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An Aging UN in 2015. But How About a New UN in 2020?

Tad Daley - 2nd September 2015
UN 70th Anniversary

Ted Daley examines the new report from the Commission on Global Security, Justice, and Governance which suggests that the 75th anniversary year in 2020 might be the moment to reinvent the United Nations. 

What kind of United Nations would we invent if we were designing it from scratch today? The UN Charter was signed by President Harry S. Truman and other world leaders in San Francisco on June 26th, 1945, and came into force three months later on October 24th. A long seven decades later, our world seems smaller, our fates more intertwined, and our challenges drastically different from those confronting the generation that emerged from the rubble of the Second World War. Is it time to begin devising architectures of global governance not 'to avoid the mistakes of the 1930s,' but instead intended for our own unfolding 21st Century?        

If so, we have a guide to start the journey. It's the Commission on Global Security, Justice, and Governance, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State and UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright and former Nigerian Foreign Minister and UN Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari. They have released a report for the UN's upcoming 70th Anniversary Summit in September, called Confronting the Crisis of Global Governance. Their recommendations, issued at public launch events in The Hague on June 16th and again in Washington D.C. on July 9th, focus on three broad areas: climate change, the intersection between 'cross-border economic shocks' and an array of possible cyber cataclysms, and intrastate violence 'in fragile states.' (The Commission steers clear of the possibility of interstate military clashes--also known as wars--in places like the former Soviet Union or the South China Sea or the Indian subcontinent today, and who knows where tomorrow.)

There is much to applaud in this report. In the climate realm, the Commission's suggestions include forming an 'International Carbon Monitoring Entity' and a 'Climate Engineering Advisory Board,' and it devotes welcome attention to atmospheric modification and climate adaptation rather than concentrating exclusively on emissions reduction. In the realm of a 'hyperconnected global economy,' it declares that vastly increasing Internet access and cybersecurity in the Global South will both help to prevent cybercrime worldwide, and promote a renewed focus on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. And in the intrastate violence realm, its suggestions include 'peacebuilding audits' focused on atrocity prevention, investments in early-warning capabilities and rapid-response UN mediation teams, and 'particular attention to inclusion of women in peace processes.' Most of these proposals, one might say, focus less on addressing these transnational challenges in the short term than on creating new tools of global governance to surmount them over the long term.

On three particular points, the Commission offered strong and stirring recommendations, but unfortunately failed to take the next step, to spell out the logical conclusion, and to openly state the eventual historical goal.

Veto the Veto

First, with regard to the UN Security Council, the Commission calls for increasing its 'representative legitimacy' by adding new members, creating a new kind of 'dissenting vote ... (that would) not block passage of a resolution,' and 'restraint in the use of the veto.' But if the United Nations is ever to become both democratic and consistently effective, the veto doesn't need to be 'restrained.' The veto needs to be eliminated.

Under Article 27 of the 1945 UN Charter, the representatives of Britain, France, America, Russia, and China can 'veto' Security Council action. On an issue before the Council, the government of one single country can prevent all other countries from any kind of collective action at all. One of the most blatant examples came in 1996, when the vote to retain Boutros Boutros-Ghali as Secretary-General was 14-1 ... but the one won. (It was the United States, and soon thereafter Mr. Boutros-Ghali was gone.) Even when the veto is not overtly wielded, it dominates Council decision-making. The only initiatives that even get discussed are ones which could conceivably pass muster with all five of the permanent members. It's the most extreme possible case of what the eminent political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls 'the politics of excluded alternatives.'

Imagine if any action by the U.S. Congress could be blocked by the governor of, oh, California, Texas, New York, Wisconsin or Florida. To make the analogy even more apt, there would be no direct election to the US Congress--all representatives would simply be appointed and instructed by those same governors. Would that be democratic? Would that be effective? Could the U.S. government could get anything done at all if that was its design?

But that is the UN's design, and it has prevailed and prevented collaborative action for 70 long years. No wonder people consider the UN to be ineffectual or irrelevant. The problem with the UN is not 'Council deadlock' or 'absence of political will.' The problem with the UN is the design of the UN.

The General Assembley - One nation, One vote, No power

Second, with regard to the UN General Assembly, the Commission recommends the creation of a 'UN Parliamentary Network,' which it describes as an 'advisory body ... to raise greater awareness and participation in UN governance.' That's an idea that has gained much steam in recent years, perhaps most notably through the work of the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly. The core concept is that individuals already elected to national legislatures--the Japanese Diet, the Kenyan Parliament, the U.S. Congress - could be somehow selected to serve in such an international body, and then indeed both advise the General Assembly and generate for the UN much greater public attention and involvement.

