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An Insider's Guide to the UN
By Linda M. Fasulo
Yale University PressCopyright © 2003 Linda M. Fasulo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAn Overview
As the Charter makes clear, the United Nations was intended to introduce new principles into international relations, making a qualitative difference to their day-to-day conduct. The Charter's very first Article defines our purposes: resolving disputes by peaceful means; devising cooperative solutions to economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems; and broadly encouraging behavior in conformity with the principles of justice and international law.
The UN came into existence as a result of the most terrible war in history. During World War II, American President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the leaders of several other major combatant nations agreed that it was necessary to create a world organization that would help ensure the peace in future years. Their ideas are enshrined in the Preamble to the UN's Charter, which is one of its fundamental documents:
We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reafirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, and for these ends to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims
Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.
As the Preamble declares, the world's peoples, acting through their representatives, seek to create a just and prosperous world through common action. It could hardly be simpler, and yet during more than half a century of trying we still live amid global insecurity and, in many places, injustice and suffering. And the UN itself is far from simple. It straddles the globe, operating in almost every nation on earth, and has a bewildering variety of offices, programs, and personnel. Let's begin, then, with some basic points and language that will appear throughout the book.
What Is the United Nations?
One of the points is that the UN is not always what it seems to be. Consider the following: many people, if asked to define the UN, would probably respond that it is a large organization devoted to world peace, and that it has several main bodies, such as the General Assembly and the Security Council, and an executive leader, the Secretary General. It is headquartered in New York City, they would say, but has operations all over the world.
A look at the UN's organizational flowchart largely confirms this general picture. At the top are the six principal organs (see Appendix A), some of which are household names: the International Court of Justice (better known as the World Court), the Security Council (where five selected countries have the right to veto any resolution they don't like), the General Assembly (which consists of delegates from all member nations of the UN), the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council (which did its job so well it has lost its reason for being), and the Secretariat (whose director, Kofi Annan, is a global diplomat-superstar). With the exception of the Trusteeship Council, these principal organs get the most media coverage and are, in some ways, the most significant movers and shakers within the UN (see Appendix A for a breakdown of UN groups).
When we move to the second tier of organizations, the scene is more complicated. Here we find an amazing collection of entities and organizations, some of which are actually older than the UN itself and operate with almost complete independence from it. Best known to the public are the "Specialized Agencies," such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Another group, called "Programs and Funds," includes one very well known body, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and several others that appear frequently in the news, like the United Nations Environment Program (which considers global warming and other environmental issues) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Below them on the chart are "Other UN Entities," featuring one standout, the Human Rights Commission, which meets in Geneva and receives enormous press coverage, and three others that play important but less publicized roles. The five research institutes likewise keep a low public profile.
The "related organizations" are a unique group because they contain two entities with the same acronym (bad planning!): the World Trade Organization, which almost everyone has heard of, and the World Tourism Organization, which almost no one has heard of except tourism professionals. Above them are two sets of commissions. The "Functional Commissions" include some that on first glance seem to poach on the ground of other entities. For example, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs seems to overlap the UN Drug Control Program, on the left side of the chart. Similarly, the Commission on the Status of Women seems to overlap the UN Development Fund for Women. However, the overlap is more apparent than real in these two cases, because the Functional Commissions concentrate on policy while the agencies are oriented more toward implementation. Now, if there are "Functional Commissions," you might expect to find "Dysfunctional Commissions" too (and their existence has been asserted by some critics). Instead we find the "Regional Commissions," which are among the least known of UN bodies. They set policy about economic development in the regions of Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, and Western Asia.
The position of the supporting organizations on the flowchart does not make them merely adjuncts of the entities above them. To the contrary, many of them run their own affairs with little interference and, as critics have complained, with not much communication with the peer agencies, programs, or commissions with which they share interests.
