Why the United Nations Is Kept Weak
Is the West underestimating the value of the trust that the UN enjoys in the hearts and minds of the rest of the world’s population?
February 9, 2013
A dirty little secret is that institutions of global governance are weak today by design, rather than by default. This has long been an open secret, as I know from having lived in New York City, the home of the United Nations, where I served for more than ten years.
It was most revealing to encounter many senior members of the U.S. political establishment and hear them lament about the poor state the United Nations was in.
These people regularly assumed that it was a result of either the UN being dominated by the poor and weak states of Africa and Asia, or by the poor quality of its bureaucrats. They would assure me that they wished that the UN could act in a more muscular fashion and perform as well as Western organizations did.
To the best of my knowledge, not one of these senior figures ever acknowledged that it has been a long-standing Western strategy, led primarily by Washington, to keep the UN weak.
Even during the Cold War, when Moscow and Washington disagreed on pretty much everything, both nations were united in one regard. They actively conspired to keep the UN weak.
The United States and the Soviet Union did so through a variety of means. They selected all too pliable secretaries-general, such as Kurt Waldheim. They bullied whoever was secretary-general at a given time into dismissing or sidelining competent or conscientious UN civil servants who had shown any backbone.
They squeezed UN budgets endlessly. And, of course, they planted CIA and KGB spies in all corners of the UN system. All this was well known to anyone who worked within the UN system.
As we move into the era of the great convergence, the world clearly needs stronger “global village” councils. The time has come for the West to begin a fundamental rethink of its long-held policy that it serves long-term Western interests to keep institutions of global governance weak.
Of course, Western strategy has been a bit more nuanced. While it has kept the UN system at large weak, the UN Security Council was kept relatively strong and effective. Why? Because the West has been able, by and large, to control and dominate the UN’s most important body.
Similarly, the West has allowed both the IMF and World Bank to function better than the UN. These two bodies have a system of “weighted voting,” which has allowed the West to retain control of both of those institutions.
In short, the West has adopted an intelligent long-term strategy. If it can control an international institution, it allows that institution to become strong and occasionally effective. If it cannot control an international institution, it deliberately debilitates that institution.
This once-intelligent long-term strategy is no longer so intelligent, however. As the West progressively loses relative power within the international system, the inclination is to hold on to past power as much and as long as possible.
With only 12% of the global population and an inevitably declining share of economic and (increasingly) military power, the West’s hardcore long-term geopolitical interests will quite naturally switch to delay the unavoidable.
It will move from trying to preserve Western “dominance” to trying to put in long-term safeguards to protect the West’s “minority” position in a new global configuration of power.
This game can of course be played for a long time. However, the best way to protect minority rights is actually through strengthening the rule of law and strengthening the institutions that promote it.
This is precisely what most institutions of global governance are designed to do. The time has come for the West to work on strengthening, rather than weakening, these institutions. I hope that we will soon see a major debate in Western capitals on the rapidly diminishing wisdom of sticking with the old policies.
The West should not underestimate the value of the trust that the UN enjoys in the hearts and minds of the rest of the world’s population. But the UN can retain this trust only if it is clearly perceived to be serving global, not just Western, interests.
When I visited Beijing in May 2012, I got a firsthand experience of the value of this trust. For many years, the West had been trying to persuade China to pay more attention to its environment and to adopt sustainable development.
Predictably, China reacted with a great deal of suspicion to this unsolicited Western advice. It was seen to be a clever, but transparent maneuver by the West to derail or slow down China’s economic development.
A Chinese policymaker told me that China finally accepted the policy advice when it was given to them by an independent UN agency, the UNDP. No wonder then that, when the Chinese government finally decided to organize a global seminar to address this issue, its partner of choice was the UNDP.
Trust is an essential commodity as we go about restructuring the global system to handle new global challenges. We should try to retain as much as possible all the trust that the UN has accumulated in our world.
One very direct policy consequence of all this is that the time has come for the United States to terminate its zero-budget policies and to invest in the UN constructively.
If it were to do so, the impact on the American economy and the U.S. federal budget would be truly inconsequential.
Just consider that the budget of the New York City Fire Department, which serves one city, was $1.73 billion in 2011. In contrast, the budget for the UN’s core functions — the Secretariat operations in New York, Geneva, Nairobi, Vienna and five Regional Commissions, which serve the whole world — is $1.74 billion a year.
The U.S. delegation to the UN resents the fact that, even though their country pays 22% of the UN budget, it has only vote out of 193 in the UN’s general decision-making processes.
These American officials are right. There is a problem here that needs to be addressed. There needs to be a much more direct relationship between privileges and responsibilities in UN decision-making.
But adamantly clinging to zero-budget growth policies for the entire UN is not the answer.
Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World (PublicAffairs) by Kishore Mahbubani. Published by arrangement with the author. Copyright © 2013 by Kishore Mahbubani.
The West needs to rethink its long-held policy that it serves Western interests to keep institutions of global governance weak.
If the West can control an international institution, it allows that institution to become strong and occasionally effective.
If the West cannot control an international institution, it deliberately debilitates that institution.
The West should not underestimate the value of the trust that the UN enjoys in the hearts and minds of the rest of the world's population.
Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore Kishore Mahbubani is Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore. He was with the Singapore Foreign Service for […]