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How Troubled is the United Nations?

By Tom Plate and Jennifer M. Ramos

The shortcomings of the U.N. are well-known: the Security Council, 15 members strong, is often gridlocked, and the General Assembly, no less than 194 members altogether, is hard put to find significant consensus, much less exert real power. But progress, even at the dysfunctional U.N., is possible with the right institutional willpower. No one figure—even one country—can reform the U.N.

Every secretary-general learns how to maneuver within the existing system to get some things done—and what a system it is. As the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed out in his informative and revealing visit to Loyola Marymount University recently, the U.N. is a myriad of agencies—all integral parts of a sprawling system. These agencies address global challenges and opportunities, including urgent food distribution, human rights, criminal tribunals, and national economic development. The U.N. to-do list is ever-expanding, and, of course, never-ending. It is not as if the U.N. would have nothing to do or would cease to exist if the Security Council and the General Assembly simply passed away into history.

Hovering over this panoply of priorities is a solitary figure: the secretary-general, nominated by the Security Council and confirmed by the General Assembly for a maximum of two terms of five years each. Since Jan. 1, 2007, that occupant has been Ban, the former foreign minister of South Korea. In addition to implementing a good measure of internal bureaucratic streamlining and reorganization, this secretary-general has traveled extensively to highlight the range of U.N. concerns. He has even planted the blue U.N. flag on the earth’s two poles to highlight one of his top priorities, if not the top priority of his tenure: the ongoing corrosive processes of global warming and glacial melting.

Women’s issues have also been at the forefront of Ban’s agenda. In order to help further gender equality and empower women and girls worldwide, a new U.N. entity was established: U.N. Women. And this is not only with a view toward member states, but also the U.N. system itself, which is known for its glaring lack of women at high levels. Ban, beginning at home, has set the example; he has appointed more women to top decision-making positions than any of his predecessors. No surprise that this push from the top quickly became a valuable and dynamic force inside and outside of the Secretariat building. What’s more, Ban’s campaign also helped raise awareness of the need for serious consideration of a woman as the next secretary-general.

In fact, the intense, if quietly contested, campaign to succeed Ban has already begun on that basis. Strong male candidates have emerged, but for the first time in memory, very plausible female candidates are just as prominent in the field. The acknowledged roster includes well-known political or diplomatic figures such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and Helen Clark from New Zealand; however, lesser-known women, particularly Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, Vesna Pusić from Croatia, or Natalia Gherman from Moldova would additionally satisfy the unwritten rotation rule that presumably puts a candidate from Eastern Europe next up for the secretary-general job.

Secretary-General Ban is privately known to favor a woman as his successor; having fathered U.N. Women, such an outcome would feel like a personal triumph. But by established tradition and accepted diplomatic decorum, a sitting secretary-general will keep his preferential lips sealed and his eyes on the simple prize of completing his term with the dignity in which it commenced and has been maintained.

A woman secretary-general—potentially working in tandem with a woman president of the United States, which is still the most important U.N. power—would undoubtedly lift many spirits and hopes. But the daunting problems facing the world are not susceptible to easy resolution, no matter who the occupant is or what the secretary-general’s gender is.

The major impediment to progress at the U.N. is its structural shortcomings. Although it can do valuable work, the General Assembly is basically toothless, and although the Security Council can bite, it generally prefers just to bark or issue low growls in the form of puerile resolutions. And the latter body is where the real reforms must take place, but won’t: the Security Council is the political pinnacle of the permanent council members, the P-5—China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and it signals a red light on any formal Resolution if but one of the five says no. While many reforms have been proposed for the powerful Security Council, most are generally viewed by each of the P-5 as an existential threat to their individual sovereignties, and are therefore unlikely to be realized.

Ban has chosen not to rail against this reality, although he has been notably candid about the improbability of Security Council reform. Instead, the secretary-general chooses to focus his energies on what can be done with the support of the member states under the current flawed system. Fighting the P-5, as some of his predecessors tried, is a job fit only for Don Quixote. Those who care about the U.N. and believe in the work that it is able to do should face this reality as well. The task is to work around the serious structural flaws to achieve the best you can. That is the challenge for the next secretary-general, whether a woman or a man.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree on April 6 by Loyola Marymount University.

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Tom Plate is a journalist and Distinguished Scholar at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of Conversations with Ban Ki -moon in the 'Giants of Asia' book series and founder of Asia Media International, and a columnist with the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong.

Jennifer M. Ramos is associate professor at Loyola Marymount University where she specializes in international security, U.S. foreign policy, and peace-building.

[Photo courtesy of Zack Lee]

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