July 8th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: No quick fix for suffering Aboriginal communities

EDITORIAL: Quarantine subverted by free trade agenda

QUARANTINE: Senate blasts AQIS over citrus canker outbreak

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: WA's Liberal Opposition shoots itself in the foot

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Where did all the culture go? / Don't cry for me, Nigeria / Water on the brain

THE WORLD: Has the United Nations any future?

BIOETHICS: Should lesbians be allowed artificial insemination?

THINKERS: Thoroughly modern Mill - John Stuart Mill

IRAN: Can the West tame Iran's nuclear ambitions?

MEDIA: Propaganda masquerading as news

Something rotten in academia (letter)

Muslims who reject extremism (letter)

Under the influence? (letter)

WONDER WOMAN: The myth of 'having it all', by Virginia Haussegger

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Has the United Nations any future?

by Colin Teese

News Weekly, July 8, 2006
The UN is under increasing attack these days for being inefficient and costly to run, writes Colin Teese.

Almost without exception, governments around the developed world - including our own - can find little to praise with the way the United Nations is functioning.

One of the most persistent criticisms of the UN is that it has become corrupt. Although this is probably overstated, there is some truth in this accusation - at least compared with the way the UN once was.

But, if an element of corruption has crept into the UN, then it is perhaps no more than a sign of the political times. Politics, generally, seems to be heading in that direction. Even the long-established democracies are no longer pristine, compared with earlier times. Even in our own country, standards have slipped.

Parties on both sides of Australian politics have no hesitation in spending large sums of public money on publicising and popularising their own policy programs. Politicians, with a few notable exceptions, routinely prefer to advance the interests of party ahead of those of their constituents; and this, despite the fact that their first obligation, both legal and moral, is to serve the interests of constituents.

We no longer have an independent public service. Ministerial responsibility - once at the heart of the Westminster system to which our political life is supposed to owe fealty - seems no longer to apply. What was once considered the most heinous of political crimes - the misleading of parliament - seems these days to pass almost unremarked.

Perhaps it is all part of the pressures of modern political life. If so, then Australia, no less than any other of the flawed democracies, should think carefully before it casts the first stone of criticism in another direction.

Better by far to look at where the fault lies with the UN and why. To do that, it is necessary to go back and remind ourselves how and why the organisation came to be established in the first place.

The United Nations Organization (UNO), as it was originally called, was created by the Allied nations towards the end of World War II, at the moment when the prospects for victory were no longer in doubt.

Planning for peace

When it came time to start planning for peace, everyone on the Allied side was convinced that the world should do what it could to avoid the possibility of a slide back into the "beggar-thy-neighbour" policies which had characterised the run-up to World War II.

The UN was to give expression to a noble experiment in peace-keeping, world harmony and jobs for all, through the medium of international cooperation. A charter was drawn up which was supposed to provide, above all else, a peaceful means of settling disputes between nations.

The UN General Assembly, which would come together each year, and at which the entire UN membership would gather, was to be the general deliberating body. But peacekeeping was to be permanently in the hands of a smaller group - the Security Council. Only that council could legitimise war. The UN would itself be empowered to keep the peace. Fighting forces would be supplied by the participating countries which were in a position to do so.

The Security Council comprised 15 member-nations of the UN. This body was set up quite deliberately so that power over peacekeeping would be concentrated in the hands of the major victorious allies - the US, Britain, France, China and the Soviet Union. Each of these powers enjoyed permanent membership of the council and each could, independently, exercise a veto over any policy proposal relating to peacekeeping. The rest of the council, numbering 10 additional members, was elected by the membership from time to time. Such members enjoyed limited tenure and no power of veto.

As a matter of fact, during the Cold War days, the US and the Soviets routinely used their veto power when peacekeeping policy issues arose which cut across their respective ideological positions. However, despite the obvious tensions that this arrangement created within the organisation, the system generally worked well.

The making of policy in a cooperative spirit, for the peace and security of the world, was seen as central to the function of the UN, but there was much more to it than that. Apart from the General Assembly and the Security Council, there was the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) from which were spawned various specialist agencies. These bodies covered most of the issues which were the concern of the societies of the UN member-nations, including health, education, economics, labour, transportation, communications, agriculture and justice.

