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Reasons to Love and Criticize the UN


Minustah in Haiti peacekeepers
The Sri Lankan battalion of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti at a food distribution center in Léogâne. The distribution was jointly coordinated by the UN World Food Program and the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, right after the 2010 earthquake. SOPHIA PARIS/UN PHOTO

In his new book, “Living With the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order,” Kenneth Anderson forces readers who lean sympathetically toward the United Nations to consider why they support it despite its faults.

On the other hand, the acerbic views of Anderson, a law professor at American University, about the UN are deeply colored by his engagement with the 2005 Mitchell-Gingrich task force on UN reform, sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace. But he also writes of developments as recently as 2011.

For starters, Anderson offers a positive view of John Bolton, the controversial United States ambassador to the UN under the second George W. Bush administration, relative to Bolton’s successor, Susan Rice, the current ambassador. “Which of these two, Rice or Bolton,” Anderson writes, “more accurately gauged the fundamental relationship of the US and the UN: the ambassador whose administration speaks endlessly of multilateralism and engagement with international institutions but then seems to find that the center of the universe is, for all that, Washington, or the ambassador whose administration seemed to speak only of universal, sovereign power and yet who was a constant, and for many constantly irritating, presence at UN headquarters?”

Anderson sees the Obama administration as split between those who seem to live in the “glory days of liberal internationalism” and the “New Liberal Realists who never harbored illusions about decline begetting a new world order of global understanding.” The Obama administration’s approach to the UN, he adds, has changed over time “from rapture to ennui,” reflecting the realists’ increased influence in policy making during Obama’s term.

Laments by Anderson are not limited to Obama. He disdains the “overheated rhetoric” of large UN conferences and refers to assertions that if the UN didn’t act right away, disaster would follow, and then says that the UN does not act, disaster does not follow, and the UN “lurches on much as before.”

“Periodic, episodic crises” serve, he writes, to reinforce the UN’s “chronic stability” or “happy equilibrium.”  While Anderson’s characterization may have some justification if applied to the General Assembly, it would be difficult to characterize the evolving and changing UN of Kofi Annan’s recent memoir, “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace,” as a happy equilibrium.

Anderson sympathizes with American conservatives who call for the US to disengage from the UN , but points out to his conservative friends that the UN carries out tasks on encouragement from the US. At the other extreme, he argues, liberal voices call for the US to engage with the UN on every issue and to participate in compromise and consensus when the issues are manifestly not in the US interest.

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Yet, in 2012, on the eve of the US presidential election, a poll by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research Associates, commissioned for the Better World Campaign (part of Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation), found 78 percent of voters surveyed wanted the US to achieve its foreign policy goals by working with major allies and through international organizations, rather than acting on its own (18 percent).

Anderson argues that the US should not aim to make the UN more efficient and effective, as he finds the organization “profoundly and structurally anti-American.” For those who support the UN but are also critical of it, Anderson’s own pompous rhetoric makes it difficult to accept how weak the UN really is administratively and how much its convoluted decision-making really is a problem.

Living With the UNAs to the future, Anderson rightly sees an international environment characterized by the rise of the Brics – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, although the voting bloc posed last year on the Security Council by these five is now devoid of Brazil and soon India and South Africa. He sees the US in decline, thanks partly to the policies and actions of the Obama administration, as the newly emerging powers challenge what he describes as the loose hegemony of the US.

For Anderson, America’s decline creates global uncertainties and threatens the provision of global public goods by the US, which in his mind are mainly security umbrellas ranging from treaties like NATO to close but informal relations with countries such as Israel. Indeed, the UN’s “nearly unwavering propensity towards collective action failures on security matters,” Anderson says, has not led the UN to break down like the League of Nations only because key players, especially the US and NATO countries, do not rely on UN collective security.

In contrast to many UN observers, Anderson sees two parallel international security systems since the end of the cold war – parallel weak UN and strong US security structures. The two systems’ reliance on implicit or explicit US security guarantees gives many countries little reason to invest in UN security activities, Anderson contends. It is only for countries outside the US security umbrella that the UN’s collective security is truly important.

Here, however, Anderson deems US financial and logistical support for UN peacekeeping valuable to the US if not altruistic. Americans for the most part agree, says a 2003 national poll, which found that 72 percent of American respondents favored having a standing UN peacekeeping force to be selected, trained and commanded by the UN. When polled in 2007, 66 percent of Americans in the survey said that the UN’s becoming more powerful in world affairs would be a positive trend.

Despite his support of peacekeeping, Anderson calls the UN’s performance on core issues of peace and security, development and human rights “mediocre” – a view consistent with American public opinion, revealing important gaps between expectations of the UN and its results. American perceptions of the UN’s promise were reflected in polling carried out for the United Nations Foundation in 2011, which found that 85 percent of voters who responded said it was important that the US maintain an active role within the UN, while 6 in 10 voters said it was very important the US do so.

