Common Goals for the UN Making the Most of the Ban Years

With a new secretary general, come new opportunities. Ban Ki-moon has said he wants to reform the way the United Nations operates -- promising less and delivering more. The US and the EU should now work together to tackle UN weaknesses head on -- and help develop a global approach to global problems.

By Thorsten Benner and Edward C. Luck

New UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

New UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Quite literally, the European Union and the United States are the United Nations’ largest stakeholders. Together, they account for more than three-fifths of the UN’s regular budget and a larger share of its peacekeeping and humanitarian spending. This gives them both a prominent voice in and a special responsibility for its future course.

With the UN’s leadership transition complete, the advent of the Ban Ki-moon era provides both the need and the opportunity to renew the transatlantic commitment to a stronger, more focused, and more effective UN.

Neither side of the Atlantic has been shy about assigning new tasks – whether in peace and security, human rights, humanitarian affairs, or sustainable development– to the world body. Yet they have been remarkably ineffective in recent years at achieving the kinds of reforms that would enhance the UN’s capacity to carry out these expanding mandates. So reform might well encompass the US and EU strategies towards the world body as well. The US ran into fierce opposition to much of the “lasting revolution of reform” agenda urged by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, even as it came to realize that it needs the UN more than many in Washington had cared to admit. The EU, for the most part, lacked a coherent vision for the future of the UN, was weakened by internal divisions, and did little to forestall the destructive new cold war at the UN between the US and the bloc of developing countries. As a consequence, the US and the EU have realized few of their objectives while contributing much less politically than financially to the overall success of the organization. This needs to change for the sake both of the transatlantic partnership and of the UN.

Transatlantic Thinkers

The transatlantic relationship is not over, as has sometimes been suggested in recent years -- but it has changed. There is still consensus in Europe and the US that the urgent global challenges confronting us today can only be met in a joint effort. The goal is to identify specific fields for strategic cooperation and formulate effective and coherent policy options toward them. Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung aims to help in this process. The new series "Transatlantic Thinkers" provides a fresh perspective on these opportunities, touching upon topics such as energy security, climate change, civil liberties in an age of terror, trade and many others. The series is planned as part of the run-up to the annual "Brussels Forum" in April.
This paper reviews the prospects for US and EU leadership at the world organization. Though it notes the considerable obstacles that need to be overcome, it urges a fresh start and proposes a series of steps for renewing transatlantic cooperation and for reinvigorating the United Nations to meet the historic challenges and opportunities ahead.

I: The US and the UN: An Enduring Odd Couple Hope springs eternal. With the appointment of each new UN Secretary- General, with the election of each Democratic Congress or President, progressive pundits are prone to see an opportunity for a markedly more productive era in US-UN relations and, with it, for the reform and renewal of the world body. We are now at such a point. There are sound reasons for optimism, but, as this paper relates, of only the more tempered and nuanced variety.

I a) Ban Ki-Moon and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad: Stars in Alignment?

First, the good news. Ban Ki-moon, the new Secretary-General, was selected with US support but hardly as Washington’s handpicked candidate. In a recent interview, John Bolton, the US Permanent Representative to the UN at the time, commented “that of the candidates who were available who were politically realistic he was the best choice.” Though hardly a ringing endorsement, the distance implied in Bolton’s cool and calculated assessment will work far better in the UN’s currently polarized politics than would his warm embrace of the new Secretary-General. Indeed, the ease and speed with which Ban’s candidacy gained consensus support in the Security Council were as unexpected as they were reassuring. Few steps requiring inter-governmental agreement have come so readily around the world body in recent years.

At the UN, personalities do matter, as Bolton’s controversial tenure in New York so vividly demonstrated. His likely replacement, Zalmay Khalilzad, has a reputation for high order diplomatic, as well as political, skills. In his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he asserted that the UN “stands as the most successful collective security body in history.” Clearly, he and Ban will have more in common than John Bolton and Kofi Annan ever did. A more workmanlike relationship between the US Mission and the 38th floor has already emerged during the interregnum.

There is reason to believe, as well, that the Bush Administration has learned some lessons from its decidedly mixed performance at the UN, especially during its first term.

The Organization proved to be much more relevant and resilient, including in strategically important places like Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, and North Korea, than the more neo-con elements in the Administration had wanted to accept. Since the early weeks of the war in Iraq, the US has been actively engaged in trying to get the Security Council involved in one priority issue after another on America’s national security agenda, including on counter-proliferation and counter- terrorism, in addition to high profile humanitarian crises, such as Darfur.

Indeed, these past four years have been the most active period in US diplomacy in the Security Council since the Organization’s founding sixty-two years ago.

There is, in short, no reason to fear the US abandoning the world body. Forged by pragmatism as much as by idealism, the US-UN marriage formed in 1945 has proven as lasting as it has loveless. The most acute threats to the relationship have come from periodic legislation, mostly inspired by Republican Senators and Representatives, to withhold assessed dues from the UN unless certain conditions are met. In that regard, the results of the November 2006 elections, which returned a Democratic majority to both Houses and permitted the assumption of key committee chairmanships by UN supporters, qualify as another encouraging development. None of the leading candidates of either party for the Presidency in 2008, moreover, has taken an anti-internationalist stance. So far, so good.


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