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Ailing UN

To many of its current critics, the United Nations is mired in the world of 1945 and ill prepared for such post-Cold War challenges as international terrorism, disease and poverty.

The United Nations is at a "critical point, a moment no less decisive than 1945, when it was founded," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the height of the bitter divisions in the Security Council prior to the war in Iraq. Since then, the organization has been further battered by the oil-for-food scandal, its failure to respond effectively to the human tragedy taking place in Sudan's Darfur region and charges of abusive conduct by UN peacekeepers.

UN Reform Plan

Faced with an onslaught of criticism, Secretary General Kofi Annan started working on a major reform plan to enable the UN to act more vigorously. During the next year, governments will discuss a much-pared down version of this plan, endorsed at this month's UN Global Summit in New York.

To many critics, the UN remains frozen in the last century's Cold War, unable to meet today's challenges. The harshest criticism of the world body often comes from its largest contributor and founding member, the United States. Some US lawmakers even question the very idea of the United Nations as a significant actor in international peace and security.

UN defenders view the organization as an indispensable tool for building a global community of shared commitments and values. They note that the well being of America and the world are intertwined.

Global Challenges for the UN

Benjamin Barber is Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland, a member of the Democracy Collaborative, an international consortium of more than 20 of the world's leading academic centers and citizen engagement organizations. He says, "We live in a world of nuclear proliferation, global warming, new diseases and terrorism. Every one of those problems is interdependent in nature. Even a hegemonic power like the United States is incapable of addressing those challenges by itself. The nature of the modern interdependent world demands and mandates cooperation, multilateralism, collaboration and working through organizations like the United Nations."

Professor Barber says in order to meet contemporary threats, while promoting human rights, democracy, and development, the UN must go through a radical overhaul. He contends many of the challenges facing the United Nations as a whole are mirrored in the Security Council, whose permanent members are the five nations that emerged victorious from World War Two.

According to Professor Barber, "The real problem with the UN Security Council today is simply that there are new nations that include Pakistan, India and obviously Germany and Japan, the losers of World War Two, as well as Brazil and Nigeria that go completely unrepresented and whose interests are very important. The balancing act is how to expand the Security Council to better represent the real distribution of power in a multi-polar world."

But many analysts say different perceptions of what constitutes a threat to global security are often the biggest obstacles to international cooperation. Ken Guden, head of the International Rights and Responsibilities Program at the Center for American Progress here in Washington, observes that different political, economic and regional factions have emerged since the end of the Cold War. A division between developed and underdeveloped nations is among the greatest.

Mr. Guden says, "The United States and many countries in Europe view terrorism and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the key threats to international peace and security. But if you look at many countries in the developing world, they perceive issues like poverty and disease as their key threats or top priorities. So we have a world community that not only does not see the world the same, but speaks with different voices."

Mr. Guden says a reformed UN should find ways to meet all of these concerns.

The Fundamental Problem with the UN

But according to Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations based in New York and author of the newly published book: The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course, no amount of reform at the United Nations can fix the world's problems.

"Reform will not matter because organizational issues are not at the core of the problem," says Mr. Haass. "The real reason the UN is in trouble is because there is very little consensus among the major powers of today as to how international relations ought to be structured. The UN is not the cause of that problem; it is simply a reflection of it. So trying to fix the reflection and not deal with the root cause of the problem will not help."

Mr. Haass offers a new grand strategy for America, that of building "a cooperative order of great powers," organized around institutions and partnerships outside of the UN that would center on specific problems -- genocide, failed states, pandemic disease and climate change.

Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the US House of Representatives and co-chairman of a Congressional task force on UN reform agrees. He notes that weak reforms, coupled with reports of UN corruption and mismanagement, make a strong case for nations to look elsewhere to turn common interests into action. He argues that a system of alliances under American leadership may better represent the globalizing forces of the 21st century.

According to Mr. Gingrich, "This is the end of the structure of 1945. A new structure will gradually emerge over the next ten years. To the degree the UN has reformed, that structure should include the UN. For those things the UN can't do, we will create other kinds of organizations, regional if possible, permanent if possible, ad hoc if necessary, unilaterally only if unavoidable."

Still, defenders and critics of the United Nations agree that the world organization, though not the linchpin of global power, remains an important player in preserving international peace and security.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.