One year after the UN's 50th anniversary the diagnosis for its future looks gloomy. How can the United Nations sway its detractors in a world that increasingly demands multilateral solutions to problems?
The UN remains a unique forum for handling crises and conflicts, for consensus-building on global-policy issues, as a framework for universal norms and standards, and for an overview of aid and development. It is hard to see why this is not recognized as a valuable adjunct in the pursuit of American policy interests, particularly at a time when for most of us, US influence within the organization has never seemed greater.
Security in the world
At the heart of the UN Charter is a simple but important concept: that security and prosperity entail each other. No country can be secure unless the wider economic and social dimensions of that concept are fully understood, confronted, and dealt with.
Can there be any doubt that we are the better for having a UN Security Council that can mobilize a collective effort to help cope with the world's conflicts? Many of them are in places where regional instability strikes at US and Western interests. From the Golan to Lebanon to Haiti, such UN operations take place consistent with US interests, at a fraction of what it would cost the US taxpayer alone. None of these operations could have gone ahead without the approval of the US.
Even where military action has been primarily a coalition of allies, as in Operation Desert Storm, Security Council authorization made it easier for the US to persuade others to join in, to grant base and transit rights, and to provide financial assistance. The Security Council has imposed sanctions on rogue states like Iraq and Libya with the force of international law without arousing the opposition that the unilateral action of the US Congress alone generates.
Stand back and take a strategic view of the future. The UN must energetically address an agenda that includes sustainable human development and planet survival. By 2015, 80 percent or more of humankind will live in developing countries. The gap is growing. The net worth of the 500 richest people on earth is estimated to equal the combined annual income of the poorest 45 percent of the world's population. Do we suppose this situation is politically or economically sustainable?
At the same time the weight of scientific evidence tells us there is a discernible impact on the global climate from human activity, principally from the release of greenhouse gases and depletion of the ozone layer. With population growth and climate change come growing strains on the quality of water, soil, and air; loss of biodiversity; depletion of fish and forest stocks; and pressures on current patterns of production and consumption. These raise questions about the continued capacity of the Earth's natural resource base to feed and sustain a growing and increasingly urbanized population.
These facts are knocking at our doors. Indeed, a recent report on the American national interest by the Council on Foreign Relations states that "no one nation can address these problems by itself, and they affect the physical well-being of Americans in an immediate way. The United Nations is the only universal forum in which we can seek the intergovernmental consensus required for common action."
Security and prosperity are linked, but so are the fates of the haves and the have-nots. That is why the central imperative should be to harness a collective international effort toward sustainable human development. It will require a new partnership between North and South, East and West, the developed and developing worlds. We are all shareholders in the future of the planet. This is the investment the UN must get on with, and we must do it together.
The UN does need to change for fundamental reasons of relevance and effectiveness. We need to think about role distribution, accountability, chains of command, solvency, and public support. We must put UN finances to rights, not only by paying up arrears, but with a more flexible, fair assessment formula. We need political reform, strengthening the authority of the Security Council. The economic, social, and developing dimensions of UN work need restructuring, and the G-7 industrial countries have made some good proposals in this regard. But these matters must be addressed by collective effort.
The US role
It's against this backdrop that the current US mood of UN-bashing should be seen. Within the UN this has caused misunderstanding and resentment. It thus risks undermining the international objectives successive US administrations have stood for, damaging America's international reputation and complicating relationships.
If the US has swung historically between isolationism and engagement, many observers tell us that the current point on the cycle is one of intense national self-preoccupation and that America's aim will be to avoid both extremes. There is still interest among friends for old-fashioned enlightened leadership from the US, but in the modern world leadership increasingly means partnership.
The US is $1.5 billion in arrears on assessed dues to the regular UN budget and the UN peacekeeping account, a figure that is more than the entire UN budget for one year. How can the US, the sole remaining superpower with 27 percent of world gross national product, champion the rule of international law while it continues to flout its international legal and treaty obligations to pay its UN dues?
The US, which did more than any other nation to create the UN, can make it or break it. America's closest friends want the UN to keep running. The US and Britain share ideas about how to change it for the better. But the force of these ideas and of our joint efforts for change are weakened so long as the message is drowned out by voices vilifying all that the UN stands for and while the largest shareholder declines to pay its legal dues. Engagement on the path of international cooperation is in America's national interest. The UN has a role to play in this dynamic. This will be a year for change at the UN, with new leadership. The US can't opt out.
* Sir John Weston KCMG is British permanent representative to the United Nations.