Fifty years ago the free nations of the world met in general assembly to begin the task of establishing a postwar order that would secure the peace, advance global prosperity, alleviate poverty and unemployment, and promote human rights worldwide. These were lofty goals, but the founders of the United Nations system were utter realists. Having lived through the economic crisis of the 1930s, the rise of fascist aggressor states, and the horrors of World War II, these statesmen, from Winston Churchill to the formidable Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg, were committed to creating new international structures to deal with problems that were international by nature. Part of their realism was the conviction that they had a responsibility to try to make things work better in the future through such structures.

A half-century later it is proper that the governments and peoples of the world should want an assessment of the United Nations' performance. The record is mixed at best, and in recent years the world organization has been much criticized. It has suffered great humiliations in Bosnia that have eclipsed its peacekeeping successes elsewhere. It is only just beginning to implement effective global social and economic policies, and its development strategies are under attack from many quarters. It is widely regarded as bureaucratically unwieldy, unnecessarily expensive, and weakened by poor personnel recruitment. These sentiments are particularly strong in the United States, reflecting that country's current politics of frustration, but they are echoed in many other parts of the world.

Yet even if the United Nations' administrative and personnel weaknesses were corrected, the world body would still require reshaping so that it could better respond to the stresses of the early 21st century. In every one of its activities, from peacekeeping to development, from monitoring human rights to overseeing environmental accords, it has been pressed by member states and their publics to play a larger role and to assume fresh responsibilities. During the early 1990s the number of U.N. peacekeeping personnel in the field increased tenfold, as did the cost of peacekeeping operations. Strains on the social fabric of many nations bring calls for concerted U.N. policies of assistance. In the economic realm, too, the world organization is being asked to produce greater security, equity, and prosperity for all human beings, not just a privileged minority.

These operations, hopes, and expectations far exceed the capabilities of the system as it is now constituted, and they threaten to overwhelm the United Nations and discredit it, perhaps forever, even in the eyes of its warmest supporters. Fifty years old, the United Nations finds itself at a critical juncture, which should be honestly confronted by the member states who are its proprietors and who endowed it with its present features. Two paths lie before the world community. Countries should decide either to reduce their demands on the United Nations, thus giving it a decent chance of carrying out reduced policies with its existing resources, or they should recognize the necessity of improving its capacities and grant it greater resources, functions, and coordinating powers. Avoiding a decision risks condemning not just the organization but the world to a deeply troubled future. This is a much more fundamental issue than improvements to specific parts of the system, welcome though the latter would be.

In light of global circumstances, it would be wiser to take the second of these two paths and improve the United Nations for the benefit of future generations. A half-century ago member states recognized that a set of international instruments to achieve aims they could not secure by themselves was very much in their national interest. The world of 1995 is clearly a vastly different place than that of 1945, and the gathering pace of technological change, global demographic growth, and environmental pressures will make the world of 2045 (or even 2020) radically different from that of today. As the demands on states and governments increase, the need for the world organization is growing, not shrinking.

The chief reason effective international instruments are required is an eminently practical one, as the founders realized. Simply put, states, people, and businesses need an international system to provide physical, economic, and legal security. They need some form of international police force to deter terrorists and other breakers of the peace; bodies like the World Trade Organization to head off trade wars; institutions like those developed at Bretton Woods to assist emerging economies; international human rights organizations to guarantee individuals' basic freedoms across the globe; and a myriad of agencies and offices to ensure such basics as telecommunications and safe air traffic. If the United Nations system did not exist, much of it would have to be invented.


Reformers will have to reckon with the fact that there are many different United Nations—or, at least, that different interest groups and governments look at the world body differently. The media in Europe and North America sees the United Nations as mainly taken up with peacekeeping and security issues in places like Bosnia. To finance ministers in Latin America or Southeast Asia, the United Nations is a complex, multiheaded creature whose World Bank and International Monetary Fund offer (often contradictory) advice on economic development along with carrot-and-stick incentives. To women's groups and associated nongovernmental organizations preparing for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing this September, it is a set of agencies dealing with education, reproductive rights, health care, and the like. To international lawyers and human rights advocates, it is an array of legal instruments and offices that advance the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent protocols and agreements. To isolationist critics, it is a bloated bureaucracy that is wasting taxpayers' money. For true believers, it is the embryo of Tennyson's "parliament of man, the Federation of the world."