The three economic agencies set up as a result of the Bretton Woods Agreement - the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization) - were initially contained within the UN family. But, in 1947, these attained what was called "independent status", although they were still nominally part of the UN. The main purpose of this change was to allow them to be financed and run separately from the parent organisation.

A vast body of international civil servants was, and still is, needed to administer the wide range of cooperative activities operating under the UN umbrella. Sixty years on, most of these specialist agencies are still functioning effectively and doing valuable work for the international community. Much is made of inefficiencies and the cost of maintaining the UN; but the reality is that its cost, in the wider scheme of things, is quite minor. As for the inefficiencies, they are probably no greater than those existing in any national government.

So why all the fuss? Why does the UN come under so much criticism?

The main problem lies with the philosophy behind the creation of the organisation. Cooperation rather than confrontation, as a means of managing international political and economic relations, seems to be falling out of favour.

Cooperation itself, indeed, seems in bad odour. At least as far as Western developed countries are concerned, individualism and competition are the preferred tools of economic and social organisation. This new attitude sits uncomfortably with the principles and purposes which gave rise to the United Nations.

Power relationships

But that is not the only problem. It would be foolish to imagine that the changing power relationships which are at work within the United Nations have had no impact on the functioning of the organisation. Everyone wants to pretend they don't exist, but they are fundamental. Consider, for a start, how they impact on funding.

Membership subscriptions fund the UN, according to the member-nation's ability to pay. This means that, right from the start, the US has been the major contributor; whereas other potential large contributors, like the former Axis powers, as they emerged, were assigned minor roles in the UN. Accordingly, they contributed less to the funding pool.

Now, it was always unrealistic to imagine that the US would be prepared to fund most of the UN operations, and yet have no greater say than any other UN member (except in the Security Council) about how the UN should function. Nor can the US be blamed for wanting to exercise more than ordinary influence - if for no other reason than that US domestic politics would demand no less.

From the very beginning, successive UN Secretaries-General have had to deal with tensions arising from this reality. Doing so has become ever more difficult as the number and influence of developing countries have expanded. It is now almost impossible to manage all these tensions, as the current Secretary-General Kofi Annan will surely testify.

The basic turn-around, of the past 25 years, in economic philosophy - especially as this has been driven by the US - has not helped. The UN was premised on the idea of significant national government intervention in economic management.

From the start, the UN was also committed to the idea of full employment - genuine full employment. That notion does not fit with the reigning economic orthodoxy. Most of those committed to "economic rationalism" find it hard to like the UN. That is understandable.

The reality for the UN and its supporters is that the fundamentals have changed and the consequences of that cannot be avoided. Either the UN will continue along its currently dysfunctional path, or it will be recast in a form more in line with the times.

The latter possibility seems beyond the reach of the international community, whatever it might wish, since it involves changing the philosophy of the UN to fit the times. Four or five powerful nations of like mind, and driven by the strong support of the United States, constructed the original Charter. Imagine trying to do that with 131 countries.

So what about the future? Actually, it is quite worrying. Whether or not we like them or not, the policies of the present US Administration are not inclined towards the idea of international cooperation.

As a consequence of this shift, we can discern the first stages of a world dividing into regional blocs. There is already the European Union as an economic unit, with strong prospects of gradually increasing political integration. North America is already significantly integrated economically and politically. Latin America seems to be taking the first steps. And Asia, driven by the power of China, India and Japan, is moving in that same direction.

The old Bretton Woods economic groupings, which once held such sway, seem to be losing their power. The more the regional units gain economic strength, the weaker the International Monetary Fund becomes.

The proliferation of bilateral trade agreements is undermining the World Trade Organization. The World Bank is less relevant than ever. All of these agencies, along with the UN, depend for their continued influence on strong support from the US. That is no longer there and, most likely, cannot be resuscitated.

It seems the various regional groupings can only grow stronger and more influential - economically, politically and militarily. Important questions arise. First, how will they manage relations - economic, political and military - within their respective groups? Second, and more importantly, how will the regional groups manage relations with each other? In a regionally-constructed world, for example, it is hard to imagine any kind of Security Council managing peacekeeping.

All of this ought to be profoundly important to Australia, given that we do not seem to fit naturally into any of the emerging regional groups.

  • Colin Teese was deputy secretary of the Department of Trade.

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