Book reviews - United Nations.

ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives
(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009)

There have always been in the USA conservative and Right Wing critiques of the United Nations and efforts to create a structured world order. At one end of this spectrum of critical commentary, there is the closely-reasoned argument of the German-born political philosophy professor at the University of Chicago Leo Strauss and his friend, the Russian-born Alexandre Kojève, a leading interpreter in France of Hegel with their analysis of the seldom-read dialogue of Xenophon Hiero. (1) At the other end of the same spectrum, we find those whose battle cry is "Get the U.N. out of the US and the US out of the U.N." This book by writers associated with the conservative Heritage Foundation fits in the middle.

This is the second book of the Heritage Foundation devoted to the U.N. The first was a Right-Wing attack on the concept of universal international organizations. (2) The attacks, however, were often factually incorrect, and the understanding of how the U.N. works in reality was superficial. As the US Senator and policy advisor Daniel Moynihan once quipped,
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts."

The current collection of essays, including those by John Bolton and Terry Miller, both of whom served as US Ambassadors to the U.N., are of a better factual level, though most of the authors would be happy to see the U.N. replaced by a "League of Democracies" in which the USA would play the key role. Kim Holmes sets out the idea of a Global Freedom Coalition in his chapter "Smart Multilateralism". His position is that "Multilateralism is not an end in itself. It is one of many foreign policy tools, admittedly a very important one, in the diplomatic kit. Basically a dialogue among nations that hope to work out common approaches to common concerns, multilateralism complements the enormous amount of bilateral diplomacy that thousands of government officials conduct every day to promote and protect their nations' interests and priorities…Smart multilateralism thus requires well-formulated and clear policy positions." As another writer expresses the same idea "The trick is to know when working through the United Nations is likely to yield a successful or useful outcome and when to explore other options."

If the U.N. can not be replaced by a body of the likeminded, then it may be reformed to make it a better instrument for the advancement of US aims. The book merits study for its analysis of how the U.N. system operates in the fields of environment, arms control and conflict resolution, human rights, and trade and development. The chapters are generally fair overviews of U.N. and Specialized Agency activities with website addresses and useful bibliographies, even if the books cited have a 'right slant'. The analysis of current activities is clear. It is the 'reforms' proposed that are colored by their aims of advancing US national interest. However the US government is not the only state concerned to advance what its leaders consider to be its national interest. Some of these suggested reforms are 'in the air' and may be put forth by the representatives of other governments. Thus the book can be of use to a wider group of readers than just those interested in US foreign-policy making.

There are two and a half themes that run through the book. The first, an old argument, is that the US pays too much money for what it gets in return. There is, however, no discussion of whether money spent in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has provided adequate returns. Perhaps such comparisons can be made later when the financial costs of Afghanistan and Iraq are fully in. There are not any comparisons with the costs of other multilateral bodies such as the European Union nor with the administration of national governments.

The second theme is that the U.N. has grown too complex. As Holmes notes "The U.N. is simply too poorly primed for American multilateralism? It is a vast labyrinth of agencies, offices, committees, commissions, programs, and funds, often with overlapping and duplicative missions. Lines of accountability and responsibility for specific issues or efforts are complex, confused, and often indecipherable. For example, dozens of U.N. bodies focus on development, the environment, and children's and women's issues. Coordination is minimal. Reliable means to assess the effectiveness of the bodies' independent activities is practically nonexistent." These comments have been made by others, including those who have worked in the U.N. system. (3)

What the authors do not mention is the difficulties of governments with smaller delegations than those of the US to find their way through the labyrinth of the U.N. system. Also unmentioned is any comparison between the U.N. and national governments also filled with ministries, agencies and funds with overlapping and duplicate missions.

The half-theme that runs through several of the chapters but is developed fully in none is the role and power of the representatives of non-governmental organizations. The President of the Heritage Foundation, Edwin Feulner, notes "Nonstate actors operating through advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations, virtually unknown at the U.N. in the early 1980s, now exert influence over U.N. deliberations and activities on a level that is sometimes nearly on par with sovereign states." Susan Yoshihara adds "Aided and abetted by activist NGOs, the U.N. retains sweeping plans to remake the world, but at steep cost to its traditional role of providing vaccinations, medicine, clean water, and a helping hand." One can question if providing vaccinations and clean water were traditional U.N. roles. Having been a NGO representative to the U.N. in Geneva since 1973, after having been a professor of social development at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies in Geneva, I have followed closely the growth of U.N. development activities - much of it in response to the membership of new states, especially from Africa starting in the early 1960s. A few governments, strong leadership from some U.N. agencies, concern and some initiatives from NGOs have marked the growth of U.N. development efforts. However, the growth has been largely in response to events, the Nigeria-Biafra War of the late 1960s and the Sahel drought of the 1970s have been key moments that required multi-level responses. The U.N. has grown not by having "sweeping plans to remake the world" but in response to immediate needs of people and the difficulties of a single national government to meet these needs.

This book is a realistic look at the limits of the U.N. However, the search for alternatives should be within the U.N. system and not in alternative structures.

1) Leo Strauss On Tyranny (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)
2) Burton Y. Pines (Ed.). A World Without the U.N. What Would Happen If The United Nations Shut Down? (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, 1984)
3) See Maurice Bertrand Refaire L'ONU! (Geneva: Editions Zoe, 1986)

Rene Wadlow