Moves toward reform must take into account that the very different political and ideological stances of member governments, interest groups, and voters will critically influence whether specific proposals succeed or fail. Indeed, unless governments can agree on basic principles regarding the roles of the United Nations and are ready to compromise on changes in the system, years of international gridlock could lie ahead.

Finally, there is the touchy issue of states' sovereignty. Although the original members agreed in 1945 (and countries that joined later concurred by subscribing to the charter) to bind themselves in various ways for the common good, they emphasized national sovereignty and prohibited intervention in matters "essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state." What they constructed was not an embryonic world government but an international corporation, so to speak, with the nation-states as shareholders. The concern with sovereignty is no less strong today, whether among conservative Americans or governments in Beijing or New Delhi, and any schemes to enhance the United Nations will have to reckon with that sentiment. The organization can only be as effective as member governments, in agreement, desire it to be.

Yet global forces for change are weakening the traditional authority of the sovereign nation-state in ways unforeseen in 1945. For example, if your American dollar or French franc is freely traded in East Asian markets in the middle of the night, to what extent is it still your currency? How can single governments deal with threats to the national interest that may come in the form of global environmental degradation or international terrorism or drug trafficking? How can citizens expect today's beleaguered governments to handle these matters, when authority and influence in many spheres is being relocated away from the national centers, either downward to the regions or upward to transnational actors?

This steady loss of sovereignty will probably make countries more jealous of their autonomy at first. But the only chance U.N. members have in dealing with the cluster of transnational problems is to work out a cluster of transnational responses. This requires creating and empowering more effective international structures and operating procedures, not as ends in themselves but as means to satisfy national needs. But until states arrive at that conceptual breakthrough, efforts to enhance the U.N. system will be checked.

Those who favor improving the world organization should stress that proposals for a U.N. rapid-reaction force to handle the Rwandas of the future and the many other schemes for reform are intended not to reduce the freedom of member states but to buttress the real sovereignty of societies everywhere. By "real sovereignty" is meant the ability to influence outcomes, nationally and internationally, and it has declined in recent decades in countries like France, India, Argentina, and even the United States. Nations will not recover it until they are willing to sink their differences and work together toward common ends.

This notion, however, is immediately tested once one turns to some of the specific areas in which reform of the United Nations is suggested. For purposes of brevity, only five fields for reform are discussed here, and many other important dimensions (human rights, reform of the Secretariat, and on and on) are not considered. But these five illustrate both the problems and the possibilities of reform.


Expanding the Security Council seems like one of the more reasonable ways to improve the representative character—and thus the legitimacy—of the world organization in the eyes of its 186 members and their people. Increasing the council's overall size from the present 15 members would allow more nations to participate on a rotating basis in decision-making by this critically important organ. And adding to the permanent membership would permit the Security Council to reflect the changes in the global balance since the five victorious powers of 1945 insisted that the charter include special provisions upholding their status and interests.

Yet proposals to promote certain countries to permanent membership are quickly enmeshed in political objections. For example, Japan and Germany have strong claims, as the second- and third-largest contributors to the U.N. budget, but would their neighbors be happy with the change? And given the special responsibility of the permanent members to maintain peace and security, should permanent membership be granted to Japan, whose constitution restricts it in sending forces abroad?

Then, since admitting a Germany or Japan to permanent membership would unduly increase the influence of the "North," it would be necessary to compensate by including a number of states from the "South," especially larger regional powers like India, Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa. Yet this suggestion provokes criticism from those countries' neighbors. Why not consider instead permanent regional membership on the Security Council, whereby different countries take turns representing their part of the world? [1] Yet how likely is it that Britain and France would cede their historical status as permanent members and trust their interests to a European representative?