UN peacekeeping is the “least costly system for enforcing minimum order in the hopeless world of failed and failing states,” Anderson adds on an upbeat note. Despite the UN’s lapses, he argues that American conservatives should understand UN peacekeeping’s “accumulating successes” and the value of UN peacekeeping to the US and its foreign policy. He praises the establishment of the Peacebuilding Commission and thinks that the rise of many sources of power in a resource-competitive world means there will be increasingly limited scope for UN peacekeeping.

His acidic views include the secretary-general. Anderson rightly comments that, under the UN Charter, the secretary-general is the servant of the member states. But Kofi Annan expanded the role and prestige of the office so well that he was, in Anderson’s terms, a “weak president of the world.” Part of the dissatisfaction regarding the current secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon is that  he “eschews the world president role and remains far more diplomatically circumspect.” (Ban’s circumspection has its price, for 28 percent of Americans were reported in a Pew Research Center June 2012 poll on global attitudes not to know enough about Ban to have a positive or negative view of him.)

Kenneth Anderson
Kenneth Anderson, who wrote "Living With the UN"

Big changes at the UN almost invariably occur in response to outside upheavals rather than internally generated reforms, Anderson writes. One example was the growing concern with human rights in the 1990s after the cold war. While the establishment of the highly visible post of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was feasible only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the increase over many decades in the number and effectiveness of the UN’s human rights special rapporteurs and other independent mechanisms, as documented in a recent Brookings Institution book, seems to have emerged regardless of major external events.

In the Security Council, Anderson would have the US primarily use the council as a talk shop of the great powers, not as a concert of the great powers or, as Annan saw it, “the management committee for the UN collective security system.” Anderson considers the talk shop role a success in such cases as Georgia, Kosovo and the Iraq war, where the global governance interest was that the great powers not walk away. Anderson also finds the US’ “leadership from behind” in the Libyan intervention also appropriate.

As for the Secretariat, Anderson suggests that the US should continue to play the role of unpopular managerial reformer and supporting the secretary-general in his task of “trying to be the CEO of an organization that has no real space for one.”  The issues revolve around better use of resources, he says, rather than the total amounts of money spent. US payments to the UN, the highest among all member nations, are part of the price of hegemony, he claims, and if China were to assume these payments, it would “reap the rewards of reputation and prestige as the indispensable player,” to the regret of the US.

The organization’s fiscal accountability top to bottom is both “dismissive” and “evasive,” Anderson writes. For him, American demands for accountability – shared by the Obama administration and predecessors – represent an expectation not found “anywhere near the same degree in the language or behavior of other significant UN contributors.” Systemic managerial problems deemed unfixable by Anderson include the lack of top-down managerial authority, reflected in the inability to accept the 2005 reform proposal for a chief operating officer (he ignores the post of deputy secretary-general), and the fact that the UN is not a single body but a wide network of programs and specialized agencies.

The lack of interest in mainstream American press covering UN corruption and money scandals is also bemoaned, but Anderson offers no comparison with other alleged corruption and financial scandals to justify his jaundiced view. For its reputation, he argues that the US should pay its assessed contributions before making voluntary contributions to UN programs and agencies, even though he considers the latter more efficient and useful.

His rule of thumb for the US’ role in UN specialized agencies and programs is to “engage where effective” in dealing with the underlying global problem and incentivize appropriate agencies and programs with funding. The World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization win his approval. As to the General Assembly, its main business “oscillates between waste and wickedness.”

Observing the disconnect between country voting behavior in the General Assembly and the nature of US relations with individual countries, he says that the issues taken up by the UN are so remote from actual US relations with the countries under debate that it is not worth the diplomatic capital to get these states to vote with the US in the UN. But he does not recognize that the complexity and dynamics of voting in the assembly may lead countries’ delegates in New York to ignore guidance from their capitals or that the limited capacity of foreign ministries may make guidance impractical.

Anderson’s book is a readable and provocative extended essay. It is not scholarly, making it difficult to challenge.  Readers may not agree with his views of the UN and whether they adequately reflect American public opinion, but the book captures important themes in the domestic dialogue on the world body. In light of the importance of US participation in the UN, “Living With the UN” is worth the attention for that reason alone.

“Living With the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order,” by Kenneth Anderson; 13: 9780817913441

Related articles

The Quiet Korean: Ban Ki-moon Opens Up

Kofi Annan: Lessons in Futility

The Human Rights Council Gets More Respect

A Search for Truth Behind UN Motives in Africa

A. Edward Elmendorf, who lives in Washington, is a former president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA. He is a member of UNA’s Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force and spent most of his career, before retiring, at the World Bank.

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