Kofi Annan termed 2004 “annus horribilis” - a year of horror for the United Nations. First the oil-for-food program, intended to provide humanitarian relief for Iraqis hit by sanctions during Saddam Hussein's rule, was found riddled with fraud. Among those implicated, is Mr. Annan's own son Kojo. Next followed accusations that the U.N. Secretariat acted too slowly on reports that U.N. peacekeepers in Africa sexually abused women and girls. Then a close aid of Kofi Annan, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment.
But many analysts say the biggest problem for the United Nations is its failure to adapt to new global challenges. In 1945 there were 45 member nations; today there are 191. At the end of the second World War, the main security issue was conflict between states; today it is global terrorism. The Cold War era was dominated by two super-powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Today the U.S. is the world’s only superpower.
Andrew Bacevich, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University says the world body should adjust to this new power reality and heed America’s position on multilateral organizations.
"The basic position of the United States with respect to the U.N. is not likely to change. What is that position? It is that to the extent that the United Nations is useful to the United States of America as the world’s sole superpower, U.S. policies will be pro-U.N. To the extent that the United Nations seems to complicate the role of the United States as the world’s superpower, U.S. policies will be antagonistic toward the U.N."
Mr. Bacevich notes that no American president is likely to forfeit the right of unilateral action to protect the United States. Supporters of multilateralism argue that the U.S.-led war in Iraq, without the U.N.’s full endorsement, opened a new chapter in international relations. They say it violated international law, undermined the U.N. Charter and made the world less stable.
Chester Crocker is professor of Strategic Studies at the Georgetown University. He argues world’s major powers often sideline the U.N. when their vital interests are at stake.
"I am not aware that when China decided to throw missiles across the Taiwan Straits back in the 90s, the Chinese asked the Security Council permission. I am not aware that when the Soviets went into Afghanistan or into Budapest that they asked for Security Council permission, or that when the French intervened for the umpteenth time in Sub-Saharan Africa in the defense of what they saw as their interest in key African partner states they asked for permission."
Professor Crocker suggests that even when states try to reach a Security Council consensus, failure does not prevent them from taking action. For example, NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia to end Serb repression in Kosovo in 1999.
"The Kosovo case was not an American decision alone. There was a strong sense among many of the NATO allies that something had to be done even if we knew that the Chinese and the Russians were likely to block getting an affirmative Security Council vote."
Chester Crocker says the kinds of challenges the world is now facing by terrorists are very difficult to point to as an imminent threat before the Security Council. But he argues the United Nations has long been recognized as a useful global forum where disagreements can be aired, sometimes even resolved. In the meantime, secretary-General Kofi Annan wants to enlarge the Security Council and set out rules on when the U.N. can authorize military force. Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich says these reforms are welcome and should be supported. But he adds the U.N. remains only a part of the international security system, not its lynchpin.
“At the end of the day, it will continue to be what it has been, meaning an organization that never comes anywhere close to fulfilling the dreams of its most enthusiastic supporters and also an organization that has not been the evil actor as portrayed by some. Efforts to make it more effective should be supported, but we shouldn’t have any expectations that the U.N. is going to bring about world peace any time soon," says Professor Bacevich.
Still, critics and supporters of the U.N. say it must consider radical reforms to better reflect the realities of the modern world and remain relevant in the face of increased threats to global security.