Time for the UN to regain focus
North Korea’s nuclear test should be a wake- up call to a United Nations that has lost its focus and alienated its most powerful member.
With a new secretary- general about to take over, the timing is right for significant change.
Certainly, Kofi Annan should be credited for his institutional reforms and noble intentions, but his utopian vision of the organization’s capacity for influence more often than not resulted in failure and disappointment.
The Millennium Development Goals will not be met. The new Human Rights Council is already no more credible than its predecessor. The International Criminal Court is powerless against some of the world’s greatest violators of human rights. And the composition of the Security Council will not be reformed any time soon.
These results were largely inevitable; they were beyond the limited capacity of the United Nations as an organization. Where Annan went wrong was in publicly insisting that such failures would result in the end of the world as we know it.
Essentially, the now- retiring secretary- general repeatedly cried wolf, and over time, members of the international community — and in particular the United States — stopped listening and gave up on the United Nations as anything but a place to make political speeches intended largely for domestic consumption.
Annan was wrong to frame the success of his soft- power initiatives as a crucial to the future of the UN as an institution. He misrepresented the UN as independently capable of improving the lot of the world’s poor and oppressed regardless of the extent of support and commitment it received from the great powers.
He seemed to think that he could shame and embarrass the world’s most powerful states into action. He was wrong, and he should have known better .
The original purpose of the United Nations was simple and intrinsically appealing even to the most cynical opponents of global governance: keep the great powers internationally engaged and speaking to one another to ensure that there would never be a Third World War.
The problem until very recently has been that the UN’s overly ambitious leadership has broadened the scope of the organization’s mandate into areas in which it can realistically play little more than an advocacy role.
The UN is a meeting place; it is not a capable world actor. It cannot effect change independently. That must be left up to the will of its naturally self- interested member- states. Obviously, the most powerful will play the most significant role, and they will only act when it is in their interests to do so.
It is in their interests to act together to find a solution to the North Korean crisis.
A nuclear- armed North Korea poses a genuine risk to international security that will affect every state, large and small.
Under a secretary- general who understands that his role is to manage expectations and simply keep countries talking, the United Nations Security Council can provide a forum through which the world’s most powerful states can assemble on neutral ground and debate an issue of shared interest in a controlled environment.
With the five great powers working together, eventually North Korea will be managed, if not contained, and it will then become the new secretarygeneral’s job to ensure that the public understands that with this very limited result, the Security Council will have served its intended purpose.
Lester Pearson used to say that the UN was about gaining tiny victories and avoiding great disasters. The world got away from this under Kofi Annan.
One only hopes that under Ban Kimoon expectations can be brought back down to Earth and the UN can reemerge as a less prominent, but more relevant, forum for the management of international security.