A strategy to maintain UN relevance in a shifting geopolitical climate
9 MARCH 2011
by Richard Gowan, in:
Although Ban Ki-moon faces no challengers in his bid for a second term, he will have to demonstrate an improved instinct for running the United Nations. Without better leadership, the UN runs the risk of becoming irrelevant, as Western governments’ austerity cuts constrict an already tight budget and rising powers seek to limit UN interference.
Something strange is happening at the United Nations. Ban Ki-moon, who has received lackluster reviews since he became Secretary-General in 2007, wants a second five-year term. Although widely criticized as an insipid leader and feeble manager, Ban faces no challengers. Diplomats in New York expect the Security Council to nod through his renewal sometime later this year. If Ban strolls to victory, he may miss one of his last opportunities to lay out a compelling vision of why the UN still matters—something he has consistently failed to do so far.
Ban has achieved a measure of job security by avoiding offending the two powers who will determine his fate, the United States and China. In theory, France, Russia, or the United Kingdom could also veto his renewal, but none of them think it is worth a big diplomatic fuss.
The very lack of debate about Ban’s future is a worrying symptom of the UN’s gradual loss of international prestige. As the Secretary-General admits, the organization has been overshadowed by the G-20 during the financial crisis. Disputes between the United States, China, and Russia have paralyzed the Security Council in emergencies from Georgia to Zimbabwe. Rising powers such as Brazil and India are investing large sums in development aid, but typically act bilaterally rather than through UN agencies.
Nonetheless, the UN remains extraordinarily active, with peacekeeping and humanitarian operations at record highs. But this is not guaranteed to last. European powers that pay for much of the UN’s work are looking to make budget cuts in the name of austerity. While the Obama administration has frequently underlined its support for the UN, the newly-empowered Republicans in Congress have threatened to hold up funding. This might explain why there is no one else vying to be Secretary-General this time around.
Ban has oscillated between bouts of fatalism about the UN’s decline and curious bursts of overheated rhetoric about its importance. An opinion piece published under his name in New Europe, The Star, and other papers in December captures his ambivalence. “The world looks to the UN more than ever before,” he writes, citing challenges from poverty alleviation to nuclear disarmament, “yet the conventional wisdom is that we are not up to the job.”
Unsurprisingly, Ban disagrees with this conventional wisdom. The opinion piece culminates with a protracted appeal for a UN that “delivers peace, development, human rights, and global public goods—in a word, hope—to people around the world every day.”
Like most senior politicians, Ban presumably does not write his own opinion pieces, so he cannot be blamed for this faux-Obama-esque prose. But he should at least sign off on texts that go out in his name—and believe in them. It is worrying to think that the Secretary-General might imagine that the challenges facing the UN can be solved by an appeal to “hope.” Although the UN embodies an ideal of universal political cooperation, it is ultimately a massive global service-provider—with an array of products ranging from peacekeeping forces to climate change conferences—and is judged on deeds, not words.
Ban’s predecessor-but-one, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, produced a highly sophisticated blue-print for the UN’s role in a post-Cold War world—1992’s Agenda for Peace. But if he is remembered today, it is because the Rwanda and Srebrenica massacres took place on his watch. Ban’s immediate predecessor, Kofi Annan, was a mediocre speaker (he sounded good on radio, but his speech-writers sometimes despaired at his quietness), but he won credibility by imposing much-needed management reforms early in his first term and then by revitalizing UN peacekeeping with new operations from Kosovo to Congo.
Annan was far from a perfect leader. His last years in office were scarred by the Iraq war and management scandals. He was sometimes guilty of overestimating what the UN could do. Some peacekeeping officials have still not forgiven him for advocating a UN deployment to Darfur, despite clear warnings that the mission would struggle in an appalling operational environment—warnings that have proven thoroughly justified. Yet Annan did have an underlying instinct for his organization’s politics, abilities, and limits.
Ban Ki-moon now needs to show that he has developed the same instinct for the UN during his first term in office and that he can apply the lessons he’s learned during the next term.
When Ban started work in New York in 2007, he appeared detached from the institution Annan had bequeathed to him. Thanks in significant part to Annan’s efforts, the UN had over 70,000 troops and policemen in nearly 20 peacekeeping missions at that time (the number has since risen to 100,000). But Ban seemed skeptical about their work’s value, focusing on climate change diplomacy instead. His motives were honorable, but he alienated officials slaving away in far-off trouble-spots, risking an exodus of the organization’s most promising young officials to the private sector.
Ban’s decision to focus on climate diplomacy could have paid off handsomely if the 2009 Copenhagen summit had delivered a legally-binding international deal on climate change. It notoriously did not, and Ban was lost in the maelstrom of diplomatic bickering in Denmark.
He partially redeemed his strategy with a widely-quoted speech on the world’s “insufficient response” to the climate challenge at the successful follow-up conference to Copenhagen in Cancún in December 2010. However, his earlier efforts to define himself as a climate warrior now look like a bad bet: Ban seized on a high-profile policy issue over which he had little leverage, while paying the UN’s crisis managers too little attention.
This has done clear harm. The UN’s operation in Darfur has stumbled from humiliation to humiliation, preyed upon by bandits and repeatedly obstructed by the Sudanese government. In 2008, the UN was blindsided by a predictable crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo in which rebels displaced over 200,000 civilians in an area patrolled by UN troops and attack helicopters. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan—arguably its single most important operation in American and European eyes—descended into complete confusion after Hamid Karzai allegedly rigged the national elections in 2009.
