UN: rhetoric without responsibility
Today's United Nations is little more than a bloated international think-tank.
The UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, leading representatives of the world’s governments, publicists from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and international media commentators, have all expressed disappointment in the failure of the UN summit in New York this week to deliver on the ambitious agenda for reform and poverty reduction promised in the secretary-general’s draft proposals (1).
According to UK-based aid agency Oxfam, the one saving grace of the summit was the proclamation that the UN should protect populations from genocide: ‘This is an achievement worthy of the sixtieth anniversary of an organisation set up to save generations from the scourge of war.’ (2) But while this declaration might seem to tie today’s UN with the UN of 60 years ago, the summit in fact reveals striking differences with the past.
The United Nations no longer exists as an organisation of international governance. In 1945, the UN’s Charter was seen as the constitutional framework for international law; its Security Council was collectively responsible for the authorisation of the use of force in international affairs; and its General Assembly symbolised the desire to constitute an international society based on the sovereign equality of states, regardless of economic, social or political strengths. The UN was central to legitimising and regulating the postwar international order.
The publication of Annan’s reform agenda, independently of the views of its member states (including the USA), demonstrated that serious responsibility for policymaking had now been abandoned. In the past, a substantial political consensus among the organisation’s major powers was considered an essential prerequisite for any public debates and initiatives. What went on behind the scenes was more important than what happened on the floor of the Assembly or was recorded in Security Council resolutions.
Today, major powers take decisions outside the framework of the UN. The new UN is a free-floating institution, little more than a bloated international think-tank that holds large conferences, issues reports and claims the moral high ground.
The UN bureaucracy has led the reform away from an institution of governance, and towards an independent organisation, free from the constraints of governing responsibilities. The UN is left free to proclaim grand symbolic causes, which have little to do with any genuine political consensus. The reliance on rhetoric over inter-state politics symbolises the death of the old UN and the irrelevance of its formal structures of decision-making in the Security Council and General Assembly.
In the style of a self-referential moral advocate, like Bono or Bob Geldof, Annan used the forum to lecture the gathered statesmen on their inability to tackle world poverty. The assembled world leaders were given poor marks for their performances and labelled a ‘real disgrace’ for failing to agree on disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. Without a hint of irony, Annan concluded: ‘We have allowed posturing to get in the way of results. This is inexcusable.’ (3)
Annan’s rhetoric amounts to an attempt to hide the lack of any genuine consensus on international policymaking, or clear framework for legitimising the post-Cold War international order. Instead, Annan blames states for failing to live up to his demands. Where Annan led, world leaders were keen to follow, using the summit to make declarations of global commitment – while at the same time passing responsibility for policy failures on to others.
UK prime minister Tony Blair warned other world leaders that it was their fault that the struggle against terrorism appeared to be failing: ‘Terrorism won’t be defeated until our determination is as complete as theirs, our defence of freedom as absolute as their fanaticism, our passion for democracy as great as their passion for tyranny.’ (4) At the same time he made it clear that any ‘foreign policy decisions’ in which he personally had a hand, such as the war on Iraq, could not be part of the problem. Like Annan, Blair was keen to stress the importance of his own global mission, while taking the focus off any mundane policy practice.
While Annan and Blair can get away with using the UN as a forum for self-referential rhetoric, US presidents will always find it more difficult. The USA’s strength and influence makes it the whipping boy when other people’s promises fail to match reality. This is one reason why America has more of an ambiguous relationship with the UN than other powers.
Nevertheless, the platform provided by the UN is still useful for US president George W Bush, and he made the most of the opportunity to assert the USA’s global purpose, while passing the buck for failure at the same time. With great flourish, Bush demanded that the world ‘tear down the walls’ between rich and poor nations: ‘The lesson is clear. There can be no safety in looking away, or seeking the quiet life by ignoring the hardship and oppression of others.’ (5) Apparently, all that was needed now was for other nations to tear down trade barriers – which amounts to an implicit critique of EU farm subsidies.
The UN has shifted its role from international governance to a stage for grand speeches and declarations of global unity. This process makes ‘failure’ something the UN, and its leading member states, can happily live with.
David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
(1) Draft Outcome Document, World Summit High Level Plenary Meeting of the 60th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, 13 September 2005
(2) Oxfam welcomes historic anti-genocide move at UN summit, Press Release, 14 September 2005
(3) ‘Annan condemns dropping of disarmament clause but welcomes agreement on genocide’, David Usborne, Independent, 15 September 2005
(4) ‘Blair frustrated as UN fails to agree on anti-terror action’, Andrew Grice, Independent, 15 September 2005
(5) ‘Bush vows to “tear down walls” between rich and poor nations’, James Bone, The Times, 15 September 2005
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