Power and Global Leadership
Thank you for allowing me to speak to you today on Power and Global Leadership. I often get asked to talk about leadership, but rarely about power. I wonder why.
With that thought as my starting point, I am going to give what might be regarded as a rather un-UN speech. Some of the themes—that the United Nations is misunderstood and does much more than its critics allow—are probably not surprising. But my underlying message, which is a warning about the serious consequences of a decades-long tendency by US Administrations of both parties to engage only fitfully with the UN, is not one a sitting United Nations official would normally make to an audience like this.
But I feel it is a message that urgently needs to be aired. And as someone who has spent most of his adult life in this country, only a part of it at the UN, I hope you will take it in the spirit in which it is meant: as a sincere and constructive critique of US policy towards the UN by a friend and admirer. Because the fact is that the prevailing practice of seeking to use the UN almost by stealth as a diplomatic tool while failing to stand up for it against its domestic critics is simply not sustainable. You will lose the UN one way or another.
Multilateral compromise has always been difficult to justify in the American political debate: too many speeches, too many constraints, too few results. Yet it was not meant to be so.
The all-moral-idealism-no-power institution was the League of Nations. The UN was explicitly designed through US leadership and the ultimate coalition of the willing, its World War II allies, as a very different creature, an antidote to the League’s failure. At the UN’s core was to be an enforceable concept of collective security protected by the victors of that war, combined with much more practical efforts to promote global values such as human rights and democracy.
Underpinning this new approach was a judgement that no President since Truman has felt able to repeat: that for the world’s one super-Power—arguably more super in 1946 than 2006—managing global security and development issues through the network of a United Nations was worth the effort. Yes it meant the give and take of multilateral bargaining, but any dilution of American positions was more than made up for by the added clout of action that enjoyed global support.
Today, we are coming to the end of the 10-year term of arguably the UN’s best-ever Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. But some of his very successes—promoting human rights and a responsibility to protect people from abuse by their own Governments; creating a new status for civil society and business at the UN—are either not recognized or have come under steady attacks from anti-UN groups.
To take just one example, 10 years ago UN peacekeeping seemed almost moribund in the aftermath of tragic mistakes in Rwanda, Somalia and Yugoslavia. Today, the UN fields 18 peacekeeping operations around the world, from the Congo to Haiti, Sudan to Sierra Leone, Southern Lebanon to Liberia, with an annual cost that is at a bargain bin price compared to other US-led operations. And the US pays roughly one quarter of those UN peacekeeping costs—just over $1 billion this year.
That figure should be seen in the context of estimates by both the GAO and RAND Corporation that UN peacekeeping, while lacking heavy armament enforcement capacity, helps to maintain peace—when there is a peace to keep—more effectively for a lot less than comparable US operations. Multilateral peacekeeping is effective cost-sharing on a much lower cost business model and it works.
That is as it should be and is true for many other areas the UN system works in, too, from humanitarian relief to health to education. Yet for many policymakers and opinion leaders in Washington, let alone the general public, the roles I have described are hardly believed or, where they are, remain discreetly underplayed. To acknowledge an America reliant on international institutions is not perceived to be good politics at home.
However, inevitably a moment of truth is coming. Because even as the world’s challenges are growing, the UN’s ability to respond is being weakened without US leadership.
Take the issue of human rights.
When Eleanor Roosevelt took the podium at the UN to argue passionately for the elaboration of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world responded. Today, when the human rights machinery was renewed with the formation of a Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, and the US chose to stay on the sidelines, the loss was everybody’s.
I hope and believe the new Council will prove itself to be a stronger and more effective body than its predecessor. But there is no question that the US decision to call for a vote in order to oppose it in the General Assembly, and then to not run for a seat after it was approved by 170 votes to 4, makes the challenge more difficult.
More broadly, Americans complain about the UN’s bureaucracy, weak decision-making, the lack of accountable modern management structures and the political divisions of the General Assembly here in New York. And my response is, “guilty on all counts”. But why?
In significant part because the US has not stuck with its project—its professed wish to have a strong, effective United Nations—in a systematic way. Secretary Albright and others here today have played extraordinary leadership roles in US-UN relations, for which I salute them. But in the eyes of the rest of the world, US commitment tends to ebb much more than it flows. And in recent years, the enormously divisive issue of Iraq and the big stick of financial withholding have come to define an unhappy marriage.
As someone who deals with Washington almost daily, I know this is unfair to the very real effort all three Secretaries of State I have worked with –- Secretary Albright, Secretary Powell and Secretary Rice -– put into UN issues. And today, on a very wide number of areas, from Lebanon and Afghanistan to Syria, Iran and the Palestinian issue, the US is constructively engaged with the UN. But that is not well known or understood, in part because much of the public discourse that reaches the US heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. That is what I mean by “stealth” diplomacy: the UN’s role is in effect a secret in Middle America even as it is highlighted in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
Exacerbating matters is the widely held perception, even among many US allies, that the US tends to hold on to maximalist positions when it could be finding middle ground.
We can see this even on apparently non-controversial issues such as renovating the dilapidated UN Headquarters in New York. While an architectural landmark, the building falls dangerously short of city codes, lacks sprinklers, is filled with asbestos and is in most respects the most hazardous workplace in town. But the only Government not fully supporting the project is the US. Too much unchecked UN-bashing and stereotyping over too many years—manifest in a fear by politicians to be seen to be supporting better premises for overpaid, corrupt UN bureaucrats—makes even refurbishing a building a political hot potato.
