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Is the United Nations Still Relevant?

Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General, United Nations

Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General, United Nations


Hong Kong
June 14, 2004

It really is a pleasure to be back in this vibrant and dynamic city. For me, it is a gap of 23 years since I was last here and I think a few things have changed but it is certainly a pleasure to speak to this distinguished gathering and not just to be here under the auspices of the Asia Society.

(I have been thrown (the) challenge of trying to justify the relevance of the UN.) Well, a little over a year ago, in fact in March of 2003 as the debates were raging in the UN Security Council with Iraq, a BBC interviewer rather glibly asked me, "So how does the UN feel about being seen as the "I" word, "irrelevant"? And he was about to go on when I interrupted him. "As far as we are concerned", I retorted, "the 'I' word is indispensable."

It was not just a debate in point. Those of us who toil everyday at the headquarters of the United Nations and even more our colleagues on the front lines in the field have become a little exasperated at seeing our institutional obituaries in the press.

Last year's debates over Iraq led some to evoke a parallel to The League of Nations, a body created with great hopes at the end of the First World War but a body which was reduced to debating the standardization of European railway gauges, the day the Germans marched into Poland and began the Second World War.

But such comparisons are, to say the least, grossly overstated. As Mark Twain put it when he woke up in the morning and read the newspaper to discover he was supposed to be dead, the report's of the UN's demise are somewhat exaggerated and yet I have to admit we live with a paradox. In the world's sole remaining superpower, the United States, influential sections of political opinion are all too ready to write us off.

Ironically, independent public opinion polls over many years have consistently found that ordinary Americans have great faith in the UN and in multi-lateral solutions to world problems, but no one reads, shall we say, the Asian Wall Street Journal. Could doubts that US leaders and legislators have not always shared their constituent's faith.

On a visit to Washington DC last year, I asked a distinguished Washingtonian what lay behind all the hostility and criticism that we kept hearing towards the UN in that little capital. I said, "Did the critics not understand what we were all about? What was the problem here", I said, "was it ignorance or was it apathy?" And he replied, "I do not know and I do not care", which exactly sums up the problem.

But of course I am assuming you are all here either because you do know or because you want to, and certainly your presence shows that you care. Let me say that I am not here just to pick on the United States. God knows that would be a contest or unequals. One has to accept that most states act both unilaterally and multi-laterally. The former in defence of the their national security or in their immediate backyard, the latter in pursuit of global causes. For the larger a country's backyard, the greater the temptation to act unilaterally across it, and this I think in recent years has been rather acute in the case of the United States.

But I would argue today that even the United States with its enormous economic and military reach needs to act in concert with other states to achieve its real objectives. I want to suggest to you today that the United Nations remains the best means to achieve multilateral co-operation in so many important areas.

But before rising to answer the challenge, the question that Ronnie put to me, let me briefly, perhaps at least for the sake of the students in the room, venture briefly back into history because I have always believed the best crystal ball is a rear view mirror.

The United Nations was founded during a period when the world had known almost nothing but war and strife, book-ended by its two savage World Wars that began within 25 years of each other. In the first half of the 20th century, people in most parts of the world scarcely had the luxury of deciding whether they were interested in world politics. World politics took a thoroughly intrusive interest in them. Horror succeeded horror until in 1945 the world was brought face to face with the terrible tragedies brought by war, fascism, nuclear bombing and attempted genocide. Hiroshima and the holocaust. Had things gone on like that, the future of the human race would have been bleak indeed.

But happily we did not go on like that. We all know that the second half of the 20th century was far from perfect. Lots of things have gone wrong including, in this corner of the world -- in Asia, we can all recount the horrors of the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the partition of India; we can each pick own examples. We also know that in other parts of the world there are still a lot to be done. Billions of people living, for example, in extreme and degrading poverty.

But sitting here in Hong Kong, I think you would accept the proposition that the overall record of the second half of the 20th century is one of amazing advances. The world economy not only recovered from the devastation of 1945, it expanded as never before. There was astonishing technological progress. Many in the industrialized world now enjoy a level of prosperity and have access to a range of experiences that their grandparents could scarcely have dreamed of.

