AMERICAN POLITICIANS have urged U.N. reform for decades. Lately, the cries have become so loud and incessant that it is hard to imagine what will satisfy the critics. Abolish the veto for all nations save the United States and elect John Bolton as secretary-general?
Strange as it seems, even those steps might not be enough -- not for critics whose demands for reform mask a deeper goal. They will not be satisfied unless the U.N. submits to the will of the United States.
I do not doubt that the U.N. needs reform -- just look at the scandal in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program for Iraq. But let’s put this into perspective. Many institutions and processes need reform. The electoral college needs reform. So does the U.S. system of casting and counting votes. So do many American corporations and, according to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the U.S. Senate. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tells us that the U.S. military needs reform. And everyone seems to agree that American public schools need reform.
The clamor for U.N. reform is different. It is very loud and very suspicious. It has become political cant, sometimes as meaningless as waving the flag. President Bush cited reform as the crucial reason for choosing Bolton as ambassador to the U.N., explaining that “it makes sense to have somebody there who’s willing to say to the United Nations: ‘Why don’t you reform?’ ”
This kind of talk is hardly restricted to Republicans. The Clinton administration vetoed Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s bid for a second term as secretary-general in 1996 primarily because U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright concluded, in a memo to the president, that “he is not committed to, or capable of achieving, our urgent reform goals.”
The House passed a bill in June to withhold half of U.S. dues unless the U.N. fulfilled 46 demands for reform, including slashing its budget and creating a new office of ethics. Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), author of the grandly named “Henry J. Hyde United Nations Reform Act of 2005,” said “radical surgery” was needed because “sometimes that’s the only way to save the patient.”
Some pleas for reform are far more well-meaning, such as the report in mid-June by a bipartisan task force headed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell. Just as pertinent were similar proposals from a commission led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker that investigated the oil-for-food program.
Yet their good intentions are swept up into a general clamor that conjures images of the U.N. as corrupt, slovenly, wasteful and anti-American. These images are etched even more deeply by the recent, irresponsible demands for the resignation of Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
To shut out the clamor, we need to clear our minds of cant and talk plainly.
First, let’s underscore one fact often ignored. The U.N. has been reforming itself for many years. At American insistence, the U.N. installed Joseph Connor, the former chairman of Price Waterhouse, as its undersecretary-general for management during the 1990s. The U.N. accepted almost every reform he suggested. He managed to cut the budget, reduce staff, streamline management and augment auditing.
Another fact hardly ever mentioned by critics is that the wonderful diversity of the U.N. does not necessarily lend itself to efficiency. The U.N. has 191 member states and six official languages. Civil servants come from an incredible variety of cultures. To avoid misunderstanding, they must show great sensitivity toward each other. Israelis and Egyptians, for example, work together to guard the secretary-general. French and Japanese struggle together to find the proper English wording of a press release. That may slow things up a bit, but it is one of the glories of the U.N.
I am often astounded by how well the U.N. secretariat does work. I have met scores of civil servants during 15 years of covering the U.N. as a Los Angeles Times correspondent and a freelance writer. I have sometimes encountered oafish bureaucrats -- just as I have elsewhere in the world, including Washington. But I also have dealt with brilliant U.N. civil servants such as Undersecretary-General Shashi Tharoor, an Indian novelist; special advisor Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister; and Frederic Eckhard, an American who recently retired as the secretary-general’s spokesman. All performed stellar work for countless hours. The U.N. bureaucracy has never struck me as woeful.
Nevertheless, I am sure that the Gingrich-Mitchell task force -- set up by the U.S. Institute for Peace and mandated by Congress -- is right about the need for changes. The task force recommended creating a new position of chief operating officer, revamping the personnel system, establishing new ethical standards, protecting whistle-blowers, setting up an independent oversight board for auditing and abolishing the embarrassing Human Rights Commission. These proposals deserve and will surely receive serious consideration. Annan’s own proposals for reform are not much different.
But let’s recognize most reformers for what they are. Reform is a convenient club.
Albright did not veto Boutros-Ghali because he was weak on reform. She could not abide Boutros-Ghali because of his independence, arrogance and stubbornness. Bush nominated Bolton not to reform the U.N. but to show contempt for it. Hyde does not want to reform the U.N. as much as punish it.
The real failure of the U.N., in the eyes of its critics, has nothing to do with reform. Right-wing ideologues despise the U.N. as a threat to American sovereignty. Annan enraged the White House by daring to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Reform is not really on the minds of many reform mongers. No amount of U.N. reform will satisfy them.
STANLEY MEISLER, WHO COVERED THE U.N. FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES DURING THE 1990S, IS THE AUTHOR OF "UNITED NATIONS: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS." HE IS CURRENTLY WRITING A BIOGRAPHY OF KOFI ANNAN.