Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

BLUE SMOKE: A new monthly newsletter, from PassBlue and UNA–UK, which shines a spotlight on senior appointments at the UN

An American in Europe: The UN, Who Cares?


The metro in Cologne, Germany
The metro in Cologne, Germany. Europeans, who feel as blasé about the United Nations as Americans do, are far more concerned with problems closer to home, like the status of the euro. ISABELLA PENNEY

BRUSSELS — George Gershwin certainly would not have been inspired to write a symphonic tone poem about an American academic on sabbatical attempting to interpret European reactions to the United Nations. Ten years ago, Robert Kagan wrote that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus.” Perhaps, but not regarding the UN.

After years of embarrassment over United States haughtiness and, worse, indifference toward the world organization, I find it especially unsettling that friends and scholars here — if one can generalize about 27 and, soon, 28 members states of the European Union — are as bored by the UN as most denizens of the Beltway.

Commissions, high-level panels, task forces and summits come and go. But virtually anyone on Manhattan’s First Avenue or Geneva’s Avenue de la Paix or their equivalents at UN agency headquarters in London, Paris, Rome, Vienna and Bonn would agree to three propositions:

1. The UN and its so-called system do not function on the basis of evidence.

2. They are sprawling and diffuse and focused more on protecting turf than thinking creatively.

3. The UN system simply cannot continue as it is.

In the next breath,of course, virtually everyone rationalizes why profound change is impossible, why only incremental tinkering makes sense.

I am reminded about the story of someone with a broken clock; and so twice a day she will be correct about the time.  Sooner or later, the third proposition above will be correct: the UN and its development system simply cannot remain as they are. Depending on how one is counting, there are close to 70 organizations, bodies or funds dedicated to development only— about 20 more than the number of least-developed countries that they are supposed to assist. To understate the case, this expanding institutional universe is inefficient and incoherent.

Perhaps the impetus for change or a funeral will be financial crises and parliamentary dissatisfaction— for instance, Washington halted funding for Unesco in October 2011 over Palestinian membership, and London’s March 2011 announcement that it would withdraw funding from Unido (UN Industrial Development Organization), ILO (International Labor Organization) and UN Habitat because they no longer serve British priorities. But an equally plausible proposition is UN irrelevance in light of alternative sources of supply — nongovernmental organizations, the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, regional development banks, transnational corporations and the Gates Foundation.

UN campus in Bonn
The UN campus in Bonn, which houses UN Volunteers. ISABELLA PENNEY

The UN’s organizational chart refers to a “system,” which implies efficiency and coherence. But the system has more in common with feudalism than a modern organization. We also use the term “family,” a preferable image because, like many such units, the UN family is dysfunctional. Maybe “clan” is better still as the Hatfields and McCoys take aim at a neighbor whose turf represents a fund-raising threat.

Individual organizations of the UN system focus on substantive areas often located in a different city from relevant UN partners and with separate budgets, governing boards, organizational cultures and executive heads. An almost universal chorus sings an atonal tune praising decentralization and autonomy. Europeans no less than Americans are unhappy. Europeans yawn or occasionally patronize liberally and steer individual agencies in directions that they want; Americans go to the mat.

Friends and colleagues undoubtedly will think that I have been inhaling as well as smoking, but a radical transformation is not a pipe dream. A big bang is not farfetched but essential. One of the more disconcerting realizations is the extent to which most UN officials — from the most senior to junior — appear blissfully unaware that the UN system is more and more marginal to world politics in more and more countries. Whether it is foreign direct investment, remittances or rapid growth, the activities of the world body are irrelevant except in a handful of war-torn societies where humanitarians and peacekeepers remain helpful.

Europeans are less flamboyant in lambasting the UN but remarkably akin to Americans in being disgruntled about waste and inefficiency. Unlike Americans, Europeans have better things to do than bash the UN. Their real preoccupations are with real multilateral cooperation, in the EU and not the world organization. For the proverbial Belgian, Finn or German woman in the street, the UN is far less consequential than menaces from Europe’s center — the state of the euro and David Cameron’s playing with the fire of a British referendum — or from the periphery, the Greek and Spanish economies.

One of the giants of multilateralism, for the Allies in World War II and the UN afterwards, was Sir Robert Jackson. Undoubtedly turning regularly over in his grave, he began his 1969 evaluation of the UN development system by writing: “The machine as a whole has become unmanageable in the strictest sense of the word. As a result, it is becoming slower and more unwieldy like some prehistoric monster.” The lumbering dinosaur is now much older but certainly not better adapted to the climate of the 21st century.

They may well be from Venus and Mars, but neither Europeans nor Americans disagree about that fact.

Related articles

How Bad Is It? The UN Development System Needs an Overhaul

A Science Prize Complicates Life at Unesco and for the US

World Bank President Takes Some Questions

Despite Hard Times, Partnerships in Development Progress


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Eminent Scholar at Korea’s Kyung Hee University. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations” (with Tatiana Carayannis).

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

An American in Europe: The UN, Who Cares?
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Raimo Lintonen
Raimo Lintonen
10 years ago

The central allegations of this article is in all likelihood not true: that centralisation of the UN development system is good; that Europeans generally agree with the US on the UN; that the UK government’s moves are in some way evidence of grounds other than domestic politics and ideology; that the US policies are not behind any of the problems of the UN; that destruction is betther than the European style incremental construction; that an intellectual project implied by the article would not touch in any sense the question of power on global governance and its “input legitimacy” .
I am simply amazed (but not wholly suprised) how this critic resembles that which was common in US from 2003 to 2006.

Related Posts
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs


Global Connections Television - The only talk show of its kind in the world

Don't Miss a Story:

Subscribe to PassBlue

Sign up to get the smartest news on the UN by email, joining readers across the globe.​

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously​