the United States, China,Russia and Japan-and has learned to keep its profile down; its chief foreign-policy concern is to avoid provoking war with the nuclear wanna-bes who run North Korea. Growing up in this cautious environment, Ban nonetheless stood out for his failure to stand out: "extremely nonpolitical," "consensual," "a listener." That's how he is typically described; his most effusive fans venture that he has avoided errors. During his spell as foreign minister, Ban was so expertly bland that he was known as "the slippery eel" by his countrymen.

Leaders gain stature by virtue of leading, and it's possible that Ban will grow into his position. Dag Hammarskjold, the most revered U.N. secretary-general (and the audience for that warning at Idlewild), was little known on the world stage until he started to excel on it. But the hard truth is that no U.N. chief executive, not even a reincarnated Hammarskjold, would be likely to succeed at the United Nations as it is today. For the secretary-general is less the leader of the international system than its prisoner. He is more secretary than general, as even Ban has joked.

We know that a reincarnated Hammarskjold would fail because we have just run that experiment. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian diplomat who served two five-year terms at the helm of the United Nations, had an almost eerie aptitude for the role, which involves creating the appearance of influence in the absence of the actual thing-and hoping that appearance will become reality. The U.N. chief has no power to summon armies or compel outcomes; his impact depends on his skills as mediator and as confidant, and on his ability to focus global attention on issues of his choosing. This is "soft power" in its purest form, divorced from military or financial clout. Which is to say that this is power of the most tentative sort possible.

Annan played this soft role masterfully. The descendant of Ghanaian tribal chiefs, he projected the dignity of his office with a sort of regal ease; he personified the humanitarian ideals of the United Nations, speaking in quiet, authoritative tones that somehow commanded attention. During his first term, Annan went from one triumph to the next. The United Nations contributed to the reconstruction of East Timor and Sierra Leone, expanded peacekeeping efforts and forged a compact with business and civil-society groups to work jointly on humanitarian issues. In 2001 Annan and the United Nations jointly won the Nobel Prize. He even mollified the irascible Sen. Jesse Helms, the loudest scourge of the United Nations in the U.S. Congress, freeing the United States to pay its back dues to the organization.

And yet, precisely because of these successes, Annan's failures reveal the full difficulty of the role that Ban has inherited. It's partly that divisions in the world are inevitably magnified at the United Nations. Starting in the autumn of 2002, the Security Council became the bitter battleground for the arguments about Iraq; and by trying to straddle the chasm between the two sides, Annan toppled into it. When he suggested that, lacking Security Council authorization, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was "illegal," he unleashed a firestorm of recriminations from the Bush administration. And yet, by the end of his tenure, developing countries tended to view Annan as the stooge of Washington.

If the chasm between theUnited States and its critics were the only trap for secretaries-general, Ban's prospects might seem reasonable. The Bush administration has come to appreciate the value of multilateral diplomacy, and the American electorate has moved even further-witness the Democrats' triumph in November's congressional elections. John Bolton, who doubled incongruously as the administration's chief U.N. critic and its U.N. ambassador, in 2005 and 2006, has been removed from his post. The wisdom in Harry Truman's closing address to the United Nations' founding conference 62 years ago has been appreciated anew: "We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please."

But American unilateralism is not the only threat stalking the United Nations-nor even the main one. The structure of the Security Council, which equips the five permanent members with a veto, is almost designed to invite unilateral obstructionism from Britain,France, Chinaand Russia. The result is that the United Nations is paralyzed on almost every issue it faces-even ones on which unanimity might be expected. No government, for example, declares itself in favor of the genocide in the Sudanese territoryof Darfur. And yet, despite the unanimity of rhetoric, one permanent member of the Security Council has a commercial interest in tempering its outrage: China buys 80 percent of Sudan's oil exports. As a result, Chinahas used its veto power to wield the weapons of delay and dilution. Thus is the United Nations condemned to tardiness and toothlessness.

Oil distorts policy like no other resource. But the Security Council's failure onSudan is not exceptional. Last month the Bush administration sponsored an innocuous resolution condemning Burma's regime, which couples extreme brutality with only limited reserves of minerals. Even though the resolution imposed no sanctions,China and Russiacombined to block it. In 2000, to cite another example, some members of the Security Council wanted to condemn Zimbabwe's odious dictator, Robert Mugabe, but China blocked this, too, even though a U.N. special envoy had suggested that Mugabe's violent expropriation of white farms might involve crimes against humanity. On still other occasions, the Security Council does act but in bewildering ways. In 2000, the Council mandated a peacekeeping force of 5,500 to monitor a ceasefire inCongo. The force was one eighth the size of that deployed a few months earlier for Kosovo-never mind the fact that Congo is 60 times larger. On a trip last month to Africa-his first as secretary-general, and a deliberate sign that global poverty, health and economic opportunity will rank high on his agenda-Ban appealed for a resolution to the crisis in the Sudanese territory of Darfur. Yet even if the planned 22,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force reaches the region this year, it is doubtful that it can pacify a territory the size of France orTexas.

There is a way to strengthen the Security Council, and it's well understood by leaders in the U.N. system. Kemal Dervis, the dynamic Turkish boss of the United Nations Development Program, published a plan two years ago to abolish the Security Council vetoes and replace them with a system of weighted voting. Prominent countries-those with large populations, large economies and large contributions to peacekeeping or other global public goods-would retain more say than less prominent ones; but no single country could hold the rest to ransom. This would shift the Security Council from a diplomatic model to a quasi-parliamentary one: it would reward coalition-building and favor action. The rules of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund provide for weighted voting rather than vetoes, which is one reason both organizations work better than the United Nations.

