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07 June 2006 Blog Home : June 2006 : Permalink

Fisking Malloch Brown

My last post was critical but, since it relied on the 2nd hand report of the NY Slimes, lacked a certain punchiness. Now, courtesy of Daniel Drezner I have a link his actual words and they are indeed worse than the NY Slimes reports. I feel that it is incumbent on me to retrieve the honour of my college and university to fisk this blather without mercy lest some poor ignorant Americans tar us all with the same brush. So here goes:

Following is the address by United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown on “Power and Super-Power:  Global Leadership in the Twenty-First Century” at the Century Foundation and Center for American Progress -- Security and Peace Initiative, in New York, 6 June:

Thank you for allowing me to speak to you today on Power and Global Leadership.  I often get asked to talk about leadership, but rarely about power.  I wonder why.

Yeah I wonder about that too. You don't demonstrate much leadership beyond leading the charge to the next 5* hotel and you don't have much power and what power you have seems to be mostly wasted

With that thought as my starting point, I am going to give what might be regarded as a rather un-UN speech.  Some of the themes -- that the United Nations is misunderstood and does much more than its critics allow -- are probably not surprising.  But my underlying message, which is a warning about the serious consequences of a decades-long tendency by US Administrations of both parties to engage only fitfully with the UN, is not one a sitting United Nations official would normally make to an audience like this.

I always like to agree with my fiskee at the beginning and I'm happy to do so here. Fitfull engagement in the UN by the US has indeed been a mistake. A more hands on US engagement might have nipped many of the UN's bigger problems in the bud and a total disengagement would definitely have done so since the institution would have gone bust.

But I feel it is a message that urgently needs to be aired.  And as someone who has spent most of his adult life in this country, only a part of it at the UN, I hope you will take it in the spirit in which it is meant:  as a sincere and constructive critique of US policy towards the UN by a friend and admirer.  Because the fact is that the prevailing practice of seeking to use the UN almost by stealth as a diplomatic tool while failing to stand up for it against its domestic critics is simply not sustainable.  You will lose the UN one way or another.

The fact the US administrations of all stripes have, for decades, failed to stand up for it against domestic critics could possibly be because US administrations have found the UN to be indefensible. The fact that they still try to use the UN now and again is surely a sign of pragmatism in that the tool exists so you might as well try and use it.

Multilateral compromise has always been difficult to justify in the American political debate:  too many speeches, too many constraints, too few results.  Yet it was not meant to be so.

The all-moral-idealism-no-power institution was the League of Nations.  The UN was explicitly designed through US leadership and the ultimate coalition of the willing, its World War II allies, as a very different creature, an antidote to the League’s failure.  At the UN’s core was to be an enforceable concept of collective security protected by the victors of that war, combined with much more practical efforts to promote global values such as human rights and democracy.

And in certain respects such as the failure to judge governments by their behaviour towards their own populations the UN has been no better than its predecessor. The additional fact that almost no resolution has ever been enforced without US participation and that the UN's defense of human rights and democracy has been abysmal don't help. Indeed the latter is one reason why Americans dislike the UN, if the UN were serious about the promotion of human rights and democracy why does it get upset when Americans complain about non-democratic human rights abusers being in charge of committees on Human Rights etc.?

Underpinning this new approach was a judgement that no President since Truman has felt able to repeat:  that for the world’s one super-Power -- arguably more super in 1946 than 2006 -- managing global security and development issues through the network of a United Nations was worth the effort.  Yes it meant the give and take of multilateral bargaining, but any dilution of American positions was more than made up for by the added clout of action that enjoyed global support.

Which is clearly why the UN has intervened so effectively in Darfur, Rwanda... Except in extraordinarily rare cases (Iraq 1991, Haiti) the UN has failed to support any US position that has not been watered down to practically homeopathic levels.

Today, we are coming to the end of the 10-year term of arguably the UN’s best-ever Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.  But some of his very successes -- promoting human rights and a responsibility to protect people from abuse by their own Governments; creating a new status for civil society and business at the UN -- are either not recognized or have come under steady attacks from anti-UN groups.

