James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Goodbye to Utopia?

America says it may pull the plug on UN funding. JAMES LE FANU explains where it went wrong.

IT seems almost incredible now that a mere three years ago the United Nations was basking in the glow of almost universal approbation. After the bleak 40-year winter of Cold War confrontation, the optimistic aspirations of its founders finally seemed to have blossomed. In quick succession, from 1988 onwards, the UN brokered the ceasefire that brought to an end the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq; supervised withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia and a subsequent election of a popular assembly; and monitored the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, along with Soviet troops from Afghanistan and Central America. The crowning glory came in 1991 when UN diplomacy, working through the Security Council, led to the crushing defeat of Saddam Hussein and the liberation of Kuwait. All these successes appeared as a thundering confirmation of the principles and practicalities of multi-lateral co-operation between nations to maintain peace and stability. The UN had been reborn.

But such optimism has proved unsustainable in the face of the farcical and tragic UN interventions in Somalia and then Bosnia. Last Thursday the Republican majority in the United States House of Representatives curtailed any further UN peace-keeping initiatives by approving a Bill for massive reductions in the US military contribution to the organisation.

The reasons are simple. The desire of the UN, supported by the foreign policy of the Clinton administration to capitalise on its diplomatic successes and expand its role as peace broker, has drawn it into complex fields of conflict with little hope of resolution. It is one thing to broker peace between Iran and Iraq, or in Namibia to which all sides consent, quite another to try to enforce a peace settlement in the civil wars raging in Bosnia and Somalia. In the six years between 1988 and 1994 the number of disputes in which the UN became involved rose from 11 to 28, the number of military personnel from 10,000 to 73,000 and the costs from $230 million to $3.5 billion. Much the largest burden for this bill fell disproportionately on the shoulders of the US, which at the same time was seriously constrained in its ability to influence the conduct of these operations.

Reflecting on the development at a conference on the future of the UN in London last week, John Bolton, former adviser to President Bush, commented: "Misunderstandings of the lessons of initial UN successes in the late 1980s, and the wilful decision to use the UN organisation in inappropriate circumstances, has brought us to a gloomy place in just two years." As the disastrous involvement of the UN in Somalia and Bosnia has reminded everyone, as an incompetent, wasteful organisation the UN is insufficiently robust and thus only marginally relevant to the dangerous world we live in.

Now denied the prominent role as peace-keeper by Newt Gingrich’s Republican majority, the UN seems doomed to slip back into the corrupt torpor that has engulfed it for much of its life. In John Bolton’s view: "Utopian claims for the UN, so common two years ago, have happily been returned to the boxes in which they so rightly belong. The correct focus of Washington through the next decade of confusion and uncertainty is to look after its own interests." The rise and precipitous fall of the UN’s peacekeeping role has implications for the wider functions of the organisation – the subject of a masterful analysis just published, Utopia Lost: The UN and World Order, by the highly respected authority on international affairs Rosemary Righter.* The UN is a labyrinth of byzantine complexity. Its leadership exerts no control and little influence over the 30 "specialised" agencies that have their own constitutions and governing bodies. Almost all are afflicted by the common symptoms of the UN disease – "resolutions no sooner negotiated than consigned to the archives, studies and reports that nobody reads, paper targets and programmes that have negligible impact on the well-being of the supposed beneficiaries".

The most recent investigation into the UN’s "integrity, efficiency and cost effectiveness" commissioned by Mr Boutros Boutros Ghali, the Secretary-General, reported: "The UN now is almost totally lacking in effective means to deal with fraud, waste and abuse by staff". The structures for audit, inspection and programme evaluation were described as "chronically fragmented and inadequate".

The veracity of this description of the UN mentality would seem to be confirmed by the fact that when the report reached the Secretary-General’s desk, it did not even merit an acknowledgment slip.

There are, Miss Righter suggests, four options for the future of the organisation. The first is to recognise that continued membership of the UN is a pointless waste of money, and that the main donor countries should simply opt out and seek to replace it with new networks of multi-lateral co-operation. This scenario, she says, is becoming "less and less unthinkable". The second is structural reform. Everyone knows that the UN’s institutional complexity and ossified negotiating procedures render it essentially unworkable, and so what is needed is much tighter or centralised leadership, but essentially proper auditing and evaluation of its activities. As Miss Righter points out, such an approach itself depends on negotiation between member countries with all the "ritual, ideological and political hurdles that would entail. It is a non-starter".

Then there is the possibility of faade management. Here the UN General Assembly and agency conferences would serve as diplomatic exercises that committed nobody, useful for boosting the self-esteem of small countries but without consequence. The $2 billion of obligatory contributions for members will be a price worth paying to continue playing this game, and to monitor the international regulation of a limited set of activities. The last option is selective action: "This would select the parts of the UN it is possible to take seriously and try to augment their capacity to cope with political and economic fiction. There is no point in trying to grapple with the worst-run agencies and intractable areas of confrontation; the focus should be on objectives rather than institutions."

The Western donor countries as holders of the purse-strings will become purchasers of the services of the UN agencies, which will then have to compete with other organisations in the field to provide technical assistance and other services. Rather than operating as small fiefdoms, the WHO, Unicef and the rest of the UN alphabet would have to compete for contracts.

The few competent UN agencies will prosper with markedly increased funding, the rest will either die by attrition or be forced into alliances with each other, thus overcoming the greatest blight of the UN – the repetitive duplication of the same usually useless functions. The realisation of such reforms is utterly dependent on the leadership of the UN, which is unlikely to be forthcoming from the Clinton administration. But with the Republicans so hungry for power, it may be a very different story next year.

* Twentieth-Century Fund Press, £19.50.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd