Note: This is a reproduction of an article from The Times reproduced here because for some reason I can't see the url at which this article can be found. If you search the title on the main page you can access it there as well.
And when the great wave fell back, the UN stood revealed, Notably Useless
ADLAI STEVENSON once argued that a politician is a statesman who “approaches every question with an open mouth”. If the performance of Jan Egeland, of the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is an indication, the same is true of those paid by the United Nations.
A week ago, despite just one day having passed since the Asian tsunami, with the reported death toll one tenth of what it is now believed to be, and ignoring the fact that public holidays are never the easiest times to start organising an aid effort, Mr Egeland saw fit to dismiss the reaction of the international community as “stingy”.
By Saturday, however, he was announcing pledges of more than $2 billion in aid and acknowledging “the biggest outpouring of relief in such a short period of time”. His original comments were perhaps the most unfortunate by a public official since Hubert Humphrey, a former US Vice-President, responded to a failed attempt to shoot President Gerald Ford by saying: “There are far too many guns in the hands of people who don’t know how to use them.”
Yet such is the reverence displayed towards the UN that Mr Egeland will doubtless be hailed as the man who humiliated George W. Bush and Tony Blair into action. After all, when the US President declared that he had formed a “contact group” with Australia, India and Japan to co-ordinate aid, the response from the likes of Clare Short was to accuse Washington of deliberately undermining Kofi Annan and his colleagues. Mr Blair thus felt obliged to reassure us that he had spoken to Mr Bush about this and it had merely been an unfortunate “misunderstanding”. The President had made it “very clear” that he wanted the UN to be “in the lead” and he was “very much supportive of that”.
It is not merely the verbal ineptitude of Mr Egeland that makes one squirm. Wickham Steed observed of the Habsburg Empire that it operated on what he dubbed an “AEIOU” policy — Austriae est imperare orbi universo (to Austria belongs universal rule). There appears to be another AEIOU attitude towards the UN today; that, regardless of its competence, Anything Else Is Obviously Unacceptable. What has been eulogised, by Mr Blair among many others, as its “unique moral mandate” apparently awards it a sort of monopoly on political legitimacy.
It is a sacred-cow status that is rarely justified by the evidence. The blunt truth is that on international crises ranging from war in Iraq to the waters of the Indian Ocean, the UN is philosophically redundant, structurally irrelevant and bureaucratically ossified.
It is philosophically redundant because technology has eroded the need for a permanent global meeting place and the idea that it might serve as a prototype for “world government” has become laughable in practice and, surely, increasingly unappealing in theory.
It is structurally irrelevant because it relies on a Security Council built on the global order of 1945, which invites impotence through the veto and where decisions on whether or not to counter the atrocities of tyrants can be placed in the hands of those awash in blood themselves. It is more inconsequential still because the body does not have and could not have any serious role in macro economics — the matter that has most impact on the daily lives of humankind.
It is bureaucratically ossified because, as Rosemary Righter pointed out here last week, the UN has become essentially a holding company for agency upon agency, overlapping and competing, all of which prove that John Le Carré was correct which he noted that “a committee is an animal with four back legs”. Yet, this Tower of Babble is saluted for a “unique moral mandate”.
In so far as there is any rational explanation for this, it is the defensive retort that “this is the only UN we have”. In a narrow sense this is accurate. If the broader claim is that the UN is the sole organisation capable of global authority, it is not. For what the events of the past few years should have taught us is that there is an alternative that benefits from a looser structure, one that better reflects where world power lies and which is rooted in economics. With modest adjustment, it is the G8, the presidency of which Britain has assumed, that must be prepared to take on the mantle of world leadership.
If Mr Blair really wants to help the poorest of the world, then the more that he does to build up the G8 over the next 12 months the better. There are three reforms that he can champion which would allow it to provide the international leadership of which the UN is now institutionally incapable.
The first would be to move almost immediately from G8 to G10 by incorporating China and India. Within a decade, Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa can also be invited. That would create a de facto Security Council of 15 members that was appropriate for the modern world and one that was flexible enough eventually to include Argentina, Nigeria and South Korea.
Mr Blair should also press for a careful expansion of a future G10’s activities. The finance and foreign ministers of the present members convene regularly. Those in charge of trade, international development and counter-terrorism should make similar arrangements. Finally, it makes sense to establish a modest secretariat to assist the country that holds the presidency. It might be diplomatically astute to locate it in Ottawa — Canada having (oddly) evolved into a Switzerland with Mounties.
A.J. Ayer asserted that “no morality can be founded on authority, even if the authority were divine”. The cult of the UN for its own sake has become counter-productive. It has its virtues, but has neither a unique ethical merit nor unrivalled practical credibility. It is time to recognise reality. To fail to do would be, to borrow a word, profoundly “stingy”.