Best ever? true recent competition has been poor so that may be true. But it isn't something to be proud about. The "best-ever Secretary-General" has overseen the UN run "oil for food program", possibly the largest piece of corruption ever with billions squanders in bribes and kickbacks, amongst other things. The fact that only recently the UN has seemed to think that there is a responsibility to protect people from their own government is surely a sign of how bankrupt it is as an organization. And it takes a good deal of chutzpah to take credit for that fact since it took some combination of Clinton, Blair and Bush (with their various ministers) to make this point and it has yet to be adopted by many member states including influential ones like China. For some reason the "best-ever Secretary-General" has failed to try and get member states who disagree with that position removed from the UN.

To take just one example, 10 years ago UN peacekeeping seemed almost moribund in the aftermath of tragic mistakes in Rwanda, Somalia and Yugoslavia.  Today, the UN fields 18 peacekeeping operations around the world, from the Congo to Haiti, Sudan to Sierra Leone, Southern Lebanon to Liberia, with an annual cost that is at a bargain bin price compared to other US-led operations.  And the US pays roughly one quarter of those UN peacekeeping costs -- just over $1 billion this year.

That figure should be seen in the context of estimates by both the GAO and RAND Corporation that UN peacekeeping, while lacking heavy armament enforcement capacity, helps to maintain peace -- when there is a peace to keep -- more effectively for a lot less than comparable US operations.  Multilateral peacekeeping is effective cost-sharing on a much lower cost business model and it works.

One suspects that there is a certain amount of comparing apples with oranges in this. And the "bargain bin" cost results in bargain bin results. The fact that mercenary companies have suggested that they could provide better services at a fraction of the cost for most UN missions indicates that bargain bin price may not be quite as low cost as Mr Malloch Brown suggests - if that $1 billion/year were handed over to the mercenaries it might well go a lot further and be a lot more effective in keeping the peace in places where there isn't any peace at the moment as well as where there is.

The fact that pretty much all the missions he names have ongoing scandals involving peacekeepers and UN officials abusing their charges (see links in previous post) suggests that the results of the "low cost" UN approach is very little. There is further evidence, Congo for example is reported killing people at a rate of 38,000/ month or a total of 4 million since 1998 which compares poorly with the death rates in Iraq and Afghanistan. I fear that I have a different definition of "works" to Mr Malloch Brown

That is as it should be and is true for many other areas the UN system works in, too, from humanitarian relief to health to education.  Yet for many policymakers and opinion leaders in Washington, let alone the general public, the roles I have described are hardly believed or, where they are, remain discreetly underplayed.  To acknowledge an America reliant on international institutions is not perceived to be good politics at home.

The 2004/5 Tsunami demonstrated clearly the limits of UN humanitarian aid - slow and bureaucratic seems to be the kindest verdict. I do agree that some UN bodies such as the WHO do seem to have done a mostly good job - although the SARS epidemic showed that they require cooperation from member states and are of limited help to non.member states such as Taiwan - but I suggest that their success is in spite of the UN's bureaucratic culture rather than anything that the UN and particularly the secretary general can point to being caused by them.

However, inevitably a moment of truth is coming.  Because even as the world’s challenges are growing, the UN’s ability to respond is being weakened without US leadership.

Take the issue of human rights.

When Eleanor Roosevelt took the podium at the UN to argue passionately for the elaboration of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world responded.  Today, when the human rights machinery was renewed with the formation of a Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, and the US chose to stay on the sidelines, the loss was everybody’s.

It would help if the UN failed to keep kowtowing to states that repeatedly abuse the human rights of their citizens. Maybe the UN could have read reports by its own staff or by NGOs such as Amnesty or HRW and noted that states that were on the bottom of those lists should be forbidden from sitting on the Human Rights Council. The fact that in many cases it was NGOs and the US government that stopped many of the more egrgious abusers from standing for election is not a ringing endorsement of the new council. Just possibly the US was right to stay on the sidelines and criticise instead of giving a body of human rights abusers their tacit approval by participating.

I hope and believe the new Council will prove itself to be a stronger and more effective body than its predecessor.  But there is no question that the US decision to call for a vote in order to oppose it in the General Assembly, and then to not run for a seat after it was approved by 170 votes to 4, makes the challenge more difficult.

Well it couldn't be worse than its predecessor.but as with the "best-ever Secretary-General" the bar has been set very low.