One consequence is that, like the building itself, the vital renewal of the Organization, the updating of its mission, its governance and its management tools, is addressed only intermittently. And when the US does champion the right issues like management reform, as it is currently doing, it provokes more suspicion than support.
Last December, for example, largely at US insistence, instead of a normal two-year budget, Member States approved only six months’ worth of expenditure—a period which ends on June 30. Developing and developed countries, the latter with the US at the fore, are now at loggerheads over whether sufficient reform has taken place to lift that cap, or indeed whether there should be any links between reform and the budget. Without agreement, we could face a fiscal crisis very soon.
There has been a significant amount of reform over the last 18 months, from the creation of a new Ethics Office and whistle-blower policy, to the establishment of a new Peacebuilding Commission and Human Rights Council. But not enough.
The unfinished management reform agenda, which the US sensibly supports, is in many ways a statement of the obvious. It argues that systems and processes designed 60 years ago for an organization largely devoted to running conferences and writing reports simply don’t work for today’s operational UN, which conducts multibillion-dollar peacekeeping missions, humanitarian relief operations and other complex operations all over the world. The report sets out concrete proposals for how this can be fixed while also seeking to address the broader management, oversight and accountability weaknesses highlighted by the “oil-for-food” programme.
One day soon we must address the massive gap between the scale of world issues and the limits of the institutions we have built to address them. However, today even relatively modest proposals that in any other organization would be seen as uncontroversial, such as providing more authority and flexibility for the Secretary-General to shift posts and resources to organizational priorities without having to get direct approval from Member States, have been fiercely resisted by the G-77, the main group of developing countries, on the grounds that this weakens accountability. Hence the current deadlock.
What lies behind this?
It is not because most developing countries don’t want reform. To be sure, a few spoilers do seem to be opposed to reform for its own sake, and there is no question that some countries are seeking to manipulate the process for their own ends with very damaging consequences. But in practice, the vast majority is fully supportive of the principle of a better run, more effective UN; indeed they know they would be the primary beneficiaries, through more peace, and more development.
So why has it not so far been possible to isolate the radicals and build a strong alliance of reform-minded nations to push through this agenda?
I would argue that the answer lies in questions about motives and power.
Motives, in that, very unfortunately, there is currently a perception among many otherwise quite moderate countries that anything the US supports must have a secret agenda aimed at either subordinating multilateral processes to Washington’s ends or weakening the institutions, and therefore, put crudely, should be opposed without any real discussion of whether they make sense or not.
And power, that in two different ways revolves around perceptions of the role and representativeness of the Security Council.
First, in that there has been a real, understandable hostility by the wider membership to the perception that the Security Council, in particular the five permanent members, is seeking a role in areas not formally within its remit, such as management issues or human rights.
Second, an equally understandable conviction that those five, veto-wielding permanent members who happen to be the victors in a war fought 60 years ago, cannot be seen as representative of today’s world—even when looking through the lens of financial contributions. Indeed, the so-called G-4 of Security Council aspirants—Japan, India, Brazil and Germany—contribute twice as much as the P-4, the four permanent members excluding the U.S.
Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged exactly this point on his trip to Washington last month, and it is something which does need to be addressed. More broadly, the very reasonable concerns of the full UN membership that the fundamental multilateral principle that each Member State’s vote counts equally in the wider work of the UN needs to be acknowledged and accommodated within a broader framework of reform. If the multilateral system is to work effectively, all States need to feel they have a real stake.
The US—like every nation, strong and weak alike—is today beset by problems that defy national, inside-the-border solutions: climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, migration, the management of the global economy, the internationalization of drugs and crime, the spread of diseases such as HIV and avian flu. Today’s new national security challenges basically thumb their noses at old notions of national sovereignty. Security has gone global, and no country can afford to neglect the global institutions needed to manage it.
Kofi Annan has proposed a restructuring of the UN to respond to these new challenges with three legs: development, security and human rights supported, like any good chair, by a fourth leg, reformed management. That is the UN we want to place our bet on. But for it to work, we need the US to support this agenda—and support it not just in a whisper but in a coast to coast shout that pushes back the critics domestically and wins over the sceptics internationally. America’s leaders must again say the UN matters.
When you talk better national education scores, you don’t start with “I support the Department of Education”. Similarly for the UN it starts with politicians who will assert the US is going to engage with the world to tackle climate change, poverty, immigration and terrorism. Stand up for that agenda consistently and allow the UN to ride on its coat-tails as a vital means of getting it done. It also means a sustained inside-the-tent diplomacy at the UN. No more “take it or leave it”, red-line demands thrown in without debate and engagement.
Let me close with a few words on Darfur to make my point.
A few weeks ago, my kids were on the Mall in Washington, demanding President Bush to do more to end the genocide in Darfur and President Bush wants to do more. I’d bet some of your kids were there as well. Perhaps you were, too. And yet what can the US do alone in the heart of Africa, in a region the size of France? A place where the Government in Khartoum is convinced the US wants to extend the hegemony it is thought to have asserted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In essence, the US is stymied before it even passes “Go”. It needs the UN as a multilateral means to address Sudan’s concerns. It needs the UN to secure a wide multicultural array of troop and humanitarian partners. It needs the UN to provide the international legitimacy that Iraq has again proved is an indispensable component to success on the ground. Yet, the UN needs its first parent, the US, every bit as much if it is to deploy credibly in one of the world’s nastiest neighbourhoods.
Back in Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s day, building a strong, effective UN that could play this kind of role was a bipartisan enterprise, with the likes of Arthur Vandenberg and John Foster Dulles joining Democrats to support the new body. Who are their successors in American politics? Who will campaign in 2008 for a new multilateral national security?