Monday, January 17, 2005

UN reform and Mark Malloch Brown

Judith Miller has an important story in today's Monday, January 17, 2005 New York Times, "Annan Planning Deep Changes in U.N. Structure, Aide Says," at A4. The WSJ has a similar story - the hook is a press briefing by Mark Malloch Brown, who is moving from being head of the United Nations Development Program to Kofi Annan's chief of staff. What interests me particularly in Miller's story is the comment by John Ruggie, a former assistant SG at the UN and now Kennedy School of Government professor. Ruggie notes that pressure from the oil-for-food scandal has made real reform possible at the UN. Allegations of fraud and abuse, Miller reports him as saying, had

"shifted power decisively within the United Nations, out of the hands of what he [Ruggie] called the "traditionalists," who see the organization as being primarily beholden to its member states, to the "modernists," who believe the institution's mandate requires accountability to its own agencies, nongovernmental organizations and the public." (Emphasis added.)

Certainly this is in line with everything I have ever known about Malloch Brown. (I severely criticize him in connection with the 2003 UN headquarters bombing in Baghdad in an article on humanitarian neutrality, available at SSRN here, Humanitarian Inviolability in Crisis: The Meaning of Impartiality and Neutrality for U.N. and NGO Agencies Following the 2004-2004 Afghanistan and Iraq Conflicts, 17 Harvard Human Rights Journal 41-74 (2004).) My work with international NGOs has frequently put me in contact with his agency, the UNDP.

This "modernist" vision of UN reform is a very, very bad idea. Why? First, because its underlying assumption is that the problem of the UN is its accountability to sovereign states - the modernist vision instead wants to empower the UN as not the servant of states, but as an institution legitimate solely on its own and accountable to itself. Malloch Brown believes that the fundamental problem of the UN, the one that needs reforming, is precisely that the institution is too much a creature of states. He wants it to be ideologically, institutionally, morally, and politically a genuinely independent player, and he couches it as a means of reforming the institution's corruption by sovereign states such as France or Russia in the oil-for-food program. Sounds attractive, to get the UN out of bed with France or Russia - but what Malloch Brown has in mind also gets it out from under the thumb of the United States. Above all, Malloch Brown believes in the "unique legitimacy" of the United Nations - but that hubris of "unique legitimacy" is precisely the problem.

Second, this vision of UN reform aims at replacing accountability to sovereign states, and the United States in particular, with accountability to the UN's own agencies and, worse, to NGOs and the public at large. The point, once again, is to bypass sovereign states and, in particular, the United States. NGOs are an extraordinarily attractive pairing for UN "reformists" for whom reform means UN independence from the United States. The fundamental problem of UN legitimacy vis a vis democratic sovereign states is that the UN has no democratic legitimacy. What NGOs - the private do-gooder organizations - provide to the UN is a veneer of democratic legitimacy. NGOs during the 1990s styled themselves as "global civil society," as though they, rather than governments, were the legitimate representatives of the "people" of the world. They lent a sort of faux-democratic "representativeness" to the UN, and the UN in turn elevated them and gave them much special access and attention, always with an agenda of undermining the authority and legitimacy of democratic sovereigns. It was a kind of love affair - the NGOs and the UN locked in a passionate embrace, each giving the other the legitimacy it lacked.

(I talk about the embrace of NGOs and international organizations in Kenneth Anderson and David Rieff, Global Civil Society: A Sceptical View, in Mary Kaldor, et al., eds., Global Civil Society 2004/5 (Sage 2004); The Limits of Pragmatism in American Foreign Policy: Unsolicited Advice to the Bush Administration on Relations With International Nongovernmental Organizations, 2 Chicago Journal of International Law 2 (2001) fulltext at SSRN here; and The Ottawa Convention Banning Landmines, the Role of International Nongovernmental Organizations and the Idea of International Civil Society, 11 European Journal of International Law 1 (2000), available full text here.)

Much of this fell apart after September 11 when, with security back on the table, so was the authority of the sovereign state. But for people like Malloch Brown, the dream still persists, and has been reinvented as a narrative of precisely the UN "reform" that ought to satisfy the United States. Modernist view of the UN? Malloch Brown represents, rather, the oldest and most "traditionalist" dream of all, that of the United Nations growing from little sapling of global governance to majestic, overarching tree of global government.

Whereas what is needed is a thorough pruning, one that reconceives of the UN as a much smaller, much more confined organization. The dilemma is this. On the one hand, the UN is a failed organization, root and branch, and yet on the other hand, there is a need for a UN. (See my earlier post on the High Level Panel report, here.) The UN needs to be reconceived, however, not as an overarching tree of governance, but instead as a set of narrow, low, but sturdy and, above all, useful and competent, hedgerows, serving particular purposes - and jumpable as occasion occasionally demands. This reconceived UN would not the kind of organization, I would venture - quiet, competent, small, confined - that would attract men of such hubris as Malloch Brown who, having achieved fortune, now seek glory.

(I am getting involved in some UN reform studies; more posts later on what that would actually entail, such as caucuses of democratic sovereigns, the chastened role of NGOs no longer conceiving of themselves as global civil society representing the peoples of the world, etc.)

1 comment:

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