Over the hill at 50?

Our Global Neighbourhood: - Utopia Lost:
March 24, 1995

This year is the 50th anniversary of the United Nations and no doubt we shall hear an avalanche of cliches. The fortunes of the UN have fluctuated wildly. Few, if any, of today's younger generation are devotees of one-world government as they were in the 1940s. The UN was born in an age of idealism but also during the age of empires. Its resounding opening phrase, "We the people . . .", contained many contradictions. The Allies consisted of three powers: the United Kingdom, France and the USSR, all of which had colonies and/or empires. Their people were not free to join the UN. Indeed the United Nations has never been that; it has always been the union (or perhaps a motley assembly) of states, often mistakenly labelled nation-states. The founders also intended it to be a body that could regulate conflict in the post-1945 world with the co-ordinated efforts of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

These two features - a collection of sovereign states and the hegemonic role of Allied Powers - proved the perfect recipe for crippling the organisation. But the UN was saved by the Cold War, which divided the hegemons (especially after the Chinese Revolution) and made it impossible for them to act in a co-ordinated fashion. This division also meant that any attempt by the UN to make any state behave itself ran up against the protege principle. Client states of Cold War powers, nominally independent but actually in thrall, were untouchable since their boss power could always use the veto in the Security Council. The General Assembly became like some student union meeting, where attitudes could be struck and the powerful behave in a cynically resigned manner, observing the antics of the masses.

Halfway through the 1960s this east-west conflict started to thaw and change shape. China and the USSR began to quarrel. France began to misbehave and undermined the confidence in the dollar. A north-south battle began which pitted the west mainly against its own client states, as well as those non-aligned ones who were happy to borrow money from both as long as they did not have to repay it. As the colonies became independent, they began their attempt to develop and in the process ran up against the fact that sovereignty did not buy any bread or machines or even tanks. Thus foreign aid became an instrument of diplomacy. The west pretended to give money to the south for the purpose of building an ostensibly non-capitalist autonomous economy; the south proceeded to take the money and, in more cases than not, pursued an elitist programme of national power building rather than poverty alleviation.

This compromise meant that everyone could complain and almost everyone could profit. But several things undermined the cosy arrangement. For one thing OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil shock allowed the south to become independent, temporarily, of official aid. This tied the south into the much firmer and non-sentimental arms of the banks and later the International Monetary Fund when the loans, having been misused or stashed away in Miami, caused the debt crisis to occur. In the meantime, the east had also been borrowing and it too found that loan repayment required it to be able to export. Its autarkic strategy was exposed for the economic nonsense it was.

Thus in the 1990s we are back starkly to the original contradictions. The Allied hegemony has returned since Russia has become a client state of the United States. The many sovereign states know too from their IMF experience that in a globalised world, economically, they are as dependent as before. It is not the multinational corporation nor yet Yankee imperialism but the man from Moody's who decides their fate, by downgrading their credit rating. But at the same time the sole hegemon, the US, is no longer economically powerful and is scared of the military intervention that may lead to body bags.

Consequently, in the past five years the UN has enjoyed a rapid revival in its fortunes and simultaneously intense disappointment that it cannot cope with its responsibilities. The two books under review are very different attempts to address the issue of the new global order. The Commission on Global Governance was the idea of the late Willy Brandt and consists (mostly) of the internationally great and good. These are chiefly retired politicians (Ingvar Carlsson became the prime minister of Sweden halfway through the commission's existence, but then accidents do happen), ex-international civil servants, NGO chiefs and so on. Only the presence of the current foreign minister of Indonesia undermines the credibility of what the commission has to say about human rights or national independence.

But still the commission belongs to the generation when idealism was not in short supply and so it has set about redesigning the world map. It offers a lot of suggestions about the structure of the UN in order to make it work better. Some of these ideas have been canvassed before by the Nordic countries, by the United Nations Development Programme and the Ford Foundation's committee on UN finance. The main suggestion is that the Security Council be expanded in two stages: first, by adding non-veto members from Europe (Germany), Asia (Japan) and from the more populous South (India, Brazil, Nigeria?). This situation can then be regularised at a later date. Another idea is to have an Economic Security Council which would take a co-ordinating role of research and monitoring, though with no executive powers to oversee global economic crises. Along the way the commission would like to abolish the unwieldy Economic and Social Council and wind up the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, two bodies created in the heady days when the south thought it was confronting the north for hegemony. Since we now know the plain truth that hegemony requires resources, and plenty of those as the USSR found out, we can rid ourselves of old pretences.

There are many other suggestions in the report. It is concisely written and very well presented. Indeed, whatever its eventual effect, it will remain a solid reference work on the UN and its workings for a long time to come. The one question it skirts is that of the central contradiction. In whose interest is it to reform the UN and why should anyone do it? Despite awareness of the sovereignty issue and its stultifying effect on the UN, the report is still committed to the General Assembly perspective in which true democracy is supposed to dilute the power of the Security Council and give more power, one way or another, to the many states.

Rosemary Righter belongs to the realist - if not the cynical - school. As a journalist who has tracked the UN for a long time she looks at it without any illusions. She tackles the Leninist question, Who Whom, without any false sentiment. She takes the hegemon's point of view. How should the west deal with the unruly mess that is the General Assembly and that is crippling the UN, she asks. Her book is unfortunately rather long, since she is tempted, like many who know too much about a subject, to unload all her card indexes on the UN into a single book. She has been ill-served by her editor (if she had one) and her publishers who have printed the book in a mean format with no margins and ugly typesetting. But her introduction and the last four chapters make a compact alternative to the commission's report.

Righter asks the question how the great powers should treat the UN. She outlines four options: facade management, opting out, structural reform and selective action. Facade management is what is going on now, where the Security Council powers humour the General Assembly without conceding any real power. It is time-consuming and hypocritical but then what are permanent delegations to the UN for? Opting out is not an option, no matter how attractive, though the new Newt Gingrich-Jesse Holmes coalition in the Congress may yet force that option on the US unless Clinton uses the veto, and even that is only good until 1996 and a likely Republican presidential victory. Structural reform would involve the powers in implementing some version of the commission's report and they do not have the stomach for it. So selective action is what will occur. Here there is some convergence between the two books. Thus ECOSOC, UNCTAD, UNIDO will go in both scenarios. Righter has naive faith in the Bretton Woods institutions but if the Republicans get in they will not be safe either. In his Ely lecture at the American Economic Association meetings in Washington DC earlier this year, George Schultz, the former secretary of state, was scathing about these two bloated institutions. So, much streamlining can be done on the economic side. This will suit the powers since in the economic arena equal voting has never been the norm; power derives from the bond market. A rationalisation of the economic functions of the many UN institutions as well as of the Bretton Woods ones will require some doing, but it is easier than reforming the political basis of the UN.

Some reforms may yet come willy-nilly. If, as a hegemon, the US really does not want to spare its boys in military interventions, there will have to be a UN army that the powers can deploy. It has already happened in Somalia and will happen again. The populous poor countries will hire out their armies for the powers to deploy in UN interventions - in the name of world peace and the UN system; and it may all happen with the idealistic blessing of the Nordic powers. Some expansion of the Security Council may happen if only to keep Japan happy. But for any real action on the environment or development or security the world will go on using other multilateral channels as they are much more effective and much less loaded with the pretentious rhetoric that the UN inspires in all the member countries attending its sessions in New York, Rio, Copenhagen or elsewhere.

Lord Desai is director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics.

Our Global Neighbourhood:: The Report of the Commission on Global Governance

ISBN - 0 19 8998 1 and 8997 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00 and £6.99
Pages - 410pp

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