Tuesday, September 13, 2005

U.N. Reform: From Recrimination to Common Interests

I think Julian might be reading more into my post than what was written. I never said (nor even meant to imply that) the US position is unreasonable. To the contrary, I think its attempted reform of the Human Rights Commission is a good idea. I noted that that reform effort was being blocked by China, Russia, and a host of others.

I also noted that reforms concerning the Secretariat are politically difficult at the moment, given the Volcker Report. Nonetheless, at some point, states are going to have to seriously consider giving the Secretariat more leeway to act without being politically tied to the General Assembly. As far as I know, the US is not against this idea in principle but has focused on some specific issues that have arisen. That is why I concluded that, given the current mood of the member states in the wake of the oil-for-food debacle, the probable best-case scenario at this juncture is the adoption of better financial oversight standards and the construction of better oversight mechanisms. This, in turn, may lead the way to deeper reform in the future.

And, as for increasing foreign aid, I said that that was largely a question of politics. I think, as a general matter, it would be good development economics to embrace a policy that would increase assistance to lesser developed countries (at the moment there is a net capital outflow from LDC's due to debt repayment, though that is being amelioriated with debt forgiveness) but, at the end of the day, some compromise position between the US view and the EU view is likely. The EU and others want to see more money going to LDCs. The US wants to include a good governance requirement. These views are not mutually exclusive; rather, they can be mutually reinforcing. But we still need to see what the US will be willing to commit to as a minimum of assistance.

(On this account, note that even given the increase in US aid that was mentioned in the WSJ piece, we are still among the lowest donors as a percentage of our GDP. And the majority of non-military assistance still goes to relatively few countries and primarily those where we have a military stake as opposed to those that might have the most bone-crushing poverty. I understand that as a matter of security policy but let us not kid ourselves that that is the most effective route to decreasing poverty.)

In my summary I explained that the UN bureaucrats have to be realistic about the managerial crisis that they have brought upon themselves. At the same time the states that are interested in the UN succeeding in its tasks need to be realistic about the tools and authorities that it will need to be able to do that. The problem is not that the US is against reform; as I've said the US is in favor of many of the best reforms on the table. The problem is that the UN member states as a whole are not showing the political will and coordination to make real reform--of any kind--happen. That is the great loss.

This is not about US partisan arguments. This is not (only) about the different interests between the East and the West or the North and the South on specific issues. This is about coalition building to get key proposals passed, even if some countries don't like them (like the Human Rights Council). This is about getting past the anger that is still felt by many states (including the US) about the lead-up to the war in Iraq (and the UN's role) or about oil-for-food and focus on today's problems at the UN. It's time to get past recrimination and move on to coordination towards getting the reform done. We knew this was going to be hard. But it is still worth doing.

If the promise of reform evaporates, it is not because of the UN. It is because the member states could not muster the political will or the political leadership to get it done.