The blueprint is visionary. eighty pages, bound in a gold cover and embossed, We the Peoples: the role of the United Nations in the 21st Century, the report was issued in April by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the agenda for the General Assembly's millennial summit in September. Every national leader will be invited. Not all will come — they never do — but the turnout will be as impressive as it should be for a timely program aimed at making globalization, as Annan put it, a positive force for all "instead of leaving billions behind in squalor."
What the U. N. does well is to draw attention to global issues involving the powerless. While some of the Secretary-General's goals for dealing with hunger, poverty, weapons proliferation and the environment don't have a chance of being realized — he himself called the proposal "absurdly ambitious" — they are worthy ideals and Annan is correct to set them and muster support in their pursuit.
The plan calls, for example, for halving within 15 years the number of the most desperately poor — the one-fifth of the world's populace which earns less than a dollar a day. Annan wants countries to work with pharmaceutical firms — part of greater public-private cooperation — to slash hiv infection rates; the World Bank to focus on improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers; and industrialized nations to lower trade barriers, some of which is already happening, to exports from poor countries. Having the U.N. bring information technology to those countries to improve education and job and market access, not to mention U.N. efficiency, was another sensible proposal that may actually produce results.
Yet all this visionary projecting can't disguise the fact that the U.N. is in grievous trouble on a current, defining issue: international peacekeeping. If it bungles peacekeeping, and there is a strong likelihood that it will, the U.N. may never get to pursue any of its goals.
Consider that this month the U.N. is trying to put a peacekeeping force into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even Canada, among the most loyal suppliers of blue-helmet troops, doesn't want to go near this one. The Congo effort follows three other current missions — in East Timor, Kosovo and Sierra Leone — which are straining the organization's resources. And those come on the heels of tremendous 1990s failures in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia which essentially led to the U.S. abandoning participation in U.N. peacekeeping efforts.
"Getting peacekeeping right is at the core of the U.N.'s future and none of us feels good about where we are. The jury is out," said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke during a symposium on the Annan proposals in Washington, D.C. on April 12. "If the U.N. fails on these current four, I don't think the Big Four will give the U.N. another chance."
Four underlying problems undermine the U.N.'s capacity to act:
The U.N. is not a free-standing organization separate from its members; it cannot act without a mandate from the Security Council in which every country has its own interests; with missions ill-defined and little will to work cooperatively, demands for action are often met by great reluctance to proceed; in short, inherent gridlock.
The U.N. is not a peacemaker. Since the Korean War, when thousands of its soldiers were killed, the U.N. has been unwilling to put troops in a war zone until the parties have fought themselves out. That is why the U.N. has not intervened, for example, in the Horn of Africa.
The U.N. is not even designed for peacekeeping; its strength lies in agenda setting and launching limited initiatives; it cannot afford peace enforcement. Its $2.5 billion overall budget has been frozen for six years while peacekeeping costs bounce like a yo-yo: there were 10,000 U.N. troops in the field in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell; the number climbed to 80,000 by 1994, fell back to 10,000 and now stands at 30,000.
The U.S., though the most generous, will not fully fund peacekeeping. Nor will it risk the lives of U.S. soldiers under its own command, let alone under other flags; and too many U.S. officials believe, incorrectly, that participation in a U.N. effort subverts rather than multiplies U.S. authority.
What's the solution? Without consensus among the leading players, there is no easy answer. Because it is unable to function with the freedom of a nation state, the U.N. has tried patchwork solutions. Increasingly, it has looked to regional forces, such as Nigerians for Sierra Leone and Australians for East Timor, rather than traditional troops from afar, like Sweden or Pakistan, with no vested local interests. There is understandable concern that using neighbors to keep peace can raise more tension than it resolves, but for now, there is little alternative.
Secretary-General Annan concedes that intervention poses "a real dilemma" for the U. N.. It's not one he can solve alone. But when all those leaders convene in the General Assembly to discuss the ills of the 21st century, they'd be better off working on a big problem left over from the 20th.