The veto right of each permanent member further complicates prospects for Security Council reform. The drafters of the U.N. Charter assumed that the Big Five were to be chiefly responsible for maintaining the peace and defeating aggressors, and therefore should control the use of United Nations forces. Moreover, it was vital that the great powers not opt out of the organization—the shadow of the U.S. absence from the League of Nations loomed large here—so their governments had to be reassured that at least in matters of war and peace their interests would not be overruled. Over the subsequent half-century, however, the veto has been invoked in many other circumstances, such as blocking resolutions and opposing nominations. If the number of permanent members on the Security Council was increased, would that not increase the risk of many more vetoes in the future? One solution might be to deny the newer permanent members the veto, but that would confuse things by introducing a third membership category. Some have proposed that the veto be abolished—a splendidly egalitarian idea, but highly unlikely to win approval by the Permanent Five.

The best that can be hoped for is a compromise after negotiation in the General Assembly. An increase in the number of both permanent and rotating members of the Security Council, and a restriction of the veto to questions of war and peace as the founders intended, would not crimp the Security Council's effectiveness but would make it less like the old boys club of 1945.


The world organization must have better access to well-trained forces to implement the peacekeeping missions agreed on by the Security Council, and such missions must be differentiated from peace enforcement operations so that the confusions that occurred in Somalia and Bosnia will not be repeated. These are the two most important issues in what is one of the United Nations' most important functions: securing the peace.

The first immediately brings up the problem of sovereignty again. Member states always reserve the right to decide whether they will respond to the secretary-general's request to donate troops or other forces to any peacekeeping operation. In this as in everything else the United Nations depends on the whim of governments, and there is definite evidence of donor fatigue, partly because of the embarrassment of the triple crisis of Somalia/Bosnia/Rwanda but more generally because of the unprecedented number of missions undertaken and peacekeepers deployed since 1989. The Security Council is going to have to be more selective in the field operations it authorizes, although deciding what criteria to apply in evaluating a request for intervention could be excruciatingly difficult. Clearly, to approve no additional missions would undermine the purposes of the United Nations and set the scene for future horrors.

Had the world body been able to summon battle-ready troops as the tragedy in Rwanda unfolded, the swift interposition of peacekeeping units might have saved tens of thousands of lives. Calls for remedying the situation have led to two alternative proposals: endowing the United Nations with its own rapid-reaction forces, or, through negotiation with member governments, creating within national armed services units ready for immediate deployment for U.N. purposes.

In terms of operational speed and coherence, the first option is superior. U.N. standing forces, sent to a crisis zone on the resolution of the Security Council alone, could quickly carry out an array of peacekeeping and humanitarian actions. The secretary-general would not have to beg governments for peacekeeping contingents on an ad hoc basis, and governments would not be periodically confronted with the delicate choice of whether or not to commit national units. Critics raise objections about costs (a standing force of 10,000 could cost $500 million a year) and logistics (where would it be stationed?, for instance). But the greatest obstacles are political. Are governments willing to let the world organization have its own army of peacekeepers, making it appear to have acquired one of the attributes of statehood?

If not, the best alternative would be the creation of specially earmarked national units ready to be dispatched once the government in question had agreed to the secretary-general's request for a troop contribution. That, of course, is the rub, for delays as governments ponder that request may see a potential tragedy turn into a full-blown disaster. And as the separate national units grapple with language and coordination problems during the operation, they will still be subject to constant scrutiny by their home governments, which naturally will want a say in operational decisions. A U.N. standing force would be far preferable; standby national units are a halfway measure.

The question of distinguishing peacekeeping work from peace-enforcement missions cannot be separated from the above objections. Indeed, the reluctance of many governments to contribute forces to the U.N. stems from their concern that they might become embroiled in an operation whose purposes are changed from time to time. The lessons of Bosnia and Somalia must be heeded, as well as those from more successful missions like the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). The original elements of a peacekeeping operation, evolved by the United Nations through hard experience, were clear enough; Brian Urquhart describes them in his 1987 book A Life in Peace and War, after four decades of traveling the world for the secretary-general. Both sides (usually governments or putative governments) requested inter-national assistance in maintaining peace, lightly armed blue helmets were interposed impartially, and the good offices of the secretary-general or his representative were used to negotiate a political settlement. However, things are much less clear when the world organization is offering humanitarian aid in circumstances where authority has collapsed or is collapsing, factional struggles are under way, and some of the warring parties refuse to cooperate. What should the United Nations do when bad guys are interfering with humanitarian and peacekeeping operations and carrying out atrocities?

