Published: December 9 2004
The United Nations is a frustrating and often infuriating organisation. In its many different guises it can be indecisive, inefficient, slow-moving and bureaucratic. When crises clamour for simple solutions, the wheels of international diplomacy grind desperately slowly - and people die as a result. The reality, that simple solutions to complex conflicts are seldom available or effective, is hard to sell.
The human tragedy in Darfur is a classic example. According to Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, almost 2.3m people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid in Sudan's western province, and "chaos is looming as order is collapsing". That is the problem, but where is the solution? The UN Security Council is deadlocked over imposing sanctions on Sudan - a path that would anyway scarcely improve the lot of the 2.3m. Protection of the civilian population is being left to the impoverished members of the African Union.
It is not only the raucous ranks of American conservatives that are capable of voicing criticism of the UN. But they have launched a witch-hunt in Washington to sniff out corruption within the ranks of the UN bureaucracy - over oil-for-food contracts in Iraq - that seems to have lost all contact with reality. They seem to be hell-bent on destroying the organisation, and forcing the resignation of Mr Annan, rather than contributing to a coherent debate on its modernisation.
Last week a thoroughly sensible report on UN reform was published by a panel of wise people set up by Mr Annan. It proposes 101 recommendations, including institutional changes, probably rather too many for all but the most dedicated to digest. Some parts of the system would be scrapped, others reinforced, to focus on conflict-prevention and rebuilding failed states. Just as important, the report analyses in a systematic way all the threats to national, international and individual security that an organisation such as the UN should seek to tackle or, even better, to avert.
It also proposes a definition of terrorism that would help all nations join forces to fight the scourge, and sets out clear rules to determine when "preventive force" may be warranted to avert an imminent threat, so we do not get into another Iraq debacle.
The exercise was not designed entirely to persuade the US of the importance and relevance of the UN system, but that is potentially its most important task. The international divisions over the war in Iraq have brought to a head long-festering mistrust in US political circles of the UN. Yet if a system of collective security is ever to be effective, the sole superpower must be involved.
The panel goes a long way to meet US concerns. When the UN was conceived in 1945, the overriding ambition was to prevent another world war, and the greatest threats were of conflicts between nation states. The report concludes that today's threats are far more complex: civil wars, ethnic cleansing within a country's borders, terrorism, proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and transnational organised crime are all part of the picture. So are economic and social threats, including poverty, diseases and damage to the environment.
The list could have been written by Mr Bush's national security advisers, although economic and social threats might have been given less attention. But the panel goes further to stress just how interconnected they all are, and how failed states - caused by civil war, or poverty, or even in future by the ravages of diseases such as HIV/Aids - are a critical element in global insecurity. Al-Qaeda was bred in one failed state, Afghanistan. The most terrible genocide of the recent past happened in another, Rwanda.
The fundamental conclusion of the UN panel is that facing such a complex array of threats, no one state - not even the world's superpower - can adequately protect itself. However imperfect the system, collective security is indispensable. Nation states may co-operate on intelligence and law enforcement, but international rules are essential to meet threats that do not respect national boundaries.
That may seem like a statement of the obvious to most people. It may seem even more so in the light of the US policy failures in Iraq. But there is clearly a huge job of persuasion to be done in Washington.
Two factors make that a particularly difficult task. One is that Mr Bush is not going to admit he was wrong in Iraq. The other is that the conservative bandwagon is obsessed by the oil-for-food scandal. There is a determination to expose corruption in the UN bureaucracy, although it was the member states, including the US and UK, who were in charge of the oil-for-food programme, and not Mr Annan's staff. Any suggestion of positive UN reform is seen as a distraction.
Those who are intent on destroying the UN are unlikely to be persuaded. But it is high time the president distanced himself from the witch-hunt, instead of tacitly encouraging it. Mr Bush may still be furious with Mr Annan for daring to say the war in Iraq was illegal, and the assault on Falluja a mistake, but he must know that he is running out of inspiration on how to stabilise the country.
The UN reform plan provides him with an ideal opportunity to start afresh. He can claim credit for the realistic focus on threats, preventive action and defining terrorism. He does not have to admit he was wrong. But he does have to know it in his heart.