TCS Daily

The Right Way to Reform the UN

By Carroll Andrew - July 26, 2005 12:00 AM

There is no argument against United Nations reform, but there are different possible approaches. Two versions of UN reform are active in Congress, one already passed by the House of Representatives, the other being considered by the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

The Senate version, S1383, originally sponsored by Senators Norm Coleman and Richard Lugar, is mostly a call for bureaucratic reform, including the creation of new layers of bureaucracy to oversee the existing bureaucracy. S1383 does take a strong stand on the continuing embarrassment that is the United Nations Human Rights Commission, noting that six of its members "were listed as the world's 'worst of the worst' abusers of human rights" and calling for its dissolution and replacement with a new body "composed of member states that commit themselves to upholding the values embodied in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights".

The House version, HR2745, sponsored by Representatives Henry Hyde and Mike Pence, and passed by a vote of 221-184, is much more detailed in its call for bureaucratic reform. It also calls for the creation of new super-bureaucratic positions to oversee the existing bureaucrats and for reform of the Human Rights Commission. HR2745 also delves into higher levels of policy, calling for formal mechanisms to sanction states involved in acts of genocide, the abolition of secret voting in the Economic and Social Council, and opposition to any expansion of the Security Council.

However, the main difference between the two bills is not in their different criteria for what a reformed UN should look like. The main difference involves what happens if key reform criteria are not met. S1383 authorizes the President to "withhold 50 percent of United States contributions to the United Nations in a year if the President has determined...that the United Nations is not making sufficient progress to implement the reforms described in this act". HR2745 cuts out the middleman -- in this case, the President. Cuts become automatic if objective criteria specified in 11 separate certifications are not met. HR2745 also commits the United States to opposing the creation or expansion of UN peacekeeping operations unless specific reforms involving personnel policies and a code of ethics are implemented.

If UN reform is to become a reality, the House and Senate will have to agree on a single approach. What that compromise might look like is not yet clear. When opening the Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Senate bill, Senator Lugar was direct, "I believe that a rigid formula that removes decision making and flexibility from the President is a mistake". House supporters of UN reform, though pleased that the Senate is giving serious consideration to a reform bill, are not commenting on possible compromises until the Senate passes something specific.

Amongst foreign policy elites and editorial writers, the Senate approach is more popular. Some support for the Senate approach is a way for individuals to establish a position of "I was in favor of UN reform before I was against it". By passing the buck to the President, a legislator can claim to support UN reform in principle now and then oppose specific cuts later by accusing the President of acting unreasonably. This explains how a Senator like George Voinovich can vote against giving the President his choice of UN ambassador yet co-sponsor a bill that entrusts the President with broad powers to withhold UN dues.

Other support for the Senate approach is more sincere, based on the belief that an executive branch with maximal freedom to maneuver in matters of foreign policy best serves the American people. The Executive Office of the President has expressed concern that some provisions of HR2745 "impermissibly infringe on the President's authority under the Constitution to conduct the Nation's foreign affairs." Eight former American UN ambassadors -- including legendary Reagan-era UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who cannot be accused of being a UN lackey -- signed a letter expressing concern that the House's approach will impair the achievement of the House's ends; "withholding our dues to the UN is the wrong methodology. It would create resentment, build animosity and actually strengthen opponents of reform."

There is merit to the idea the Congress should not overly infringe upon the executive's authority to conduct foreign policy. But there is also concern that leaving all of the details to the discretion of the executive leads to distorted policy. In an age where foreign policy is implemented by national-level bureaucracies that interact through multinational suprabureaucracies, leaders, diplomats and bureaucrats have more contact with other leaders, other diplomats and other bureaucrats than they do with the people they represent. In the absence of direct contact with the common folk, the foreign policy elite can succumb to the temptation to decide for themselves what the true interests of their people are -- without sufficient consultation with said people.

This dynamic explains why the strongest program for UN reform is emanating from the House of Representatives. The House version of UN reform is a response not only to popular dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the United Nations, but also a response to the other branches of American government that have enabled the continuing ineptitude. House members, involved in near-continuous campaigning because of their relatively short terms of office, are less likely to defy the popular mood for real UN reform out of the deference to the permanent bureaucratic class that tends to inhibit Senatorial and executive level reform efforts.

It would be good negotiating -- and also true -- for American statesmen to warn the international community that reactionary resistance to the House of Representatives' program of reform will create resentment, build animosity, and actually strengthen opponents of vigorous American participation in the UN. But this inverse argument is rarely heard. Instead, most elite responses to the House approach to UN reform ask American citizens to settle for less -- promises that they will get reforms in their best interests, whether or not they get the specific reforms that they want. Given the poor record of oversight that has brought the world the corrupt and inefficient UN that exists today, promises of reform based on vague criteria are insufficient. Applying the direct approach embodied in HR2745 to some set of UN reforms is a course of action both reasonable and necessary.


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