More broadly, Americans complain about the UN’s bureaucracy, weak decision-making, the lack of accountable modern management structures and the political divisions of the General Assembly here in New York.  And my response is, “guilty on all counts”.

And you seem happy with that?

But why?

In significant part because the US has not stuck with its project -- its professed wish to have a strong, effective United Nations -- in a systematic way.  Secretary Albright and others here today have played extraordinary leadership roles in US-UN relations, for which I salute them.  But in the eyes of the rest of the world, US commitment tends to ebb much more than it flows.  And in recent years, the enormously divisive issue of Iraq and the big stick of financial withholding have come to define an unhappy marriage.

Just possibly the US sees itself as the abused spouse in this unhappy marriage. One doesn't want to be sexist here, but it seems to me that the UN has acted like the sort of stereotypical passive aggressive bitch of an unfaithful wife who seems to take everything and not give anything back in return, and who then screams hysterically when confronted with evidence of her infidelity. Blaming the US for the fact that the UN is bureacratic, secretive and unaccountable is a bit like the wife complaining that her husband failed to stop her being a spoilt bitch.

As someone who deals with Washington almost daily, I know this is unfair to the very real effort all three Secretaries of State I have worked with –- Secretary Albright, Secretary Powell and Secretary Rice -– put into UN issues.  And today, on a very wide number of areas, from Lebanon and Afghanistan to Syria, Iran and the Palestinian issue, the US is constructively engaged with the UN.  But that is not well known or understood, in part because much of the public discourse that reaches the US heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.  That is what I mean by “stealth” diplomacy:  the UN’s role is in effect a secret in Middle America even as it is highlighted in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

It might help if the UN were able to demonstrate actual results and value for money instead of taking refuge in duck-billed platitudes.

Exacerbating matters is the widely held perception, even among many US allies, that the US tends to hold on to maximalist positions when it could be finding middle ground.

So the fact that the US has principles is a problem? Right its all America's fault for insisting that other countries not be two-faced scumbags.

We can see this even on apparently non-controversial issues such as renovating the dilapidated UN Headquarters in New York.  While an architectural landmark, the building falls dangerously short of city codes, lacks sprinklers, is filled with asbestos and is in most respects the most hazardous workplace in town.  But the only Government not fully supporting the project is the US.  Too much unchecked UN-bashing and stereotyping over too many years -- manifest in a fear by politicians to be seen to be supporting better premises for overpaid, corrupt UN bureaucrats -- makes even refurbishing a building a political hot potato.

That's because it has been priced at the sort of price that ought to result in a gleaming new gold-plated skyscraper. The fact that most other countries aren't complaining could have something to do with the fact they aren't expected to contribute to the cost. It's very easy to spend someone else's money.

One consequence is that, like the building itself, the vital renewal of the Organization, the updating of its mission, its governance and its management tools, is addressed only intermittently.  And when the US does champion the right issues like management reform, as it is currently doing, it provokes more suspicion than support.

Last December, for example, largely at US insistence, instead of a normal two-year budget, Member States approved only six months’ worth of expenditure -- a period which ends on June 30.  Developing and developed countries, the latter with the US at the fore, are now at loggerheads over whether sufficient reform has taken place to lift that cap, or indeed whether there should be any links between reform and the budget.  Without agreement, we could face a fiscal crisis very soon.

Something tells me that had the cap not been put in place there would have been even less reform. And soemthing tells me that this is what really bugs Malloch Brown. He hates being forced to do things and wondering whether he'll still be kept in the style to which he has becomed accustomed if he fails to deliver real reform. This could be the first time since his Tripos exam where he has actually been under pressure to deliver with no way to BS and misdirect and one suspects he's forgotten the tricks of the trade.

There has been a significant amount of reform over the last 18 months, from the creation of a new Ethics Office and whistle-blower policy, to the establishment of a new Peacebuilding Commission and Human Rights Council.  But not enough.

The unfinished management reform agenda, which the US sensibly supports, is in many ways a statement of the obvious.  It argues that systems and processes designed 60 years ago for an organization largely devoted to running conferences and writing reports simply don’t work for today’s operational UN, which conducts multibillion-dollar peacekeeping missions, humanitarian relief operations and other complex operations all over the world.  The report sets out concrete proposals for how this can be fixed while also seeking to address the broader management, oversight and accountability weaknesses highlighted by the “oil-for-food” programme.

