UN Reform by Competition?


Koffi Annan’s push for UN reform has come and gone. Indeed, as the Washington Post reported last week, there are already moves to push for candidates as Annan retires on December 2005.

But it’s unlikely that Koffi Annan can make any reforms in his remaining tenure; and indeed, it must be said that it is also unlikely for any future Secretary General to enact any ambitious reforms. It’s a Herculean task that is highly improbable, unless the big 5 work in concert.

In today’s NYT, Ruth Wedgwood (from John Hopkins University) purposes to bring market forces to reform the UN:

Monopoly can be corrosive for any institution, and many of the problems addressed by the United Nations can be and have been handled in other forums. Washington and Turtle Bay would both be aided by recognizing the virtues of “competitive multilateralism.”

Wedgwood goes through the two main benefits of “competitive multilateralism”: 1) More policy options for the U.S. instead of a “Go with the UN or go it alone” strategy; and 2) that competition would reinvigorate the UN:

If the United Nations can’t reform on its own, America needs to support other multilateral venues. In fact, our seeking parallel paths to international intervention can help the United Nations as well.

The idea of competitive multilateralism avoids the stark choice of going alone or going to the United Nations. America must still support the purposes of the United Nations; it is a historic alliance, a product of World War II, and remains the only all-inclusive political organization around. America enjoys prerogatives as a permanent Security Council member that would be hard to gain again. But we do have some flexibility in how we choose to approach international cooperation.
In the Internet age, there is no single venue for cooperation. This is true for politics and business alike. The United Nations may gain a second wind and a youthful gait if it discovers that it has some real competition.


While I find Wedgwood’s perspective very interesting, there several weaknesses I need to point out:

1) I am not sure how the UN responds to any sort of “market pressure” – the pressure that creates innovation in a marketplace. It is not a single organization with one voice per se, but rather represents (or the result of) 191 different nations vying for a voice and power in a large international organization.

In a normal market situation, if say the U.S. (the “customer”) stopped paying attention to the UN, the UN might make concessions to bring the U.S. back. But at this current trend of anti-Americanism around the globe, no one can honestly see China, France and Russia (UK maybe excepted) offering concessions for the U.S. to come back.

When Wedgwood speaks ‘The idea of competitive multilateralism avoids the stark choice of going alone or going to the United Nations”, I would assume that she alludes to the War in Iraq. But, what organization could the U.S. have reached out to? NATO? OSCE? League of Arab Nations?

Indeed, President Bush said that UN action on Iraq would define its legitimacy. But in the end, the U.S. went along with its “coalition of the willing” and it is the U.S. that today has no legitimacy.

2) Who wants a stronger UN? In any area, some nation would lost out. Stronger intervention powers for the UN would not be in US interests when Indonesia annexed East Timor. I doubt China would be too eager for the UN to intervene in Sudan, where it gets its oil. If more transparency is provided, that would limit the ability for nations to use cloak-and-dagger tricks to gain the upper hand in the UN.

In an effort to fit every nations’ interest, the UN is left to be the lowest common denominator – rarely doing anything bold that would upset any of the powers or a bloc of smaller ones.

3) States are already using organizations outside the UN. When the U.S. led an intervention force against Yugoslavia over Kosovo, it was done under the NATO – not UN. When China and Russia issued a statement asking the U.S. to leave Central Asia, they did it under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – not the U.N.

Sometimes the U.S. has been somewhat successful such as with U.S.-led NATO action in Kosovo and other times lukewarm to disastrous like the “Coalition of the Willing”.

Ruth Wedgwood is right to say the U.N. should not have a monopoly in what defines the international community and the U.S. should nurture relationships with other international organizations for its own foreign policy goals. But, it wont be catalyst for U.N. reform.

Indeed, it can lead to the fragmentation of the international community space – with major power getting “legitimacy” for its policies from whatever regional or international organizations out there.

In the end, its not impossible to reform the U.N. – but U.S. using the dynamics of competition and market forces will not be the answer.



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