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Dossiers and Documents : Discussion Papers : THE UN AND WORLD GOVERNANCE


With what resources?



Arnaud Blin, Gustavo Marin ¤ 7 January 2009 ¤
Translations: français (original) . Español .

In contemporary collective awareness, the UN is highly regarded. Be it criticized or defended, one thing is certain: the UN exists. It was omnipresent during the entire Cold War and it remains important today, despite its somewhat waning prestige.

Yet, considering the prestige it does enjoy despite countless critiques and gibes, many would be surprised to learn that the UN’s resources are a lot closer to those of a micro state than to those of the “super” supranational state with which it is usually associated (wrongly, it turns out). With a yearly (operating) budget lower than (US)$2 billion and total expenditure under $15 billion, which includes all UN agencies and programs (FAO, WHO, UNESCO, UNICEF, etc.), the UN has 40 times less financial resources than just the Pentagon (more than $500 billion, not counting the “war on terror,” which alone has about $200 billion to spend).

To put things into perspective, total yearly military expenditure for all countries amounts to $1 trillion, in itself enough to finance the UN for another 67 years at the present rate … Total US budget is $2.73 trillion; the Wall Street bailout (2008) came to $700 billion, the equivalent of what is needed to finance 47 years for the UN ... As for UN expenditure, it is more or less equal to the yearly budget of the New York City Board of Education ($12.4 billion). These numbers show among others that the countries that finance the UN allow it no more than a minute fraction of their budget, which indicates that member countries are not tremendously willing to give the UN the resources it needs to fulfill its mandates. We can also see how the richest countries can in effect corrupt the good progress of UN operations by extorting, in a way, its long-term needs. In this area, the United States—its biggest contributor—has always played an ambiguous game with the UN, which it uses when its national interests are at stake.

In other words, the UN has an infinitely smaller budget than a modest-sized country, not to mention the United States, nor even France or Italy. In terms of power, the UN is non-existent. More precisely, its power is not in its resources but in its capacity to influence the course of events. Though it plays Tom Thumb in the land of strategy, the UN is still a front-running diplomatic performer. But even its enormous legitimacy and its grand prestige—albeit waning—does not stop it from stumbling systematically against material realities. The gigantic gap that separates its influence from its real power is thus a large part of the explanation of the limits it inextricably faces. When you add to this lack of resources the inevitable losses associated with running a body comprising 192 countries representing scores of cultural areas and linguistic families, it is easy to understand that the UN is akin to Don Quixote fighting windmills.

And yet, as years go by, the UN is loaded with ever greater quantities of issues to deal with, including critical ones involving nothing less than the survival of the planet. Why? Simply—and we shall return to this point—because the ability of states to take on individually the world’s current problems is constantly diminishing. Why then, not provide the UN with the necessary resources and the freedom of action it needs to truly tackle these problems? The simple answer is that, for now, old habits are lingering and “national interest” is resisting awareness of global collective interest. Two obstacles are preventing a change in approach: the inability to understand that national and collective interests are increasingly close and interconnected; and the fact that political leaders do not have the audacity to move into areas that might undermine their power or cost them an election. Perhaps, too, the inability among a majority of leaders to understand the complexity of the contemporary world. This would mean that our political systems, designed in other times, are simply no longer adapted to the complexity of the world. A vast problem that is not the UN’s to solve.

Let us take another look at the question of the UN’s resources. Given that the UN budget comes essentially from the great powers of the moment, it is these latter, in a way, that control its power, its authority, and its direction. Obviously, the United States—we could mention other countries—allocates no more than a tiny fraction of its national budget to the UN (a share that has continued to dwindle over the decades) because it has no desire to see a supra power emerge that would be able to take its place on the international chessboard.

In light of this harsh reality, UN action only seems more remarkable. With the exception of the Vatican—the role of which, we should recall, was for a long time of fundamental importance in the realm of governance, including international governance—the impact of the UN is historically unprecedented. This impact, however, is mostly restricted to a particular area: in a way, the UN represents the moral and symbolic—we could almost say spiritual—dimension of everything that governs relations among peoples, while states rule over the temporal dimension.