The main management and oversight weaknesses that "oil-for-food" highlighted were in you and your boss Mr Annan. Blaming the Un founders of 60 years ago for your own incompetance seens a little rich.

One day soon we must address the massive gap between the scale of world issues and the limits of the institutions we have built to address them.  However, today even relatively modest proposals that in any other organization would be seen as uncontroversial, such as providing more authority and flexibility for the Secretary-General to shift posts and resources to organizational priorities without having to get direct approval from Member States, have been fiercely resisted by the G-77, the main group of developing countries, on the grounds that this weakens accountability.  Hence the current deadlock.

What lies behind this?

It is not because most developing countries don’t want reform.  To be sure, a few spoilers do seem to be opposed to reform for its own sake, and there is no question that some countries are seeking to manipulate the process for their own ends with very damaging consequences.  But in practice, the vast majority is fully supportive of the principle of a better run, more effective UN; indeed they know they would be the primary beneficiaries, through more peace, and more development.

May I suggest that at least some of the problem is that many of the UN mambers, far more than the "few spoilers" actually don't believe they can lose and hence see no reason to compromise. It seems likely that that many nations are keen on dividing the cake so that they get the most from it and not in worrying about how the cake is financed nor whether their slice of the cake is a fair one. Oh and the fact that many of these countries are less than perfectly honest means that their leaders may be looking for ways that they can personally profit from the UN's largesse and have even less interest in "more peace and more development".

So why has it not so far been possible to isolate the radicals and build a strong alliance of reform-minded nations to push through this agenda?

I would argue that the answer lies in questions about motives and power.

Motives, in that, very unfortunately, there is currently a perception among many otherwise quite moderate countries that anything the US supports must have a secret agenda aimed at either subordinating multilateral processes to Washington’s ends or weakening the institutions, and therefore, put crudely, should be opposed without any real discussion of whether they make sense or not.

And power, that in two different ways revolves around perceptions of the role and representativeness of the Security Council.

I'll be blunt and undiplomatic here. The biggest reason is that China and Russia have vetos and don't want reforms that might show them to be less than perfect countries. The fact that much of the "west" has been brainwashed by remenants of cold-war KGB campaigns into anti-americanism is surely a godsend to these countries and their allies.

First, in that there has been a real, understandable hostility by the wider membership to the perception that the Security Council, in particular the five permanent members, is seeking a role in areas not formally within its remit, such as management issues or human rights.

The motives here are not quite as simple as you seem to suggest. Yeah it would be bad if human rights abusers like Russia and China got power here, but you know that you are being every so slightly disingenuous here, what most countries are really upset about is that their corrupt not terribly democratic countries should be subject to UN sanctioned criticism from their betters. Deep down inside everyone knows that the US (plus Europe, Japan etc) are in fact better - this is why people persist in taking chances to emigrate there - and that their own corrupt power elites would be very very embarassed if the full spotlight of inquiry were to shine in their direction. Hence they do whatever they can to stop it.

Second, an equally understandable conviction that those five, veto-wielding permanent members who happen to be the victors in a war fought 60 years ago, cannot be seen as representative of today’s world -- even when looking through the lens of financial contributions.  Indeed, the so-called G-4 of Security Council aspirants -- Japan, India, Brazil and Germany -- contribute twice as much as the P-4, the four permanent members excluding the U.S.

The G-4? I think the J-1 (Japan) or possibly the JG-2 are the contributors here and yes they do indeed contribute far more than the P-4 who are in three cases European imperial powers in decline and in the fourth case an Asian imperial power recovering from centuries of decline.

Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged exactly this point on his trip to Washington last month, and it is something which does need to be addressed.  More broadly, the very reasonable concerns of the full UN membership that the fundamental multilateral principle that each Member State’s vote counts equally in the wider work of the UN needs to be acknowledged and accommodated within a broader framework of reform.  If the multilateral system is to work effectively, all States need to feel they have a real stake.

No the correct solution should be he who pays votes. Its simple and effective and it tends to lead to incentives for countries to contribute instead of becoming dependant on the charity of others.