Even if Ban had devoted his every waking moment to preventing these shocks, they might well still have blown up, but the UN has seemed to lack strategic foresight too often.
Yet there is good news. Not only did Ban do a better job on climate in Cancún than Copenhagen, he has even begun to raise his game on crisis management. In early 2010, conscious that a crisis might be looming as South Sudan prepared to vote on secession in January 2011, Ban sent some of his best senior officials to get a grip on the problem. Additionally, when Côte d’Ivoire’s President Laurent Gbagbo tried to nullify his defeat in internationally-recognized election results last December, Ban demanded that he should go. He refused to withdraw peacekeepers defending Gbagbo’s rival Alassane Ouattara. He also spoke out early and firmly against the Mubarak regime’s efforts to crush Egypt’s protest movement—arguably out-performing some Western leaders—and has worked hard to ensure that the UN has a role in resolving the Libyan crisis.
This is all “too little too late,” say some of Ban’s critics inside the UN. Ban had four years to head off the Ivorian crisis, they grumble, but failed to focus on it until things went wrong. Some worry that his strident support for Ouattara have reduced his ability to influence events in Côte d’Ivoire—now on the brink of civil war—while the UN’s actual leverage over events in Egypt and Libya remains limited.
Nonetheless, Ban has finally begun to demonstrate a better understanding of the organization he runs. Last January’s earthquake in Haiti, in which over 100 UN personnel died, may have helped him identify with his staff in the field.
This is a step in the right direction. But Ban has to go further and lay out a credible vision of how the UN can remain a useful service-provider in a changing world order.
To borrow Sarah Palin’s phrase, this cannot be all about the “hopey-changey thing.” Ban is too conservative and too well-known a figure to recast himself as a standard-bearer of hope. Even if this was not the case, the UN Secretariat and its cluster of funds and agencies simply do not have the leverage to set the international agenda—China’s rising investments in Africa dwarf the development funds the UN can offer, for example.
If the UN cannot offer a spectacular vision of a better world, it may still be able to provide a safety net for countries and peoples teetering on the edge of crisis. Even if Ban is wary of Kofi Annan’s legacy, he may recall that his predecessor once said that the UN does not exist to lead the world to heaven, but to save it from hell. Can it achieve that goal now?
There is a continuing need for the UN to invest in crisis prevention and crisis management. The after-shocks of the financial crisis, fluctuating food prices, and shifting demands for scarce raw materials and energy have destabilized many poor countries. Alex Evans, an expert on globalization, argues that major powers now face a choice. They can either enter a zero-sum competition for resources or invest in strengthening the multilateral framework for managing “scarcity challenges” such as spikes in food prices.
The UN has many of the tools required to help manage these challenges. If global food shortages threaten to be a long-term driver of political instability, two UN agencies (the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme) will have a lead role in trying to limit the risks involved. If many of the countries most vulnerable to scarcity challenges are poor states in Africa, then it will probably be UN mediators and peacekeepers that are tasked to manage the fallout rather than NATO, EU, or US forces.
If Ban and his team want to make a case for the UN’s continuing relevance, they need to put together a narrative about how the UN can use its existing resources and expertise—if properly combined—to protect the most vulnerable states from new sources of conflict. Ban has made some gestures in this direction before. When food prices rose rapidly in 2008, he quickly put together a task force of all relevant UN agencies to coordinate a response. He has tried to revitalize the UN’s mediation and crisis diplomacy capacities, and new thinking is gradually emerging around the UN system about how to link conflict prevention, development work, and humanitarian aid to respond to future crises.
So, the Secretary-General and his team have some elements of a new agenda to work with—but they urgently need to communicate this agenda better. While the Western countries that fund UN operations are running out of cash, many of the rising powers are unconvinced that the organization is relevant to them. This is particularly true for Asian powers, including China and India, which have always preferred to keep the UN out of their own internal conflicts. It is unfortunate that Ban, the UN’s first Asian Secretary-General since the early 1970s, has not been able to gain political traction in the region.
If Ban wants to have more traction in general in his second term, he has to distill the UN’s new thinking about scarcity and insecurity into three simple, compelling messages.
First, he must convince the leaders of poor countries—who often view the UN as a neo-colonialist outfit, and would very happily get it out of their affairs—that his organization can help them through periods of instability ahead. Second, he must persuade skeptics in the United States and Europe that UN programs and operations remain the best-value tools for tackling new threats. Third, and most difficult, he must make the rising powers believe that the UN can help secure their growing global interests by fostering stability in weak states.
This last task is not impossible. China has seen how ongoing violence in Sudan and the Congo complicates its energy and raw material investments in those countries. It has come to see how UN peacekeepers can mitigate these problems, and even sent some blue helmets of its own. India grudgingly accepted a UN mission to Nepal to monitor a peace agreement with Maoist rebels in 2007. Ban should capitalize on these individual cases to make a general argument about the UN’s stabilizing role in a multipolar environment.
It is not too late for Ban to make this sort of hard-headed argument. Ultimately, the UN Secretary-General will do more to serve the poor and vulnerable if he addresses real political dynamics and new threats rather than offering vague notions of a new hope.
RICHARD GOWAN is associate director at the NYU Center on International Cooperation and a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
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