The United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York City. (Basil D Soufi / Wikimedia)
This essay is a revised and updated version of a story that appeared in Disarmament Times, the official journal of the United Nations NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security.
“Does the United Nations Still Matter?” It often seems so irrelevant to the problems of the modern age that those words appeared last year on the front page of The New Republic magazine. More than seven decades after the UN’s invention in 1945, our multiple planetary crises seem dramatically different from those confronting the generation that emerged from the rubble of the Second World War. Isn’t it time to devise architectures of global governance intended not to avoid the mistakes of the 1930s, but focused instead on the intertwined predicaments of our own 21st Century?
A New Global Governance Commission
If so, we have a new guide to start the journey. It’s the report from the “Commission on Global Security, Justice, and Governance,” co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former U.N. Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari. The name they chose reflects the inescapable links the Commission sees among those three variables. Their report elaborately makes the case that we can’t have security anywhere without justice, or justice anywhere without security. And it asserts that nothing could do more to provide both security and justice to much of humanity than smart 21st Century innovations in global governance.
The Commission employs this paradigm to tackle three broad issue areas – the impact of climate change on the poor and vulnerable, the intersection between “cross-border economic shocks” and various cyber nightmares, and intrastate violence “in fragile states.” Climate? The report proposes an “International Carbon Monitoring Entity” and a “Climate Engineering Advisory Board,” as well as atmospheric modification and climate adaptation efforts – a welcome move beyond the usual focus on emissions reduction. “A hyperconnected global economy?” Vastly increasing Internet access and cybersecurity in the Global South will both help prevent cybercrime and promote a renewed focus on the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. Eruptions of intrastate bloodshed? The report calls for “peacebuilding audits” focused on atrocity prevention, investments in early-warning capabilities and rapid-response U.N. mediation teams, national military units designated and trained in advance for U.N. peacekeeping deployments, and “particular attention to inclusion of women in peace processes.”
The Commission does not just offer “policy proposals” about tackling these transnational issues, but asserts instead that reimagining key elements of international institutions can provide new tools to surmount them. The Commission subtly threads the needle of contemporary political reality, advancing new ideas which one might say stand somewhere in between today’s status quo and a more ideal array of global governance structures adequate to the magnitude of contemporary transnational challenges. So voices beyond the Commission can begin to think about the logical conclusions of some of its carefully parsed recommendations – and to define the eventual historical goals.
Expanding Our Global Governance Imagination
Regarding the U.N. Security Council, the Commission calls for adding new members beyond the present 15, creating a new kind of “dissenting vote … (that would) not block passage of a resolution,” and “restraint in the use of the veto.” Under Article 27 of the 1945 UN Charter, the representatives of Britain, France, America, Russia, and China — the winners of a war that took place during the first half of the last century — can “veto” Security Council action. This means that on any issue before the Council, one single country can prevent every other country in the world from any kind of collective action at all. Even when the heavy hand of the veto is not actually cast, it still dominates Council decision-making. The only initiatives that ever get advanced are ones which might actually fly with all five permanent members. It’s the most extreme case of what the American political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls “the politics of excluded alternatives.” If the UN is ever to become both democratic and effective, the veto doesn’t need to be “restrained.” The veto needs to be eliminated.
The Commission recommends the creation of a “UN Parliamentary Network … to raise greater awareness and participation in UN governance.” Today’s U.N. represents only national executive branches. An analogy might be if every single member of the U.S. Congress was appointed by state governors. This innovative new concept proposes that individuals already elected to national legislatures could be selected to sit in this new international body. That very idea has been promoted for years by the international “Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly” based in Berlin. But the hope of this international campaign is that eventually the representatives in such a body would be not selected from national parliaments, but directly elected to a new transnational chamber. That’s not such a far-fetched notion. An American woman living in Los Angeles elects particular individuals to represent her in the L.A. City Council, the California state legislature, and the U.S. Congress. Why shouldn’t she be able to elect particular individuals to represent her at the global level as well? Whether a Parliamentary Network now or a newly invented Citizens Assembly later, we might just see the emergence of transnational political parties, which could dramatically increase the direct participation of ordinary citizens in global affairs.
Besides providing a forum for national government executive branches alone, the structure of the UN General Assembly put forth in the United Nations Charter contains two other fundamental flaws – which unfortunately the Commission’s “UN Parliamentary Network” would do nothing to ameliorate. First, the principle of one nation one vote, for states large and small, India and Vanuatu alike, could hardly be more undemocratic or absurd. Second, once votes are cast in the U.N. General Assembly, its decisions serve only as polite requests to the world. It has no power to make anything like universal laws. The obvious solution to those twin defects is to establish some kind of weighted voting system in the General Assembly (perhaps accounting for both population and monetary contributions to global public initiatives), and then to give the results of its balloting the force of international law (like Security Council decisions already possess). “One nation one vote” (and no power) is surely not the one and only concept we can ever envisage to legislate for and govern our one world.
“Tents, Water Run Short for Iraqis Fleeing Fallujah.” “Nigerians at Refugee Camp Face Starvation.” “Dire Funding Shortfalls Will Hit Aid to Yemen, UN Says.” These recent Washington Post headlines from one single day demonstrate that the single greatest hindrance to the UN carrying out its multiple and often overwhelming missions is the absence of any kind of funding source beyond voluntary ad hoc contributions from member states. Many proposals have been put forth to remedy this structural deficiency. Probably the most well-known is the “Tobin Tax,” devised by the late Nobel economics laureate James Tobin, which, by placing a microscopic fee on international currency speculation, could provide vast and reliable new resources for the entire U.N. system.
Finally, the Commission does not to put forth the most promising idea for preventing genocide and crimes against humanity – a permanent, directly-recruited, all-volunteer U.N. Rapid Deployment Force (UNRDF). Many don’t realize that “U.N. Peacekeepers,” in their distinctive blue helmets, are in every case national soldiers, dispatched and ultimately controlled by national governments on a case by case basis. A proposal for such a “U.N. Legion” was first put forward in 1948 by the first U.N. Secretary-General, Trygve Lie. A half century later, his successor Kofi Annan observed with some exasperation that the U.N. is the only fire department that cannot obtain fire engines until after the flames have broken out. A UNRDF would be poised to act not to serve the national interests of any individual state, but the common human interest we all share in relegating genocide to the dustbin of history. It could free the American president in particular from the excruciating dilemma of dispatching “the most powerful military in the world” to stop crimes that have little to do with us, or doing nothing while the nightmares continue to unfold. It might well deter the perpetrators of crimes against humanity from making their fateful choices in the first place. And it would give individual citizens of the world the opportunity not just “to serve their country,” but to put their lives on the line to serve humanity. To bring both security and justice to countless violent conflicts — where national governments are unwilling to deploy their own national forces because the fight in question does not engage their own national interests — the world needs a U.N. army.
It is the complete absence of these kinds of smart institutional innovations, 70 years on, which lead so many to consider the U.N. so ineffectual and irrelevant. The problem with the U.N. is neither “Council deadlock” nor “bureaucratic timidity.” The problem with the U.N. is the design of the U.N.