Monday, January 08, 2007

The U.N. complex(ity)

A large segment of the U.S. public likes to bash the United Nations at every turn, accusing it of ineffectiveness (while paradoxically accusing it of taking over the world), corruption and harboring socialist, anti-Western mentalities.

They have a few valid points, mostly on the corruption and bureaucracy front. But the "socialist, antiWestern" charge mostly applies to the all-but-powerless General Assembly, while ignoring the fact that when it comes to actual action the U.N. cannot do anything without the approval of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Further, the bills are largely paid by the West. Those facts, combined with the United State's economic and military clout, means the U.N. serves our purposes far more than it undermines them.

The "ineffectiveness" charge springs from that, mixed in with a misunderstanding of the purpose of the United Nations and an ignoring of the many good works the organization performs.

So it was refreshing to see this balanced look at the U.N. from the Economist magazine.

It paints a picture of the organizational and political weaknesses that hobble the U.N., as well as the things it does well. For instance:

the UN's once shambolic relief operations are now regarded as second to none. Around 30m people in some 50 countries currently depend on its services for survival. In March a new $500m central emergency relief fund was launched to deliver assistance within hours, rather than months, of an emergency. Another $250m fund, administered by the UN's new intergovernmental Peacebuilding Commission, has been set up to help finance reconstruction in countries emerging from conflict.

Peacekeeping, which is not even mentioned in the UN Charter, is another of the organisation's recent success stories. The explosion of civil wars and of ethnic and religious violence at the end of the cold war caught the UN by surprise. It had no standing army, no effective military staff, and very little peacekeeping experience. What troops it managed to muster, mostly from developing countries, were often poorly trained and badly equipped. Peacekeeping mandates from the Security Council tended to be far too restrictive both in scope and numbers. Some terrible mistakes were made: the UN's failure to stop the slaughter in Rwanda and the massacre in Srebrenica continues to haunt it. But over the past five years or so there has been a marked improvement.

A 2005 Rand Corporation study of American and UN peacekeeping operations concluded that the blue-helmet missions were not only cheaper, but had a higher success rate and enjoyed greater international legitimacy. Another Canadian study attributed the dramatic decline in the number of conflicts and battle deaths over the past decade to the “huge increase” in preventive diplomacy and peacekeeping over the same period, “for the most part authorised and mounted by the UN”. Never has the demand for the organisation's peacekeeping services been so great

To add some detail to that last point, consider another Economist article and a U.N. fact sheet. About 80,000 U.N. peacekeepers are now deployed in 18 hot spots around the world -- and by and large they are doing a very good job at halting hostilities and providing stability. And they do it for just $4.75 billion a year -- about what we spend in Iraq in three weeks.

The peacekeepers are mostly from developing countries, and the bills are mostly paid by Western countries. One can read all sorts of political meaning into that, but it comes down to a simple case of economics -- comparative advantage, to be precise. Developing countries are poor and wages are low, so peacekeeping duties can be attractive. Western countries have money but limited political will or patience for peacekeeping, and few Western soldiers want to be deployed to remote areas for extended periods. So the rich pay the poor to do the work.

The U.N. has also produced a slew of multilateral treaties and economic agreements that would have been difficult to arrange -- and enforce -- otherwise.

Does the U.N. deserve criticism? Of course. Does it deserve absolute condemnation, a U.S. pullout and extinction? No. What it does require is an understanding of its powers and limitations, and the patience to deal with what is essentially a messy and imperfect democracy of 192 fractious members. Sometimes it doesn't seem worth it; but I think we would come to find that a world without the U.N. as a safety valve -- no forum for discussion, no diplomatic cover for U.S. actions, no moral legitimacy for pronouncements on human rights, for example, or the rights of nations -- would be a world much less to our liking.

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