A shift in the fundamental vision of the UN is not impossible, although it is highly unlikely – if not for the UN itself, then for significant players, starting with the US.
After all, the evolution of the term “global governance” itself reflects a growing recognition by so-called progressive idealists during the 1990s that true “global government” was not achievable any time soon, and that anti-sovereignty forces needed to regroup around a less threatening ideal, “governance” that would elide the precise nature of who and what was doing the governing.
The shift in debate is not so much a matter of international law/anti-sovereignty/global governance idealists versus sovereign power realists. Rather, it is increasingly a conflict between idealists of very different persuasions - liberal internationalist/anti-sovereignty/global governance idealism versus a new form of idealism, or rather a resurrected idealism, the idealistic belief that the best form of world order is one of democratic sovereignty of the nation state, whereby the realist power of sovereignty is used as a vehicle for the value of constitutional democracy, at the nation state level and without any belief that this can or should be transcended by transnational or supranational global governance. (I discuss this in my review of Anne-Marie Slaughter's A New World Order, available from SSRN in pdf here.)
John Fonte, Jack Goldsmith, Curtis Bradley, Eric Posner, Jeremy Rabkin, and I are all among the so-called “new democratic sovereigntists” seeking to debate the transnationalist pillar of internationalist thought that up until recently was seen as sacrosanct. (Perhaps the most interesting, from the standpoint of how this debate is opening up, is Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, whose blistering articles against supranationalism as an attack on US constitutional popular sovereignty are quite stunning – particularly as Professor Rubenfeld is impeccably left-liberal in his political views.)
This suggests, then, that this discussion is not solely a matter of rejecting things – rejecting a misguided vision of the UN, a misguided view of multilateralism and internationalism. There is a positive vision to be asserted here – a new and better vision of the UN. The first is a matter of metaphor – if the UN is not the sapling growing into the tree of global governance, what is it? Ideally, it is not a tree, but a set of low yet sturdy hedgerows designed for particular tasks, for particular missions, with particular and narrow competencies. A reconceived UN would be one which abandoned all pretence to the grandiosity of global governance – and which gave up all the excuses for incompetence and corruption that such a vision grants – and instead saw itself as a strictly limited institution with particular agencies dedicated to particular tasks.
Competence and efficiency would be the criteria of success, whether in public infrastructure investments in basic health and education in Africa, or combating HIV, or delivering emergency services in war or natural disaster. It is a frankly technocratic view – one in which the UN would be kept out of fields in which the relevant criterion of success were anything other than technical and measurable outputs. Tasks would be limited, legitimacy likewise limited, and aspirations to governance limited most of all.
This would mean, inevitably, that the UN would focus on poverty reduction and economic development, health and literacy, control and prevention of epidemic disease, and so on. There is no question that the UN has a major, profound role to play in such matters – it plays a significant role already and, if it abandoned its reach in matters in which it cannot play such a role, it could contribute inestimably to the reduction of misery on this planet.
Its role in security matters, as an institution, on the other hand, would be sharply curtailed, in the imagination of its leaders just as it is limited in fact – essentially, limited to discussions among the Security Council members without the bully pulpit interventions of the SG, and whatever pronouncements the General Assembly would make, with a renewed emphasis on their hortatory and nonbinding – non-law creating – nature. There are things that would be given up in this process – for example, one would not look to the UN technical experts to opine on whether genocide was underway in Darfur or not – it is, ultimately, a plainly political question framed in technical language that would fail the “technocracy” test of what the UN as an institution could address. Instead, legal experts and diplomats of the various states, and particularly the democratic sovereign states, would debate it. The question of whether the Security Council acted or not in a situation such as Darfur would be - as it always is whether admitted or not – a matter of great power politics, interests, and values. At the same time, however, by no longer assuming that the Security Council was necessary to act in a place like Darfur or Rwanda, the virtuous great powers – the US above all – would not be free to excuse their own inaction on the grounds that the Security Council had not acted.
What to replace the flawed “values” component of the UN? It is something that gets talked about endlessly, but which, in the rub of events, gets pushed aside by two inescapable facts. The first is that the members of the Security Council must necessarily be the great powers, good and bad among them, because power is power – but that fact by its very nature limits the moral authority of the Council, and makes it no more than a place for discussion and, in situations where the interests of the great power do not conflict, occasional action. It is no nascent global legislature in security matters or anything else, and a body on which sit China and Russia with veto rights can never have any great moral legitimacy.
The second is that beyond the Security Council, only about half of the members states of the UN are democracies. The values that the UN is, at its best, supposed to embody must be carried forward by coalitions of the willing democratic sovereigns. That might mean occasional military action – a no-fly zone over Darfur, for example. But it more routinely means what some have called a “caucus of democracies” to carry forward the values that are necessary in nation-building in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan, in supporting reform in weak and failing states, in supporting values beyond China’s realpolitik acquisition of hydrocarbons or Saudi Arabia’s export of its own values instability.
The UN, embodied above all in the scandal of the UN Human Rights Commission, cannot reliably speak to those values, because it is a talking shop of all states – that talking shop has a certain value, but the fact that all are included by definition limits its moral authority. And the US will have to recognize that in pressing for and leading a caucus of democracies there will be times, yes, in which it will have to compromise its will and policies in order to be the multilateral leader. The task is to balance its own values against the value of coalitions, and yet recognizing that, as Stephen Sestanovich recently noted in the National Interest (Spring 2005), here subscriber only, many of the best changes in the world have occurred when the United States ignored the doubters, went for the maximalist values position, and gambled American prestige and power on it.
There is, in other words, a “positive” position, not merely a rejectionist critique. It consists of
- revising downwards the vision of the UN to be a “hedgerow” institution rather than overarching tree,
- scaling downwards the UN to be a combination of technocratic agencies of limited scope and mandates, measurable by competency, on the one hand, and a “talking shop” of the nations in the form of the General Assembly and “talking shop” of the great powers in the form of the Security Council, on the other,
- replacing “values” advocacy for democracy and human rights in the UN directly with forums of democratic sovereign states, eager to press the agendas of democracy and human rights through donor aid, rhetorical support (not irrelevant from small, poor states), and, as necessary in extreme cases, military action.