Of course, the UN is on the field. It is even very much so, in particular as represented by its peacekeeping soldiers (currently 70,000 soldiers who, as we know, belong to national armies). But this is not, in the end, where its essence lies. The United States did not need the UN to invade Iraq. Nonetheless, the UN’s refusal to endorse the invasion deprived the US of a moral justification, which in the end, is not negligible. In a context (of conflict) where psychological aspects are considerable—due in particular to the fact that when it comes to foreign intervention, public opinion has a long-term hold on its leaders—the moral umbrella of the only body having the legitimacy to provide moral justification or not, is of major importance. The UN’s refusal to intervene in Iraq influenced the course of the war even though, in the end, according to the principles of collective security that constitute its foundations, the UN’s very raison d’être is precisely to prevent this type of situation.

So instead of asking why the UN does no more than it does, let us try for a moment to look at the problem from the other side: how did the UN come to fill such an important position in global governance with such exiguous resources at its disposal?

Basically, the UN’s influence in the world is inversely proportional to its actual power, which in turn varies greatly in magnitude depending on the good will of the permanent members of the Security Council. This is not a coincidence and it could even be argued that it is actually written into the UN Charter. In fact, states, in a way, granted the UN this influence by attributing it the role of permanent representative, or ambassador if you prefer, of the international community through one of the three basic UN decision-making bodies, the Secretariat. [1] The UN’s job, however, is mostly only representation, as at the same time the states also jealously protected individual national power, which constitutes the only real bargaining chip on the grand chessboard, and the “wealthiest” states are skimpy and circumspect in handing this power over to the Secretary General.

The UN is therefore a kind of conglomerate of national interests (of the member countries) operating according to the principles of utilitarian philosophy, i.e. promotion of the wellbeing of most people. Nevertheless, in practice, the interest of most people is only promoted when it does not conflict with that of the most powerful countries, i.e. the UN’s “club of five” aristocracy. The spirit of collective security is thus maintained within limits, with the great powers’ realpolitik throwing its full weight on the United Nations with an invisible and heavy hand—and the tribulations of the General Assembly show that the more modest countries’ actions often also have to submit to the intrinsic selfishness underlying each country’s national interest, from the biggest to the smallest.

Regardless, compared with the international regime in force previous to the UN and the League of Nations, the balance of powers (which a number of leaders are calling today to re-establish), the “UN regime” constitutes a considerable step forward in that it rejects the pre-eminence of a policy exclusively governed by the correlation of forces and the pecking order of the great almighty powers. This is the regime, albeit incomplete since it has to combine with the realpolitik of traditional correlations of forces, that made it possible, with the active aid of the UN and its various specialized agencies, to negotiate the turning point of decolonization, including USSR’s, and the essentially peaceful transition from a world that comprised 50 states in 1945 to a world with 4 times that many 60 years later.

This metamorphosis of the great geopolitical chessboard was, along with the founding of the European Union, one of the two major political facts of the second half of the twentieth century. By integrating new states into the system, the UN played a front-running role in the maintenance of the world’s overall stability, a role that has in fact been largely underestimated. This unifying role was played by the second fundamental decision-making body, the General Assembly. This is the body where the “democratic” dimension of the UN is manifest, given that every nation, from the biggest to the smallest, has an equal vote.

Nevertheless, the UN’s founding members also inflicted serious restrictions on the organization. The third pillar of the UN, the Security Council (second in the Charter, after the Assembly), was partly set up as a body to maintain international stability and security, but also and above all, as sometimes argued, as an instrument allowing the great powers that be—mainly those that won World War II plus France, another great historical power—to maintain their hegemony on world affairs. Through the Charter, which wrote into stone the role and composition of the Security Council, the five major permanent powers of the Security Council, what’s more armed with veto power, have the UN’s destiny in their hands, especially in the area they are most intent on controlling, that of war and peace. [2] The Security Council—15 members (since 1965) including the 5 permanent ones—is independent from the Secretariat and the General Assembly. Through the Security Council, the UN artificially maintains the status quo of the 1945 global chessboard, knowing that it has been a long time since two of the five permanent members, France and Great Britain, had the status of first-rank power, and that a third, Russia, has also lost some of its haughtiness since 1991. For these three countries, relinquishing such a prestigious status and its corresponding influence—remember Dominique de Villepin’s tirade against invading Iraq—is as unthinkable as for the two other permanent members of the Council, China and the United States. At best, France, and even Great Britain, could in a (most unlikely) surge of generosity transfer their vote to the European Union. An enlargement of the permanent members of the Security Council could also be considered—though also unlikely as things stand now—to include India, Japan, Brazil (which had already requested a seat in the League of Nations and was the first to put in the same request when the UN was founded) and South Africa, for example. But beyond the symbolic aspect, would this change things fundamentally? The Security Council constitutes the aristocratic dimension, taken in its original political meaning, of the UN, i.e. a frozen elite, absolutely determined to protect its privileges and maintain the pre-established pecking order. Enlarged or not, it will remain the same.