We now have a good schematic picture of the UN's structure. But this is only a beginning. When we think about these organizations in action, flowcharts aren't very helpful. They don't answer simple questions like whether the UN has a military establishment or whether it can raise taxes. Nor does it help to ask the people around you, because polls have revealed that while most Americans have a pretty friendly view of the UN, they know little about even its basic workings, and often attribute to it powers and authority it doesn't have. Richard Holbrooke, the US Ambassador to the UN during the last two years of the Clinton administration, has a reputation for toughness and a penchant for aggressively pushing the American viewpoint. He tells a story about a recent speaking engagement in Odessa, Texas.-"George Bush country," as he puts it-when "some guy asked 'What do you think about this world government thing?' I said there was no such thing, and he said, 'What about the UN, that's a world government, they are trying to take away our liberties.' And I said, 'Well, Sir, that is just not true.' There are people out there who think the UN has that kind of power and insidious influence, and the truth is the exact opposite, the UN is too weak, not too strong. You start with a certain percentage of people completely misunderstanding the UN, criticizing it from the wrong point of view. Too strong is their fear when in fact too weak to be effective is the truth."
One former US Ambassador to the UN, Nancy Soderberg, claims that "there is no such single thing as the UN." Rather, the UN "is 191 countries with different agendas and a whole collection of civil servants who work there, and it's all Jell-O. You can't say what the UN is because you touch one area and it comes out looking differently on the other side." According to Michael Sheehan, an American who served in the UN's peacekeeping department, "the UN is an organization that has enormous talent, but often its mandates are so obtuse that its actual ability to function is limited." It may be blamed for failing to meet goals for which its members-the world's nations-don't give it sufficient resources.
Yet, can we ignore it? The United States does not have the choice of acting "only through the UN or only alone," says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "We want-and need-both options. So in diplomacy, an instrument like the UN will be useful in some situations, useless in others, and extremely valuable in getting the whole job done." The UN can help make the world a better place, which is to our advantage because we know that "desperation is a parent to violence, that democratic principles are often among the victims of poverty and that lawlessness is a contagious disease." Albright has stated it neatly: "We cannot be the world's policemen, though we're very good at it."
UN and US: Perfect Together?
Insiders agree that just as the United States needs the UN, the United Nations needs the US. "I need to underscore repeatedly that the UN is only as good as the US commitment," says Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995. The United States is such a vast global presence that its support is essential for success: "The UN cannot succeed if the US does not support it."
Unfortunately, many insiders say, the US has usually been unable to find and follow a clear, consistent policy toward the UN. Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and highly regarded by his American peers, sees a "bewildered superpower, self-confident at home, uneasy abroad ... and all of this comes together at the UN." One manifestation of the US government's ambivalence has been its reluctance to pay its dues to the general budget of the UN and some of the subbudgets. As described in more detail in Chapter 12, the accumulated arrears (almost $1 billion by September 2001) severely cramped the UN's ability to operate and was the source of much friction. To be fair, however, it should be noted that the US and some other nations have withheld dues in varying amounts for a variety of reasons, including allegations of mismanagement and poor allocation of funds.
Most insiders I've talked with believe that the US can generally have as much influence as it wants in the UN. David Malone, a former Canadian diplomat and now president of the International Peace Academy, argues that "a strong coherent US lead at the UN is nearly always followed by UN member states." But, "when Washington sends mixed signals, as it is too often wont to do owing to divergent views in Congress and the White House, then the UN may not know what is wanted."
Michael Sheehan speaks of a love-hate relationship between the US and the UN but doesn't see it as particularly unusual in the context of American political thought. "I think the US and the UN will always have this difficult relationship. It's inevitable because the UN is designed to be an organization where all nations have a chance to voice themselves."
Shepard Forman, of New York University's Center on International Cooperation, thinks the US needs to be more trusting of its partners. "We don't seem to trust anyone when it comes to US national security, and therefore we are fully prepared to go it alone, and presume others will come along and help as we need them, but we don't always need them. Then by extension where we think there are intersects between security and other things, narcotic trafficking, money laundering, where we don't think other countries may see the problem the same way or provide the degree of help to us, we will also go it alone. We've accepted our own hubris on being a superpower, the indispensable nation."
What's in It for Me?
Putting aside international diplomacy, why should Americans care about the UN? Pressed to identify a specific UN-related item or service they have encountered recently, they might mention UNICEF holiday cards. But is that all? The UN sets standards that affect us every day. "You may think that you have never benefited personally from the UN," says Madeleine Albright, "but if you have ever traveled on an international airline or shipping line, or placed a phone call overseas, or received mail from outside the country, or been thankful for an accurate weather report-then you have been served directly or indirectly by one part or another of the UN system."
Excerpted from An Insider's Guide to the UN by Linda M. Fasulo Copyright © 2003 by Linda M. Fasulo. Excerpted by permission.
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