The fundamental issue of UN reform - the one that must precede all merely technocratic and managerial reform is global governance and the UN’s relation to it.
The fundamental problem is simply stated. The UN, from the Secretary General on down, sees itself as the bearer of global governance, to and on behalf of, the world as a whole. It sees itself, metaphorically, as a maturing sapling gradually becoming the lofty tree of global governance for the world and all that dwell therein. It sees itself, therefore, as the bearer of what Kofi Annan has called the UN’s “unique legitimacy,” on the ground that UN organizations are nascent governance, if not government, for the world.
The hubris and grandiosity of this self-conception have two related effects, both enormously damaging.
The first is that the UN and its leading organs, seeing it as a sapling that is supposed to grow into this globally overarching tree – majestic and towering – of planetary political authority, takes itself as able and authorized to enter into many fields in which, without this grandiose self-conception, it would obviously have no competence or authority. The Secretary General pronouncing on the illegality of the Iraq war? The CEDAW women’s rights commission criticizing the celebration of Mother’s Day? The International Court of Justice dignifying entirely nonbinding, hortatory General Assembly resolutions on Israel’s wall as supposed sources of law in World Court judgments? The UN’s humanitarian aid chief criticizing the US and others for supposedly stingy tsunami aid contributions, when it took his own organization a month to establish a presence in Banda Aceh, while the US was there in four days? The High Level Panel report sternly if indirectly instructing the US that determinations of threat to US security require the action of the Security Council?
One could multiply outrageous and, often, PC-silly examples endlessly, of course. More important, however, is to understand that these particularly visible emanations of hubris arise because of a solidly-held belief, running under the surface of the organization and its supporters, that it ought, and is entitled, to behave as a government-in-waiting, eroding the sovereignty of the United States in particular, because it is the sovereignty of the United States as the superpower that principally blocks the aspirations of the tree to grow to what ought to be its destiny.
This majestic but entirely hubristic self-conception arises from within the organization, but it also arises from without. Other countries, in Western Europe notably, which are, so to speak, “post sovereign” – meaning that they no longer worry especially about sovereignty because they no longer have to worry about the physical security of their populations – endorse this ideal as a matter of ideology. In part this ideology is, well, just ideology – yet also in part, it reflects, in realist terms, a tendency of politically weaker but physically secure states to find ways to tie up the power of the superpower.
In addition, the UN – the SG, especially – has sought to overcome its own “democracy deficit” by appealing to rapidly multiplying international NGOs, most of whom already share the UN vision of global governance and gradually eroding sovereignty, as a kind of alternative “electorate.” The SG has repeatedly told these NGOs that they are “global civil society,” as though the world were a domestic society in which UN institutions formed the top level government, and that these NGOs, rather than governments, are “representatives” of the peoples of the world. It is a naked bid for the legitimacy of representative government, seeking to find “representatives” of the world’s peoples – an effort to which international NGOs, seeking access, influence, and sharing the SG’s vision of global governance, eagerly lend themselves.
However, one must also note the many ways in which the United States itself contributes to this grandiose mis-vision. When the US wants to dump an unpleasant task – some aspect of nation-building, for example, in Iraq today, in Somalia a dozen years ago – it frequently turns to the UN, and does so with language that elevates precisely this sense of “unique legitimacy.” The Bush administration did so, for example, with complete short-sightedness in the run-up to the Iraqi elections, desperately seeking UN approval and election monitoring that, in the event, turned into the usual anti-US sniping and, more important, has the long term effect of reinforcing the argument that such UN players are indispensable for legitimacy. There are obviously many circumstances in which acting under UN cover is a useful exercise for the United States – failed states and civil wars, for example, where the great powers, the P5, have no serious conflicts of interest at stake. But the US needs to be far more careful of its long term interests in how it describes such actions, and not heedlessly grant the UN a governance legitimacy that the US cannot finally accept in the grandiose form that others hope to achieve.
The second damaging effect of this mis-vision is a consequence of the first. If you believe firmly that the UN is a sapling that must be encouraged to grow up into a towering tree of global governance, then you will be strongly inclined to forgive and forget mistakes, incompetence, mismanagement, waste, inefficiency and indeed outright corruption. And you will do so over and over again. On this mis-vision, all these bad things need to be corrected (all in good time, of course), but they must also be understood as the sapling growing into the tree – and if you have “unique legitimacy,” even if only in a nascent form, then you must be allowed many, many mistakes, because of your final destiny. To question, for example, whether the UN really needs all those thousands of civil servants – or whether they ought even to be thought of as “civil servants,” as though they were part of a government, rather than, say, contract employees – well, that is to question the fundamental vision itself. The usual response of would-be UN reformers is soothingly to say that we do not question the ultimate vision, but only the efficaciousness of methods for getting there, that’s the only reason we’re looking at, for example, the budget of some UN agency. Whereas what needs to be examined is the actually existing structure, its employees, their numbers, functions, budgets, and all the rest, because we think the fundamental vision is misconceived. As for corruption – well, at some point, so goes the soothing response, the level of corruption threatens to taint the vision itself, in which case it is time for a limited cleaning out for damage control, but nothing, again, that questions the self-vision of an organization that believed that it could manage such a program. These soothing answers are deeply wrong.
What needs to be rejected, therefore, at the level of fundamental vision of the UN is - what needs to be rejected in order to get on with fundamental UN reform, is:
that it is a body of global governance or even a body which is gradually growing to become such a body [don't know why the bullet point function won't work here],
- that it has any unique legitimacy beyond that which it is granted for specific tasks, that it has any business taking positions on such matters as nation state sovereignty,
- that its leaders are leaders of the “world” rather than agents of the nation states that put them there, and
- that the UN and its leaders carry any moral or legal authority beyond furnishing a talking shop for the nations for matters of mutual concern, a coordinating body of modest means for specific tasks and, through the Security Council, a talking shop among the great powers, including the good and bad, the virtuous and wicked, among them.