Even in the developing world there has been spectacular economic growth, child mortality has been reduced, literacy has spread, the peoples of the so-called third world threw off the yoke of colonialism and those of the Soviet Bloc want political freedom. We know that democracy and human right are not yet universal but they are much more the norm than the exception.

My question to you is: did all this happen by accident? No, it happened quite simply because in and after 1945, the group of far-sighted leaders, statesmen and stateswomen, were determined to make the second half of the 20th century different from the first. They drew rules to govern international behavior and they founded institutions for which different nations could co-operate for the common good to foster international relations, to elaborate consensual global laws and to establish predictable universally applicable rules for the benefit of all. This was precisely to avoid what had happened in the first half the 20th century when these norms did not exist and were not entrenched. The keystone of the arch, so to speak, charged with keeping the peace between all nations and bringing them together in the quest for freedom and prosperity was the United Nations themselves.

It was very much explicitly in the vision of the UN's founders, particularly the great American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and an explicit alternative to the disastrous experiences of the first half of the century. And in the view people like Roosevelt, the UN stood for a world in which people of different nations and cultures looked on each other not as objects of fear and suspicion but as potential partners, able to exchange goods and ideas to their mutual benefit.

When the successor, President Harry Truman, signed the United Nations charter in San Francisco just 59 years ago this month, he said very clearly: "If you seek to use this instrument selfishly for the advantage of any one nation or any one small group of nations, we shall be betraying the ideals for which the United Nations has been founded".

That was then of course and today, 59 years later, it may be difficult to recognize in the voices of the critics of the United Nations, the voice of an American president like Harry Truman. In fact let me quote something else he said in that same speech: "We all have to recognize", Truman declared, "no matter how great our strength but we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please. No one nation can or should expect any special privilege which harms any other nation. Unless we are willing to pay that price, no organization for world peace can accomplish its purpose and what a reasonable price that is."

Now, that is an American president in 1945, and I suspect there are many in Washington today who would not agree that this is indeed a reasonable price for the world's only superpower to pay. In the interest of something as war versus world peace, especially in an era of terrorism. Indeed especially after 9/11, the very viability of the organization has suffered most in the United States.

The American critic Charles Krauthammer has even described the UN as a bunch of Lilliputians tying down an American Gulliver with a thousand strings. Others like the American political scientist Robert Kagan has suggested that the UN offers a naively Kantiant aura, an inadequate response to a Hobbesian world that calls for a leviathan, not a weak-kneed, peace organization like the UN.

I must reply to them that the UN is a response to a Hobbesian world, a world in which we have seen the horrors of the First and Second World Wars. The UN charter was the product of those who won that victory at the end of the Second World War, converting where war-time alliance into a peace-time organization, and they saw the horrors and vowed never again.

But their solution was not to create a single power to be a leviathan. It was to create a system of laws that would ensure that the world of the second half of the 20th century and indeed now, the world we have inherited in the 21st would be a better place than the one that had preceded the creation of the United Nations.

I have to admit right away that in making the comment Ronnie made, we are all influenced, as I am sure you were, by what happened in the course of last year when the Security Council debated Iraq, did not agree on the case for war and the US and Britain and a few other allies went ahead with the war anyway. That was when the talk of the UN's irrelevance mounted to a crescendo.

Indeed a Pew Poll -- an independent polling organization -- taken in 20 countries last summer showed that the UN had suffered perhaps the greatest collateral damage over Iraq. According to this poll, the image of the UN, the credibility of the UN was down in all 20 countries. Down in the US because we did not support the administration in the war and down in the 19 other countries because the UN could not prevent the war. So we were hit from both sides in this debate. I have to say that even more recent polls taken this year confirm that we have indeed taken a battering. Our supporters are fewer than perhaps ever since the founding of the organization.

Next year is the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. Ronnie has been talking about 70 years old today. There are of course in many organizations including the UN, a retirement age of 60 and the question comes up: does the UN too have to start contemplating retirement, have we fallen from grace? No, far from it.

