The Big Question: What is America's problem with the UN, and can it be fixed by reform?

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The Independent US

Why the argument between the UN and US?

Mark Malloch Brown, an outspoken Briton, elevated by Kofi Annan, the secretary general, to be his deputy last year, started it. In a speech to a conference on world affairs on Tuesday, he accused the US of hypocrisy towards the UN, relying on it for assistance on a range of emergencies around the world, for example in Darfur, while doing nothing to defend it against the relentless bashing from American conservatives. "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," Malloch Brown lamented.

Did he have a point?

Malloch Brown may have grounds to suspect that President Bush would say more if he didn't know that belittling the UN plays well with his conservative Republican base which he cannot afford to alienate now with mid-term Congressional elections approaching in November. Moreover, there are some hurt feelings at UN headquarters dating back to Washington's overriding of the world body - with British acquiescence - to begin its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the appointment of John Bolton by President Bush last year to be his ambassador in New York. Mr Bolton is the man who once said lopping off the top 10 storeys of the UN headquarters wouldn't be noticed by anybody.

How did the speech go down with Bolton?

Yikes. For a glimpse of the famous Bolton bark, it was necessary only to witness his fierce response to Malloch Brown's speech. He called the matter "very, very grave" and accused Malloch Brown, among other things, of a "condescending, patronising tone about the American people". Verging on the hysterical, he said he had telephoned Annan and said: "I've known you since 1989, and I'm telling you this is the worst mistake by a senior UN official that I have seen in that entire time." It sounds like a person overreacting to criticism that he knows to be at least partially true. It also sounds like a senior member of the Bush administration doing exactly what Malloch Brown was complaining about: playing to the conservative gallery.

Is this a storm in an East River tea-cup?

The background to the Malloch Brown speech is that there is another crunch looming about reform and money and it could spell a serious crisis for the world body. The US, with some support from the EU and Japan, is threatening to withhold payments to the UN from the end of this month, if some real progress is not achieved on reform proposals now on the table. If the threat is carried out, the whole institution could quickly grind to a halt with the Security Council shuttered and peace-keeping operations drifting.

Why is the US so grouchy about UN?

If you contribute nearly a quarter of the entire UN budget, you have a right to say something about how it is run. No one - not even Malloch Brown - ever tries to pretend that the place is a beacon of efficiency. It has a demoralised staff, a crumbling headquarters, an internal structure that has barely been modernised since its creation and a deserved reputation as a mere talking shop. Moreover, there have been serious additional bruises to its reputation thanks to recent scandals ranging from the widespread corruption unearthed in the $64bn oil-for-food programme run by the UN in Iraq before the toppling of Saddam and the revelations of sexual abuses by UN personnel in developing countries.

But change has started, right?

Reform at the UN flows more slowly than treacle in the Antarctic. The latest big push came last September when heads of state and government ended a 60th anniversary summit with a new call for sweeping reform. So far only one plank of the platform has been enacted - the creation in May of the Human Rights Commission to replace the widely-discredited Human Rights Council. Even that party was spoiled, however, when the US refused to vote in favour of the body or even seek membership of it. In March, Annan unveiled a 33-page document containing his vision for a more streamlined bureaucracy. It included steps to give the secretary general more leeway in taking management decisions as well as provisions to offer buy-outs to under-performing members of staff and to begin outsourcing some of the UN's business to save money.

Isn't that what everyone has been calling for?

London and Washington think it's time for the secretary general to behave more like a chief executive to get the UN moving. But in the other corner are the developing countries, who fear that any move to subtract influence from the general assembly means subtracting what little influence they still have on the institution. And they worry that any secretary general is going to be in the pocket of Washington. Consequently, they formed a majority in the Assembly last month delaying any action on the Annan proposals and demanding that he explain them in more detail in the autumn. This is the trigger of the current crisis: the deal last year was that no more money would be freed up for the UN budget after the end of this month if headway on these reform matters had not been achieved.

What other important issues remain?

The Security Council is showing no signs of agreeing on who should replace Annan after December. The declared candidates so far, from South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand, have attracted little enthusiasm and forget those who float the name of Tony Blair. Then there is the membership of the Security Council itself. Last month, Blair reiterated Britain's support for an expansion of the Council to give permanent representation to countries like Japan, India, Germany and at least a country each from Africa and Latin America. Again, there is no sign of progress here because of national vanities and power struggles. Brazil thinks it is the obvious Latin choice and so does Argentina. You see the problem.

Is the UN worth the money?

Yes...

* It is the last hope for multilateral order in a world where super-powers are otherwise tempted to trample the weak

* It is the only institution capable of responding to transnational problems: disease, crime, terrorism and weapons proliferation

* Only the UN can orchestrate responses to both natural and man-made disasters around the globe, from tsunamis to genocides

No...

* When real crises emerge, like the Rwanda genocide in 1994, the UN fails to respond every time

* If the US doesn't respect the UN and can barely bring itself to participate, why should any of us bother?

* The corruption never ends - kick-backs from Saddam, sexual abuse in Africa and on and on

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