But the hope of many is that this new forum could someday evolve into a body directly elected by voters. That's not so far-fetched. An American woman living in Los Angeles elects particular individuals to represent her in the LA City Council, the California state legislature, and the U.S. Congress. Why shouldn't she be able to directly choose someone--at the ballot box -- to serve as her voice at the global level as well?

The Commission did not make that point. Nor did it recommend many other hypothetical forms of more democratic global decision-making. Today's General Assembly has three fundamental flaws. First, it represents only states, not people. Second, its basic operating principle of one nation one vote -- Bhutan and Gambia wielding the same authority as India and Brazil -- could hardly be more undemocratic (or absurd). Third, its decisions serve only as entreaties, supplications, pleas -- it has no power to make actual laws. While a 'UN Parliamentary Network' would be a small step toward mitigating the first, it would do nothing about the second and third.

The obvious solution to those defects in the UN's design, proposed many times over since 1945, is the establishment of some kind of weighted voting system -- to provide each member state with a voting power that reflects its actual influence in today's world. One, invented in the 1970s by the late founder of the Center for War/Peace Studies Richard Hudson and known as the 'Binding Triad,' would enable resolutions to gain the force of international law if the vote represented a majority of the states, a majority of the people, and a majority of the financial contributions to the UN. Another more elaborate system was put forth by Professor Joseph Schwartzberg of the University of Minnesota in his superb 2013 book Transforming the United Nations System: Designs for a Workable World. 'One nation one vote' (and no power) is surely not the one and only concept we can ever envisage to legislate for and govern one world.

An army of humanity to fight agaisnt humanity

Finally, with regard to the intersection of justice and security, the Commission chose not to put forth arguably the single most promising idea to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity - a permanent all-volunteer UN rapid deployment force (UNRDF). To bring an end to eruptions of violence when national governments are unwilling to deploy their own national militaries because the fight in question does not engage their own national interests, the world needs a UN army.

This idea was first put forward in 1948, when the first UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, called in a speech at Harvard for establishing a 'United Nations Legion.' More than half a century later, his successor Kofi Annan observed with some exasperation that the UN is the only fire brigade in the world that cannot obtain a fire engine until after the fire has broken out.

Rwanda stands as the quintessential prototype. The genocide there erupted almost overnight in the spring of 1994. The UN Secretary General, Mr. Boutros-Ghali, implored developed states to send just a few thousand troops - which most experts believe could have quickly established safe corridors and safe havens, and provided a safe refuge for hundreds of thousands of innocents. Most Americans were appalled and sickened by the horror in Rwanda. But no one could credibly argue that America was directly threatened by the horror in Rwanda. The same was true for virtually every other country in the world. So for ten long weeks, no outside country did send troops. (Except to evacuate their own citizens - that's a vital national interest.)

The Srebrenica massacre, 20 years ago this week, stands as one of countless other examples. And the answer to the conundrum is a UNRDF. (Many civil society organizations call it instead a 'UN Emergency Peace Service' to emphasize that it could do much more than just deal military defeat to the bad guys.) Its purpose, its raison d'être, would be to defend not the national interests of any particular state, but the common human interest we all share in creating a human future where genocide has been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Such a UNRDF could be dispatched into situations where horrifying violent infernos don't happen to threaten to set our own houses on fire. It could bring a quick and decisive end to ghastly crimes. It could bring the perpetrators to justice. It could deter them from ever committing their crimes in the first place. And it could free the American president in particular from the excruciating dilemma of dispatching 'the most powerful military in the world' to stop crimes that have little to do with us, or doing nothing while the nightmare continues to unfold.

Perhaps most importantly, such a UNRDF would give individuals all around the world an opportunity to do more than just 'serve their country.' It would give them an opportunity to serve humanity. Consider Dylan, an average 25-year-old American dude, channel surfing on his couch one night in April of 2014. CNN is talking about some group called 'Boko Haram.' Apparently they have kidnapped some 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria, straight out of their own government secondary school. Pretty outrageous. The Nigerian military seems unable to respond. Dylan takes a look at his phone, and sees a rapidly trending hashtag -- #bringbackourgirls. He starts to get more interested, and starts wondering what he can do about it.

Then a commercial comes on. It's a recruiting commercial for the U.S. Navy. And it ends with the tagline 'a global force for good.' That's it! Dylan can volunteer for the U.S. Navy. Maybe even become a Navy SEAL. Yes, it's probably too late for him to get into action in time to rescue those schoolgirls. But bringing an end to that kind of atrocity, by serving in a 'global force,' that's constituted 'for good' -- that's what Dylan wants to do.

Except he can't.

Because the U.S. military is a national military force. It exists to protect our national security and national interests. Has anyone even suggested that U.S. Navy SEALS, however brave and skilled and lethal, might be dispatched to retrieve the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram or to bring an end to the long list of other atrocities the group has committed since then?