First of all and perhaps most important, even the US has come back to the UN and on Iraq. You all followed last week's unanimous Security Council vote in the news. Well, it is the culmination of a long process. Soon after the end of the war, in fact in May last year the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution which called on the UN Secretary General to establish a presence in Iraq, to act independently but also in coordination with the occupying powers.

Then in August it passed another resolution giving the UN significant tasks in post-war reconstruction. The horrors of the bombing in Baghdad later prevented us from doing much more immediately after those resolutions on the ground. But the very submission of these resolutions by the US to the Security Council was an acknowledgment by Washington that in Secretary General Kofi Annan's words, there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations.

The in fact has been thrown into stark relief this year by the confidence and trust the US then placed on the shoulders of the Secretary General's special adviser, Lakhdar Brahimi who went out and mid-wifed the birth of the new Iraqi government. He identified those who would lead Iraq when the American occupation ends on the 30th June.

The unanimous adoption of last week's resolution endorsing Mr Brahimi 's work and his recommendations and like the other resolutions, once supported even by those council members who opposed the US intervention, demonstrates their understanding of the importance of collective action.

In fact, we used to have a nasty little joke about the agreements of the Security Council on all these matters where it was said there was an argument between an American diplomat and a French diplomat and a particular problem, and the American diplomat said, "You now how we can solve this? We can do this and this and this and we can solve it", and the French diplomat replied, "Yes, yes, yes, that will work in practice but will it work in theory?" You can say that now the theory has been agreed. There really is consensus on the basic principles on how to proceed. The divisiveness of last year has been put behind us. The great challenge is: will it work in practice? So on that the jury is still out but I think we have grounds for cautious optimism that we did not have before.

I think that it is also worth mentioning that the tired old League of Nations analogy does not apply because by the late 1930s when the League was falling apart, two of the three most powerful countries in the world, the US and Germany, the third being Great Britain of course, did not even belong to the League of Nations, which therefore had no influence on their actions. The League died because it had become truly irrelevant to the global geopolitics of the era.

By contrast, every country on earth belongs to the United Nations including the world's only superpower. Every newly independent state seeks entry into the UN almost as its first order of government business. Its seats in the UN is its most fundamental confirmation of its membership in the committee of nations.

The United Nations is now even as so essential to the future of the world that even Switzerland, long a holdout because of its fierce neutrality decided by referendum in 2002 to end its isolation and join the UN. No club that attracts every possible eligible member can easily be described as irrelevant.

Third, the authorization or not, as it happens, of war in Iraq is not the only gauge of the Security Council's relevance to that situation. Just 5 years ago, for example, the NATO alliance bombed the former Yugoslavia over its government's conduct in Kosovo, without the approval or even reference to the Security Council. My interviewer's "I" word was heard widely in those days also. Kosovo, it was also said, had demonstrated the UN's irrelevance.

But as soon as the bombing was over Kosovo returned immediately to the Security Council when arrangements had to be found to administer the territory after the war. Who but the United Nations could confer international legitimacy on the arrangements that were required and encourage other nations to support and resource the enterprise.

Iraq in other words is not the first time that the United Nations has been written off by some during the war, only to be found essential to the ensuing peace. The UN offers a legitimacy that no country or ad hoc coalition can muster for itself.

Many member states with a long history of committing troops to support international peacekeeping efforts, countries like Canada or India, even Pakistan, declined US requests to provide soldiers for Iraq because they were not prepared to act without a protective shield of a UN mandate.

In any case, shortly after the war, Washington discovered and has continued to discover in Iraq that the US is better able to win wars alone than to construct peace alone.

Military strength always has its limitations and in the area of nation-building. The great French statesman Talleyrand once said, the one thing you cannot do with a bear net is to sit on it. So I am convinced that the rebuilding of Iraq would increasingly be an international project.

And whatever happens in Iraq, let us also not forget that the relevance of the United Nations does not stand or fall on its conduct on any one issue alone. When this crisis has passed, the world will still be facing, to use Secretary General Kofi Annan's phrase, innumerable problems without passports. Problems cross frontiers uninvited. Problems of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction certainly but also of the degradation of our common environment, of contagious disease and chronic starvation, of human rights and human wrongs. The mass illiteracy and massive displacement.

