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


A (provisional) conclusion



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

The United Nations has been part of the dynamics of international relations for more than 60 years, during which many things have changed, including the perspective that every individual might have of his or her place in the universe. The UN is present in many fields and is expected to be even more so. Through its many specialized agencies, it sometimes accomplishes miracles and does so with extremely limited resources. The world has changed, and the UN has also managed to adapt and even sometimes to precede and influence the deep structural changes that have altered the course of things and of history. As regards reforms, the UN has also attempted to prime the pump through its Secretary General, sometimes with relative success.

All the same, the UN embodies thinking of another era, and its structures were set from the start in a rigid mold that primarily suited great powers whose mental scope hardly went beyond that of a global governance ruled mainly by the harsh laws of the correlation of forces. Yes, the UN managed to ease this law and even to humanize the rules of game just a bit. But the UN was not founded to be free and independent from the will of the states that constitute it. Today, when the major problems of the world are either due to the failure of the political machinery of states or involve a dimension that goes beyond the framework of interstate relations, a new world-governance architecture is clearly needed.

What would the UN’s place be in this new architecture? The UN plainly has an important role to play today in an unstable world that, for better or for worse, has no geopolitical or geoeconomic stabilization system to govern it. By the very fact of its original constitution, it is simply unable to transcend the “state” dimension into which it is necessarily hemmed. Its symbolic action is vital but there is nothing to indicate that it will some day have the material resources to match its ambitions.

Rather than expecting and clamoring that the UN accomplish the impossible while at the same time restraining its actions, to then criticize its lack of results, we feel it is more judicious to restrict its mandates in the future but provide it with real resources in the desired fields, for instance in the fields of health, hunger, and education.

In other sectors, including those that were the basis for founding the United Nations, those of war and peace, evidently other mechanisms are necessary, otherwise we will be perpetually disappointed. In this domain, the UN is very far from having the resources for efficient action and member countries, starting with the five permanent members of the Security Council, do not and will probably never have the will to yield any ground. Besides, the evolution of war and peace requires a complete overhaul of the military apparatus, of strategies, and of the very concept of army. Just in the domain of peacekeeping operations, it is obvious that things must change considerably and that a revolution is in the making, or should be, in this particularly sensitive area. It is hard to imagine, in fact, that states will be willing to abandon their prerogatives here, where more than anywhere else the ancestral laws of Politics always apply: the laws of the correlation of forces. Regardless, history has demonstrated that the state is capable of changing, and even of transforming itself quickly. A revolution similar to that of 1648 or of 1789 is still a possibility, no matter how difficult that may be to consider—but such is the essence of revolutions: to surprise us. It is therefore not unthinkable that the model of the state could change significantly in the coming years, to the point of giving the United Nations a second life (a third one, if one counts the League of Nations). Neither is it impossible that the scaffolding of a new world governance take states, hence the UN, to higher levels. But nothing concrete, for the moment, corroborates these scenarios.

It might perhaps be wiser to accept the idea that the UN will not be able to do much more in the future than it is able to now, and that its energy could perhaps be put to better use elsewhere. Furthermore, reorienting UN activities seems in practice to be more likely to succeed than in-depth reform.

In other words, the role that the United Nations could play in twenty-first-century world governance would be vital, all the more so as other elements would complete, support, and assist its action. What kinds of elements? For the moment, focus has mostly been directed on models that, for the very large part, involve a more or less institutionalized activity where states are still placed at the core of the solution. Hence the idea of a new “concert” of nations or powers (Michael Lind), [1] that of a league of democracies (John McClintock and Xavier Guigue), [2] that of regional grouping (Pierre Calame), [3] or still yet an enlarged “G8/G20” (Johannes Lynn and Hake Bradford). [4] Yet it seems indispensable that other players—civil society, NGOs/IGOs, companies, etc.—take an active part in world governance. How? With what resources? For what purposes? The answers to these questions are eminently complex and go far beyond the framework of this essay. We do, however, feel that a single solution, including the UN solution, is neither possible nor desirable today, as it might have appeared to be not so long ago. The architecture of a new world governance must be decentralized and operational in various areas, flexible and adapted, efficient and sustainable. The days are over when all the problems of the world could in theory be settled under only one umbrella. Less aesthetic, this type of architecture could instead be much more efficient than the UN construction has been thus far. The fact remains that, as for any architectural construction, there are specific problems to solve. The architecture of a new world governance must be just as specific. It must also provide answers to essential questions: For whom? Why? How? For what purposes? Who decides what? In other words, as for any human organization, the problem of legitimacy is raised. So far, states have had a monopoly on political legitimacy. Henceforward, it will be necessary to redefine the norms of a new legitimacy.

[1Michael Lind, The American Way of Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[2John McClintock, with the collaboration of Xavier Guigue, The Uniting of Nations, an Essay on Global Governance, Brussels, Peter Lang, 2007.

[4Johannes F. Linn and Colin J. Bradford, “Summit Reform: Toward an L 20”, in C. Brecher and J. Linn, Global Governance Reform, Breaking the Stalemate, Washington, Brookings Institution Press, 2007, pp. 77-86.

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