But a stake in what system?

The US -- like every nation, strong and weak alike -- is today beset by problems that defy national, inside-the-border solutions:  climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, migration, the management of the global economy, the internationalization of drugs and crime, the spread of diseases such as HIV and avian flu.  Today’s new national security challenges basically thumb their noses at old notions of national sovereignty.  Security has gone global, and no country can afford to neglect the global institutions needed to manage it.

Kofi Annan has proposed a restructuring of the UN to respond to these new challenges with three legs:  development, security and human rights supported, like any good chair, by a fourth leg, reformed management.  That is the UN we want to place our bet on.  But for it to work, we need the US to support this agenda -- and support it not just in a whisper but in a coast to coast shout that pushes back the critics domestically and wins over the sceptics internationally.  America’s leaders must again say the UN matters.

So Kofi and Mark, if you want US buy in you have to accept that the US is in fact the world's sole superpower, the largest UN contributor and the largest economy and hence, just as 60 years ago, the US should have a large role in deciding what to do. If you don't start engaging with the US and its politicians, if you continue disparaging them and their voters as sheep led by demagogues, then you really shouldn't be surprised if the US doesn't jump up and down with enthusiasm at whatever ideas you have.

When you talk better national education scores, you don’t start with “I support the Department of Education”.  Similarly for the UN it starts with politicians who will assert the US is going to engage with the world to tackle climate change, poverty, immigration and terrorism.  Stand up for that agenda consistently and allow the UN to ride on its coat-tails as a vital means of getting it done.  It also means a sustained inside-the-tent diplomacy at the UN.  No more “take it or leave it”, red-line demands thrown in without debate and engagement.

Let me paraphrase: 'Because the real problem for us at the UN with "take it or leave it" is that we the UN can't afford to call your bluff and that is really really galling.'

Let me close with a few words on Darfur to make my point.

A few weeks ago, my kids were on the Mall in Washington, demanding President Bush to do more to end the genocide in Darfur and President Bush wants to do more.  I’d bet some of your kids were there as well.  Perhaps you were, too.  And yet what can the US do alone in the heart of Africa, in a region the size of France?  A place where the Government in Khartoum is convinced the US wants to extend the hegemony it is thought to have asserted in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So how come the kids on the Mall weren't holding up signs asking Kofi Annan to do more? well I think we can answer that question. The kinds know perfectly well that Kofi Annan has no power and couldn't negotiate his way out of a paper bag. The only way Darfur will be fixed is for the US and possibly some allies to decide to ignore the sensibilites of the Sudanese government and their allies like the Chinese and intervene with or without the UN. We all know that in our hearts but if you are a UN bureaucrat it hurts to have to admit that so we don't and just claim that another 6 months of schmoozing with people in nie hotels will fix the problem instead of having actual enforcers on the ground.

In essence, the US is stymied before it even passes “Go”.  It needs the UN as a multilateral means to address Sudan’s concerns.  It needs the UN to secure a wide multicultural array of troop and humanitarian partners.  It needs the UN to provide the international legitimacy that Iraq has again proved is an indispensable component to success on the ground.  Yet, the UN needs its first parent, the US, every bit as much if it is to deploy credibly in one of the world’s nastiest neighbourhoods.

What I just said. the UN is powerless and the Sudanese government is desperate to not be overthrown for its misgovernment of its nation and it has cut deals with enough other countries that it thinks it can BS the UN for ever. So far it has proven to be correct.

Back in Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s day, building a strong, effective UN that could play this kind of role was a bipartisan enterprise, with the likes of Arthur Vandenberg and John Foster Dulles joining Democrats to support the new body.  Who are their successors in American politics?  Who will campaign in 2008 for a new multilateral national security?

It could well be that such a bipartisan approach will emerge but I don't think there is any certainty that it will end up supporting the sort of UN that employs you Mr Malloch Brown. What you want is a bunch of people to agree to keep on fundnig your lifestyle while you fail to deliver and I suspect that - give the reaction in the US to corruption and pork in Washington - that the chances of US voters supporting a UN apparently filled with corruption and pork is low to non-existant. If the UN becomes an issue in the US elections the spotlight that wll be shone on it will be illiminuating but what it is likely to expose is not going to be pleasant.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin