TCS Daily

Clinton: Kindly Killing the United Nations

By James Pinkerton - September 19, 2005 12:00 AM

NEW YORK -- United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has lots of enemies. But perhaps he really needs to keep an eye on his "friends," such as Bill Clinton.

In the minds of many conservatives, the UN is a fat and deserving target. But in an ironic way, these right-tilting UN-bashers pay tribute to the venerable international organization: as long as they spell the name right, they are keeping the UN central to the debate over world government, such as it might be.

By contrast, the 42nd president has a different vision. His unstated intention is of killing the UN with kindness, of displacing the Secretary General by replacing Annan with a greater world leader. And who is that better leader? Why Clinton himself, of course.

Last week in New York City, the Clinton Global Initiative (GGI) made its bid to upstage the United Nations' 60th anniversary General Assembly. And the former president made a start toward displacing the fading UN from its prominent perch. And he will be back to try again next year.

There's a cosmic joke in all this politicking and positioning. Three Septembers ago, the 43rd president, George W. Bush, traveled to New York City and warned the UN that it risked being made "irrelevant" if it didn't go along with him on the Iraq war. The UN Security Council rejected Bush's war-plan, and yet despite his threat, the Texan has felt compelled to return to the UN every year since, seeking its grudging help on Iraq and the war on terror.

Indeed, the 43rd President has even paid his own grudging and ironic tribute to the UN: he appointed John Bolton to be his ambassador. Bolton, of course, is a vehement critic of the organization; some even say that he "hates" it. But as we all know, there's a fine line between hate and love. Anyone who spends as much time as Bolton worrying about the UN must, in his own gnarled-up way, be in love with the place. And in fact, as this headline from Sunday's New York Times -- "Bolton and U.N. Are Still Standing After His First Test" -- shows, Bolton has bolstered the UN's image, at least in the mind of the world's substantial cadre of Bolton-phobes. Perverse as it may seem, Bolton and the UN need each other: hating the UN makes the ambassador's life complete, while the blocking of Bolton vindicates the UN's existence, giving all those Turtle Bay-crats a new raison d'etre.

For his part, Clinton expresses no Boltonian disdain for the UN. He only wants to help it, he says. But in the meantime, he is busy helping himself to as much of its mission as he can.

Put simply, the CGI is striving to be a better version of the UN, skimming off the cream and the glitz; Mick Jagger, Brad Pitt, and Chris Tucker, among other stars, showed up at the Clinton extravaganza. Convening in Manhattan at the same time as the General Assembly, just a mile or so from UN headquarters, the CGI set forth four missions for itself: a quartet of "breakout sessions" were dedicated global warming, economic development, religious harmony, and effective governance. All weighty topics, no? Exactly the sorts of issues that the UN would worry about, right?

Yet the CGI is a much more nimble organization than the UN, much more in tune with contemporary media values. Whereas the UN was modeled after legislatures -- which are big duds in terms of being entertaining, as anybody who watches C-SPAN discovers quickly enough -- the CGI is modeled after a TV show. If all the world's a stage, all of today's world is a TV set. Let the windbags at the UN bloviate and filibuster; the CGI will keep moving right along, lest anyone be bored.

So rather than let 191 different speakers spout forth in all their different languages -- who doesn't hate to listen to translations? -- the CGI was limited to English speakers, who spoke in conversational tube-friendly soundbites, eschewing oratorical bombast. Indeed, the whole GGI was "Oprah"-like in its chatty intimacy. Watching it, you got the feeling that, say, George Soros was sharing his views just with you. Who knows? Maybe the Hungarian-American billionaire even feels your pain.

And Clinton cleverly built his three-day event around a big idea, or at least a big stunt: every hour or so during the proceedings, emcee Clinton would announce "commitments" from governments, corporations, and philanthropists. Just like a telethon, something was always happening, a new record for giving being established.

Some of these commitments were very specific: media mogul Haim Saban promised a million dollars to help build understanding between children in the Gaza Strip and in Israel. Other commitments were vaporously vague: the Center for American Progress, a DC-based think tank run by John Podesta, committed to study the idea of providing special risk insurance for businesses locating in the Gaza Strip. Study the idea? Heck, even I could do that.

But as in a telethon, especially a PBS pledge drive, everyone who ponied up something got something in return, in this case, a big parchment certificate signed by William J. Clinton himself -- and if the pledge was big enough, an opportunity to bask in the limelight with the Great Man.

The pledges totaled, according to Clinton, more than $1.25 billion. And while reporters wondered aloud to each other how much of this was "new money," and how much was "funny money" -- that is, a phantom, such as the "middle class tax cut" that Clinton promised back in the 1992 -- there is clearly some serious cash sloshing around the Clinton operation, serious quantities, even by UN standards.

Yet at all times, the ratio of self-promotion to selflessness was high. A GGI advertisement in Saturday's Financial Times reflected the smug tone: "Thanks to these sponsors," the copy read, "the world is already a better place." And then below appeared the corporate logos of such big outfits as Citigroup, Microsoft, Nokia, Starbucks, Mittal, The Rockefeller Foundation, Goldman Sachs, and Google.

One might have thought that if Clinton truly wanted to make the world a better place, he might have encouraged these heavy hitters simply to give to the UN. But of course, the UN epitomizes "sclerotic bureaucratic organization"; given the world body's sorry track record of doing much of anything over the last few decades -- the latest debacle being the "oil for food" scandal -- it's hard to convince anyone that the UN is a good "investment." So why not do what Clinton did? Why not create a new entity to compete with the UN?

No matter how much one dislikes Clinton, is it really plausible to imagine that the Arkansan would put, say, Zimbabwe -- arguably the worst human-rights abuser in the world today -- on a commission devoted to protecting human rights? Well, the UN did just that. So if Clinton and his friends can create a better international organization than the UN, more power to them. And besides, if Clinton can create his version of the UN, then others can do it, too. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and may the best flower bloom the brightest.

Returning to Clinton's own self-interest, as all Clinton-related questions eventually do return, we wonder if the ex-president has been asking himself: "How can any endeavor be a good use of my time if I don't get credit for it? And what better way to get credit than to take credit, by slapping my name on various acts of international do-goodery? I mean, let's get real here." And no doubt Hillary, too, is pleased to see more positive associations about the Clinton name as she ponders her own 2008 future. (A Hillarian presidential future which Bill boosted on Sunday in an unrelated appearance on ABC's "This Week," the show hosted by his former lieutenant, George Stephanopoulos, in which "42," having held his partisan fire for years, tore into his successor for mishandling Iraq and now Katrina.)

Is this too cynical? Too conspiratorial? Are the Clintons really plotting to use the CGI as a tax-deductible front for their own ambitions? Only time will tell, of course. But on Saturday, as the GGI wrapped up, the drum roll of Clinton-grandizement reached thunderous decibel-age.

The first tip came from Clinton himself. After applauding Kofi Annan's brief speech -- what choice did the beleaguered Annan have but to accept Clinton's offer of an appearance? -- Clinton opened up a little on his own thinking. "I have organized this group," Clinton began to say about the CGI, and then, catching Annan's cold stare, caught himself . "With your support, I might add." Clinton then went on for awhile about how all he wanted to do was help the mission of world-betterment.

But in the opinion of others in the Clinton crew, bettering the world meant buttering up Clinton. As the moderators of the various "breakout sessions" delivered their "final reports" to the beatifically beaming ex-president, as well as to the audience assembled at the big hotel ballroom at the Sheraton, each presenter seemed to be competing to say the praising words that bring forth the biggest smile from the boss.

Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, moderator of the global warming breakout group, turned to Clinton and said, "You have created something extraordinary here -- a new form of global NGO."

But Lael Brainard, an ex-Clinton White House aide, now at the Brookings Institution, who headed up the governance breakout, topped Lash. She began by quoting participant Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland; according to Brainard, Robinson had declared, "The UN Summit is so 20th century, the Clinton Global Initiative is so 21st century." Clinton obviously liked that and, eyeing Brainard, who was certainly one of the more attractive women on hand, observed aloud, "You can probably see why I always enjoyed the briefings she gave me in the White House."

Next up was Gail Smith, another ex-White House aide, who reported on the proceedings of the poverty breakout group. Smith saved her Clinton-flattering to the end of her spiel: "Finally, Mr. President, everyone accepted the idea of holding this conference on a regular and sustained basis." And verily, the crowd went wild at the thought of dong this again next year. And the year after that, and the year after that -- forever and ever.

Is the CGI really better than the UN? It's hard to see how it could be worse. So if the CGI proves its fitness in the Darwinian world of NGOs, well, that's political evolution in action.

The CGI will likely never take on the deliberative functions of the UN -- but who wants those, anyway? The world-government function of the UN has been atrophying for years. Nobody has taken the UN General Assembly seriously since the notorious Zionism-as-racism resolution of 1975, and the UN Security Council is mostly dysfunctional, too. Just in the last decade, the US and Western Europe bypassed the Security Council in their pursuit of the Kosovo war, and the US, of course, ignored the Council in re: Iraq two years ago. Looking ahead to some hypothetical future resolution, does anybody seriously think that the Russians or Chinese will not simply veto a Council resolution that they don't like? Or that big countries such as India, Brazil, and Japan will feel bound to obey a body that makes room for such a puny country as France as a permanent member, but not them?

If one thus dismisses the General Assembly and the Security Council, what's left of the UN? Mostly agencies with a humanitarian mission, such as WHO and FAO, UNICEF and UNCTAD. But good intentions aside, do these bureaucracies really do any good? And even if they do some good, how much good? Compared to what? Are they well managed? Do they really offer positive cost-benefit ratios? Or could new vehicles, outside of the UN, do a better job?

Those are big questions for the future. And Bill Clinton, ex-commander-in-chief, present-day ego-tripper-in-chief, future who-knows-what, has his own answer. The prototype CGI debuted last week in New York City, and next year, given Clinton's entrepreneurial skill, an even better version will be on display. If Clinton keeps it up, the CGI may make it big -- big enough to make room, maybe, for a tarnished ex-Secretary General from Ghana who was helpless to prevent the continuing decay of his own once-proud organization.


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