The kaleidoscopic and unpredictable nature of such conflicts ensures that no set formula will assist the Security Council when it considers future requests to intervene. But a few prerequisites must be insisted on should a local crisis in which U.N. peacekeeping forces are involved deteriorate and a request be made for enforcement of the peace. The entire issue should be carefully examined by the Security Council and concerned member states before the mandate is changed, the peacekeeping troops must be pulled out of harm's way or given adequate protection, sufficient funding (if need be, an open-ended commitment to get the job done) must be assured, and Security Council members and other participating governments must be resolved to enforce the peace. If the above conditions are not present, the proposal for peace enforcement should be resisted. These may seem commonsense requirements, but their absence explains the debacles in Bosnia and Somalia.


This rubric comprehends a vast panoply of U.N. activities, including those of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization, and accounts for by far the largest portion of the world organization's expenditures. The United Nations' portfolio of duties in this domain rests on the lofty language of 50 years ago, whereby the founding governments pledged "to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples." They established the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to coordinate the work of the specialized agencies in international economic, social, health, and related matters and to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms and the advancement of international cultural and educational cooperation.

It is not surprising that the United Nations' role here has been controversial. Some laissez-faire ideologues suggest canceling the entire U.N. economic and social agenda, seeing no sense in reducing government at home while paying for international agencies and programs abroad. The United Nations, which like all public organizations today operates under intense pressures to reduce costs and trim programs, must constantly justify itself to the richer countries that contribute a large portion of its funds. At the same time, the organization is under attack from governments and nongovernmental organizations in developing countries, and their sympathizers in developed nations, for what seem to them its failures in pursuing the noble economic and social goals set out in the charter. Funds for development, these critics say, are completely inadequate, and the world economic order is still stacked in favor of a few countries and companies possessing a disproportionate amount of capital. The constant preaching about the free market from affluent countries, they say, ignores the fact that dire social conditions and lack of infrastructure in developing regions make it difficult to attract investment. The austerity measures mandated by the World Bank and the IMF sometimes lead to cuts in already ill-funded education and social programs.

The whole time the gap between richest and poorest around the globe is widening. More radical voices demand a redistribution of wealth, and U.N. controls on Bretton Woods institutions. Moderate reformers recall the 1960s, when global economic growth and a far stronger commitment by the North to reducing the divide gave developing countries hope.

Assuming that neither free market enthusiasts nor supporters of the "new international economic order" succeed in imposing their views of what the United Nations should do or cease doing in this sphere, how might a few substantive reforms help?

Most reform studies have recommended abolishing the unwieldy ECOSOC and erecting new, more effective organs in its place. [2] New permanent intergovernmental organs should be empowered by the member states to develop policies to handle the complex and interrelated socioeconomic matters that confront the world. This implies that the World Bank, the IMF, and other specialized agencies whose autonomy had undercut ECOSOC would be brought into a closer relationship with the rest of the U.N. system. This would occur not through any direct takeover—the major treasuries and finance ministries would oppose that—but simply because the governments that are their chief shareholders finally see that if common tasks are to be carried out effectively greater coordination and consultation is required among all the entities dealing with economic and social affairs.

Such consolidation depends on member states adopting a more holistic view of how to use international machinery to improve the condition of the planet. Like that of the U.N. founders, this view would recognize that real security cannot be achieved without the eradication of poverty. Like Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's reports in 1992 and 1994, it would assert that no "agenda for peace" is complete without an "agenda for development." But the latter agenda would concern itself as much with turbulence in global currency markets as with rising unemployment among youth, and be as committed to reducing protectionism as to lowering female illiteracy, for it would see that humankind's prospects are hurt by all these threats to well-being.


