Here, roughly speaking, is the quality of debate in this country - but not just this country - on international institutions. Witness the obloquy poured on the European Court of Human Rights this week for a painfully split-decision on an honestly difficult moral and legal question. But also look at the ignominies heaped on the poor old United Nations in its 50th year: peace-keeping operations falling apart; manifold corruption in its satellite agencies; bureaucratic obesity in New York; dues unpaid ($1.1bn owing from Washington alone). Time to sweep it all away, says the fashionable view. If it's broke, don't bother fixing it.
All agencies and organs of government are subject to incompetence, corruption, laxness. This is true of national governments; it is particularly true of international institutions, which do not have the benefit of being sluiced out regularly by the hose of popular votes. But the UN - or something remarkably like it - is an essential feature of the permanent landscape of world politics. The point is not whether we need a UN but how to make this UN more responsive, more effective, more efficient.
In its first 45 years, the UN was occupied largely in sweeping up after European colonialism The past five years have been dominated by the problems of post-Communism. Typically, we remember the failures (the Congo, Angola, Somalia, Yugoslavia) more than we cherish the successes (Cambodia, Namibia, the deployment of UN troops in the Middle East just in time to forestall superpower intervention in 1973; nuclear non-proliferation; the eradication of smallpox by the UN's World Health Organisation).
After the Gulf war, in a post-veto world, unreasonable hopes were generated that the UN would leap into vigorous, new life. In a sense this did happen. In the first three years of the Cold War's last decade - 1980-83 - there were 83 security council resolutions and 19 vetoes. In the first three years of the post-Soviet UN, there were 246 resolutions and only three vetoes. By last year, there were 70,000 peacekeepers and 17 peacekeeping operations, more than ever before. But in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, in the glare of the TV cameras, the UN has proved unable to make the decisions when they mattered or make sense of muddled policies on the ground.
Why? Because the UN still exists in a twilight world of institutionalised hypocrisy, of responsibility, without power. The countries with the financial and military muscle have been willing to pile tasks on to a UN bureaucracy ill-equipped to carry them out. They have been unwilling to cede the real authority or money or military strength capable of completing the tasks (even when it was clear what completion meant, which it often was not).
So, the UN is a failure; let's abolish it. No. Better to match the rhetoric and ambitions with a more realistic assessment of what the UN can do and how.
Here are four urgent areas for action, some of which coincide with the reform ideas already being pushed in this week's half-centenary general assembly (with varying degrees of energy) by Britain, the US and other member states.
Expand the Security Council from 15 seats to reflect the new realities of economic and regional power. Give permanent seats to Japan and Germany. For balance, include more countries from the developing world. Because Africa will remain a frequent client, grant a permanent seat to the new regional super-power, South Africa.
Reconstruct the UN's finances to create a better balance between voting power and financial responsibility. It is absurd that the US should pay over 30 per cent of the UN's bills. Or rather not pay. Washington's present refusal to cough up is irresponsible. Just let a US citizen use the same argument - "I don't approve of how you spend it so I won't pay" - with the Internal Revenue service. But the US does have a point. Its contribution should be reduced and the shortfall made up by the wealthy Middle East and Asian countries, which pay next to nothing.
Elect the UN Secretary-General for one seven-year term only, to prevent the incumbent spending most of his or her five-year term campaigning for the next. The same rule should apply to the heads of the UN's satellite agencies. The New York secretariat should be reduced and re-organised. The agencies should be slimmed down, re-focused and hived off to non-UN agencies where appropriate.
The UN is not good at fighting wars. It should sub-contract peacekeeping - with security council approval and secretariat oversight - to groups of reliable regional powers. This is a codification of what is already happening by default in Bosnia and also in Liberia. There must also be a clearer distinction between peace enforcement and peacekeeping/humanitarian aid and no promiscuous mixing of the two, as in Bosnia.
The UN will always be unsatisfactory. It is fated to deal in lowest common denominator, consensus politics. But it is essential that the UN should, if not prosper, at least survive as a credible agency of world opinion and action. The collapse of the duopoly of competing ideologies makes the world safer in some ways, more dangerous in others. The Cold War promoted a kind of internationalism, even if a perverted internationalism. Its ending has cleared the ground for strident, inward-looking nationalisms, in the Balkans, but also in Russia and the US.
The UN charter, dog-eared document though it might now seem, encapsulates a large and noble idea (at a time when world is not exactly oversupplied with great visions): "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind ... to reaffirm faith in the dignity and worth of the human person". What is the UN? Tedious, messy, incompetent, circuitous, the UN is, recognisably, inescapably, us.Reuse content