Robert Kagan's famous and rather fatuous proposition that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus has gained wide currency these days. But even if we were for one moment to set aside Asians, it begs the question, where are Africans from, Pluto? And yet, as I was just saying to President Turner a little earlier over lunch, the tragic confluence of AIDS, famine, drought and poverty in parts of Africa threatens far more human lives than the crisis in Iraq ever did. And without the UN the world would not tackle these problems.

All of these are problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve on its own and which are the shared responsibility of humankind. They cry out for solutions but like the problems themselves, also cross frontiers.

The United Nations exists to find these solutions through the common endeavor of all states. That is why I am proud to assert that it is the one indispensable organization we have in our globalizing world. And no, it is not perfect, it has acted unwisely at times, it has failed to act in others. When we only think of what happened in Bosnia or genocide in Rwanda for instances of each kind of failure. It has sometimes been too divided to succeed, as was the case with Iraq.

But of course the UN is at its best a mirror of the world. It reflects our divisions and disagreements as well as our hopes and convictions. It is folly to discourage an entire institution on the basis of a few occasions where it does not succeed. Because in fact, the UN is both a stage and an actor. It is a stage on which the member States play their parts, claiming their differences and their convergences, but it is also an actor in the shape of a Secretary General, his operations in the field, humanitarian agencies, staff like myself who are going out there and executing the policies that have been made on that stage. So when you do not like the policies, it is sometimes convenient to blame the actor for getting what was discussed on the stage or it was not agreed sometimes on the stage.

Kofi Annan sometimes jokes that the acronym by which he is known inside the organization as Secretary General, "SG", should actually stand for scapegoat. That is something that we sometimes see as a role that the UN is required to play. But the fact is that the UN's records of success and failure is indeed better than that of many national institutions.

Those who criticize the UN appear to be working on the basis of a yardstick, that it must succeed all the time. Well, sometimes we only muddle through but as Dag Hammarskjold, the UN's great second Secretary General put it, the United Nations was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell. That it has innumerable times.

How quickly we forget that during the Cold War the UN played the indispensable role of preventing regional crises from igniting a superpower conflagration and even while they were disagreeing on Iraq, the member States of the Security Council, the same ambassadors during the same few weeks were agreeing on a host of other vital issues, from Congo to Cypress to Afghanistan, East Timor, all of these were challenges or problems that matter. Why do we only focus on the one thing that the western media decides should get the headlines: Iraq.

Again, I was saying to Mrs Turner that part of my job in trying to promote the UN around the world and explain its policies is to draw attention to stories that are not in the headlines. I launched last month a list of 10 stories the world ought to hear more about but which were being ignored because of the obsession with Iraq. Well, to no great surprise, that list of 10 stories was also ignored by and large by the mainstream media, though I must say we did get a few minutes on CNN and on some of the more high-winded public service broadcasters in the US.

But the simple message I want to end with is that since I mentioned the US at the very beginning, when the people of the US and elsewhere ask why the world's sole superpower should even need an organization like the UN, the answer is simple: global challenges demand global solutions.

Somebody once said about water pollution, we all live downstream. There is no way that we can escape the challenges around the world.

So I am going to really close by saying that the UN fundamentally helps establish the form norms that we would all like to see the world live by, that we have tried to entrench since the Second World War. People and nations around the globe have tried through these last six decades to strengthen the foundations of stability and to unite around common values and in the process the UN has brought humanitarian relief to millions in need, it has helped people to rebuild their countries from the ruins of armed conflict, it has challenged poverty, it has fought apartheid, it has protected the rights of children, it has promoted de-colonization and its placed environmental and gender issues at the top the world's agenda. So in other words it becomes the one place where we can actually work together to dream the same dreams together.

You now there is a dreadful old story about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and it is said that Adam, when he found that Eve was becoming a bit indifferent to him -- Adam said to Eve, "Eve, is there someone else?" You think about that for a minute, because you could ask the same question about the United Nations. Is there another institution that brings together all the countries of the world to work together for common objectives in all our collective interests; there clearly is not.

We may not be perfect but in the name of our common humanity, let us work together to make this the one United Nations we have, the best possible United Nations there can be.

Thank you very much.