We can thus see that the UN is a two-headed animal, in which a democratic structure—albeit lame and inadequate—is in conflict with an aristocratic structure (attenuated to some extent by the rotation of the non-permanent members of the Council), with the Secretariat, or more precisely the Secretary General, constituting the showcase of the whole and on occasion its cockpit. All the same, this structure has a specific modus operandi since each of these bodies is attributed a specific task that, all things considered, is complementary to the other two. The Assembly was able to achieve the integration of its new members and ease the UN’s growing pains. The Security Council, thanks to its small size and the power of its permanent members, is able to reach quick resolutions and even act with verve as long as everyone is on the same wave length. As for the Secretary General, his role is vital since he is the voice and the face of the United Nations. When capable and visible, like Kofi Annan, his influence is real. Nevertheless, appointment of the Secretary General is too dependent on political negotiations, which can result in a nominee not always up to the task. Usually chosen from the ranks of diplomacy, secretary generals are often relatively unobtrusive. Their profile is quite different from that of the great political leaders and it might be necessary to draw future secretaries from the ranks of former heads of state. Historically, UN secretary generals have paled into insignificance. Compared, for instance, to American or Soviet leaders of the past 50 years, who remembers Trygve Lie (1946-52) or U Thant (1961-71), contemporaries, respectively, of Stalin, Truman, and Eisenhower, then of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, not to mention Mao Zedong, De Gaulle, or Churchill, who were the chiefs of state of the other permanent member countries of the Security Council? How many people in the world today even know the name of the current Secretary General (Ban Ki-moon)?

As for the Security Council, it is far too locked into the rivalries among its permanent members to actually have a positive incidence on international stability. The General Assembly is often on its side, due to the comprehensible frustration of the countries located at the periphery of the center of gravity of power and who use the UN tribune to push forward their presence or that of their leaders.

Set up in such a way that its possibility of changing is considerably limited, the UN, since its foundation, has been constantly and unfairly reproached for being unable to reform itself on its own. Here again, blame should not be placed, as it is generally, on the institution itself, and even less on the Secretariat, even if they could be managed more efficiently (as Kofi Annan would have liked). As seen above, the UN actually adapted significantly to the transformations that have modified the configuration of the geopolitical world of the past 60 years, more, in fact, than any state has done. In the field of Human Rights, for instance—even if the Human Rights Council (being reformed since it replaced the Commission on Human Rights) can be criticized—in the fields of poverty, health, or children, UN agencies have accomplished remarkable work, all the more so that their resources are so limited.

There is no shadow of a doubt that the United Nations needs to be reformed in depth. Still, so far, no one has been able to do so, even the influential Kofi Annan, who proposed a reform plan in 2005. Beyond the thorny problem of reform, among others of the Security Council, that everyone, or nearly everyone is clamoring for, without indulging in illusions, there is room to wonder if the UN, even if reformed, constitutes today the main answer to the problems the world will be facing in the coming decades.

In other words, three questions are raised today. The first, that of UN reform, is not the most important even if it is the one on everyone’s mind, rightfully so. A more important question is that of knowing whether the UN actually embodies the global collective-security system that it is supposed to represent and whether it (still? finally?) will tomorrow. Finally, there is the simple question of collective security, even beyond the UN: is this the answer we expected, are expecting today, and will be expecting tomorrow?

[1In addition to the three pillars—the Assembly, the Security Council, and the Secretariat—three other bodies complete the picture: the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, and the International Court of Justice.

[2Used about 300 times so far, mainly by the USSR/Russia and the United States.

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