Of course not. Because the villains who comprise Boko Haram do not present a direct threat to America. And however willing Dylan might be to put his life on the line to put a stop to the ongoing barbarities of Boko Haram (their latest innovation seems to be forcing schoolgirls to become suicide bombers and cutthroat executioners), there is literally no place for him to volunteer to do so.

No vehicle for him to hear the phrase, not just from his fellow Americans but from his fellow Earthlings, 'Thank you for your service.'

And no force outside Nigeria, anywhere on Earth, tasked with the mission of bringing Boko Haram to an end.

2020 Vision

Why did the Commission fail to articulate these logical next steps, these game-changing global governance inventions? Undoubtedly, because few of them can be considered 'politically realistic' in the near term. To choose just one example, when talk of getting rid of the veto was very much in the air during the 50th anniversary year in 1995, The Economist magazine tossed a cold bucket of water on the enthusiasts when it reminded everyone that 'the vetoers can veto a veto of the veto.'

But how will we ever get rid of the veto if no one ever even says that we ought to get rid of the veto? We profoundly constrain our ability to imagine alternative, brighter futures if we insist that every single proposal be weighed down by the heavy ball and chain of 'PPP': present political possibility. Nothing will ever become politically realistic unless someone first declares it to be politically desirable and proclaims it, however distantly, as an eventual historical goal. If politics, as every freshman knows, is the art of the possible, then political change ought to be about expanding the boundaries of future possibility.

Fortunately, however, the Commission atones for these reluctances with perhaps its single most important recommendation. It calls for five-year process culminating in 2020--the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, the dawn of the atomic age, and the birth of the United Nations -- in a formal meeting which they call a 'World Conference on Global Institutions.' Such a gathering might be simply another 'summit' of world leaders. Or, perhaps instead, says the Commission, 'consideration could be given to UN Charter Articles 108 or 109 for pursuing specific amendments to the Charter.'

The framers in San Francisco clearly did not intend for their Charter to stand forever as the end of history. That is why they included Article 108 to enact particular Charter revisions, and also Article 109 - a provision for convening 'A General Conference of the Members of the United Nations for the purpose of reviewing the present Charter.' Indeed, Article 109(3) indicates that the framers hoped that such a conference would be summoned no later than 'the tenth annual session' -- 1955! But more than 2/3 of a century after the UN's founding, no such gathering to examine the basic structure of its Charter has ever been convened.

If civil society activists, on environment and human rights and women's rights and inequality and peace and justice, start right now getting behind the Commission's recommendation for such a World Conference, it could become a tremendous engine for international progress. In the nongovernmental realm, such a call to action could produce a broad coalition of actors who might possess many different issue priorities and global governance visions, but who could all come together behind a formal process to discern the most appropriate vision for the historical conditions of our advancing 21st Century. (The Commission to its credit urges nongovernmental participation and civil society agitation on nearly every page.) And in the intergovernmental realm - especially if a bit of a buzz begins about assembling their 'World Conference' under the authority of the Charter itself--all sorts of fascinating scenarios arise when one realizes that Article 109 is one of the few things that is not, repeat not, subject to the veto. Even if Britain, France, China, Russia and America all stand opposed, if 2/3 of the General Assembly and 3/5 of the Security Council vote in favor, a 'General Conference ... for the purpose of reviewing the present Charter' willbe called to order.

After signing the UN Charter in San Francisco, President Truman returned to Washington D.C. by train. And when he stopped off in Kansas City, he chose to emphasize that the new United Nations was a step on a journey, rather than the end of the road. 'Now when Kansas and Colorado have a quarrel over the water in the Arkansas River,' he said, 'they don't call out the National Guard and go to war over it. They bring a suit in the Supreme Court and abide by the decision ... It will be just as easy for nations to get along in a republic of the world as it is for you to get along in the republic of the United States.'

Strobe Talbott, the Brookings Institution president already on everyone's short list for Secretary of State in a Hilary Clinton administration, tells us in his 2008 book The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation that Mr. Truman kept in his wallet for most of his life -- recopied dozens of times by his own hand -- these verses from the 19th Century British poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be
Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.

Surely, we could pay no greater tribute to Harry S. Truman, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the other architects of the 1945 UN Charter than to begin to imagine the contours--with the League of Nations the first and the United Nations the second--of what we might call our 'Third Generation World Organization.' Such a repurposed and renewed body might even tackle not just bloody intrastate upheavals but interstate military confrontations--and actually find a way to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. Perhaps in that way, we might someday bring about the next step in the political and social evolution of our human species.

 

Tad Daley, JD, PhD, is the Director of the Project on Abolishing War at The Center for War / Peace Studies in New York City. His first book was Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World. Tad formerly served as a speechwriter and policy advisor for both Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and the late US Senator Alan Cranston. This article was originally published on Citizens for Global Solutions. 

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