As well as reducing sclerosis, Dervis's reform would make the Security Council more representative. The current arrangement reflects the international system as it existed in 1945; it is absurd that Japan and India-the world's second biggest economy and its second most-populous one-have less say in the Security Council than Russia, France or Britain. And yet, however much Security Council reform may be needed, it's not going to happen. Annan fought to get the process going and got absolutely nowhere. For a while, the United Statesaffected support for Japan's candidacy, safe in the knowledge that China would block it, while the rest of the "P5" barely pretended to be open to a dilution of their privileges. Having watched Annan's failure from afar, Ban has made it clear that Security Council reform is not going to be his issue.

Ban has been less meek about the U.N. bureaucracy. His advisers hope to cut back on the reports and committee meetings organized as a result of mandates from the U.N. General Assembly, some of which date back to the 1940s and many of which are pointless. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, for example, determined excavators revealed that an Ad Hoc Committee on Measures to Eliminate Terrorism had been meeting since 1996 in the belly of the U.N. system; the members of the committee had failed to define terrorism, let alone combat it. One faction was insisting on an exception for violence committed in the cause of "national liberation." As one Western ambassador complained, this was a plea for the right to bomb buses.

Nobody who has dealt with the United Nations can doubt that Ban's reformist goals are noble. The trouble, again, is that Annan pushed in these directions also. In March 2005, he unveiled "In Larger Freedom," a manifesto for reform. It proposed that all reports, meetings and programs mandated by the U.N. General Assembly be assessed and potentially discontinued after five years; it called for a buyout to cull unproductive workers; it advanced the radical idea that staff and budgetary resources might be moved to departments where they were actually needed. The reforms were intended to motivate competent officials. "Right now, if you screw up you don't pay a price," one reformist official complained, according to James Traub, author of a recent book on the Annan years, "The Best Intentions." "If we had true accountability and meritocracy, people would be able to do their job and in time we'd attract large numbers of high-quality people."

Annan's reasonable reform push received the standard treacle treatment. China and a group of developing countries known as the G77 insisted that each reform outlined in the report must be-wait for it-the subject of a new report. They responded to Annan's request for the power to shift resources to priority departments with reluctance bordering on sabotage: the secretary-general was granted flexibility over $20 million, approximately 0.5 percent of the nonpeacekeeping budget. As to the plea for the elimination of mandated expenditures, which consume the lion's share of the U.N. budget, there has been only talk: two years on, not a single mandate has been eliminated. The one apparent success of the Annan reform program-the scrapping of the discredited Commission on Human Rights and its replacement with a new body-has proved disappointing so far. The new Human Rights Council focused most of its energy last year on denouncingIsrael, hardly the world's most egregious violator.

It's sometimes said that, if U.N. reform failed, it was because Annan was incompetent. The oil-for-food scandal demonstrated his complicity in the United Nations' mismanagement, the argument goes; meanwhile the superior performance of some U.N. affiliates (the World Health Organization, the U.N. Development Program) suggests what a decent administrator can accomplish. But these arguments are wrong. The oil-for-food scandal did tarnish Annan, principally because his son Kojo was on retainer from a company that profited from the program, an apparent conflict of interest. But the corruption in the oil program was primarily the fault of the United Nations' leading member states, which designed the system in the knowledge that it might leak, and which were supposed to oversee it.

The comparison between the U.N. Secretariat and its affiliates is similarly unpersuasive. The affiliates enjoy one huge advantage. Most raise their own resources from a handful of generous nations and are accountable to them rather than to the General Assembly. The senseless mandates that clog the arteries of the U.N. Secretariat are therefore absent from agencies such as the UNDP. And the damning comparison with the Secretariat is further undermined by a key personnel detail. Annan's reform program was spearheaded by none other than Mark Malloch Brown, the able UNDP administrator who served as Annan's chief of staff and then deputy secretary-general during the last years of his tenure. Even with the star of the U.N. system at his elbow, Annan's reform drive achieved next to nothing.

The U.N. secretary-general, no matter how skilled, is caught between big powers that refuse to make the institution fair and small powers that refuse to make it more efficient. The selfishness of one side encourages the irresponsibility of the other. Because the Secretariat implements resolutions passed by the unrepresentative Security Council, the General Assembly sees no urgency in making it efficient. During Ban's turn in office, the odds are that this standoff will get worse rather than better. The so-called G77 club-now swollen to include 131 developing countries plus China-is more assertive than ever, reflecting the new confidence of the leading emerging nations.

By an irony that a South Korean should appreciate, the success of the international system since 1945 has made it harder to manage. An open and mostly stable world economy has spread prosperity around the globe, creating powerful new players who want a seat at the top table. The clashes between rich incumbents and new challengers have vastly complicated trade diplomacy these past few years, triggering breakdowns over environmental standards, intellectual property and farm protection in the wealthy nations. The fights that paralyze the United Nations reflect these same fundamental forces. Ban Ki-moon will wrestle bravely with these demons; he is a tireless bureaucratic fighter whose main hobby, it's said, is work. But he is going to be defeated.

About the Author: Mallaby directs the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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