When the U.N. founders drafted the charter, they were emerging from a war in which many nations had lost their independence because of the aggression of foreign states and during which the United States (though not Britain or France) had been anticipating the independence of colonial territories. The focus was on state-building and the need to ensure that no member states, especially smaller ones, would suffer outside interference. Yet 50 years later, after Cambodia, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Rwanda, it is evident that a key challenge to international stability is the phenomenon of internal conflicts in which authority implodes, ethnic and religious conflicts erupt, many lives are lost, and millions flee across international borders. Without subscribing fully to prophecies of widespread chaos by writers like Robert Kaplan and Martin Van Creveld, it is not hard to see that a combination of demographic pressures, resource depletion, internal migration, and social stress could lead to the disintegration of other states.

Rescuing failed nations will be expensive, further straining U.N. budgets. Moreover, going in will always be an extremely sensitive proposition politically, both inside the collapsing society and in the developing world, where such collapses are more likely to occur. Many governments in developing nations regard with suspicion the prospect of rescue actions by a United Nations still in their eyes dominated by the richer countries; talk in the Western media of trusteeship and mandates fuels their fears that this could be a form of neocolonialism. They even frown on the use of the term "failed state," suggesting as it does that a country's sovereignty can disappear.

Any motion for intervention, therefore, will have to be phrased extremely delicately. It might be pleaded on ethical grounds that the international community has a duty to assist disintegrating societies and to forestall the widespread breaches of human rights that attend such chaos. In some cases the argument that large-scale cross-border migrations constitute a threat to international stability could be made, as in the U.S. request for action in Haiti last year.

If anything more is to be done in this field, the United Nations must establish procedures open to public view concerning the decision to intervene (it must come at the request of some or all of the contending parties and be approved by the Security Council, adequately funded, subject to review by the General Assembly, etc.) and the rescue process itself. Specified U.N. agencies with clear lines of responsibility must be accountable for the temporary guardianship and recovery mechanisms, and the United Nations must work with the domestic parties and nongovernmental organizations toward restoring full sovereignty and returning the country to membership in the community of nations.

Before all this happens, however, governments will need to understand another political paradox, which is that the only purpose of the intrusion by the world organization is to help the peoples concerned recover their real sovereignty—that is, their capacity to influence their own fate and to conduct their own affairs peacefully.


Charges that the United Nations misspends the contributions of its members are widespread, and critics insist that eliminating superfluous agencies, trimming perquisites, and improving management throughout the organization would yield great savings. Defenders point out that the United Nations spends relatively little considering all that it is expected to do—its regular budget in 1994 was $1.3 billion, with peacekeeping consuming another $3.3 billion—but most everyone would concede that there is room for further efficiency measures. Some, such as eliminating various staff positions, have already been carried out, following recommendations in the 1993 Thornburgh Report, and Boutros-Ghali appears committed to more. But proposals by the secretary-general's office to cut agencies and personnel have frequently been blocked by member states. Most important, no amount of savings will permit the world organization to be solvent if members, especially those in the Security Council, keep adding to the United Nations' tasks and operations. Responsibility, in other words, must also be shouldered by the governments.

This applies even more directly to the late payment or even nonpayment of countries' annual contributions. The two worst sinners here, to their discredit, are both permanent members of the Security Council and founders of the United Nations: the United States, and Russia, as the successor to the Soviet Union. But other countries add to the arrears so that these typically total up to about half of both the regular and the peacekeeping budget. This keeps the United Nations in fiscal crisis—what would be regarded as an impossible operating situation for any private company and for most member governments. The very least that members might do would be to recommit themselves to pay their assessments fully and on time, as they are legally obliged to do. But this should be accompanied by agreement to revise the formulas for assessing contributions (especially the formula for peacekeeping costs), which are out of date and disadvantage certain powers, notably the United States.

More ambitious reformers suggest, considering the vagaries of the present system and the prospect of increased demands on the organization, that the United Nations be assured an income flow that is larger but also independent of member governments' willingness or capacity to pay on time. Two camps are against this: conservatives who fear that it would free the world body from the displeasure of governments and the threat to withhold assessed contributions, and what might be termed U.N. fiscal constitutionalists, who declare that since the organization is the possession of member states, the latter should be fully responsible for financing it (except for agencies like UNICEF that collect voluntary contributions).

Yet the case for funding an innovative and reliable revenue flow for the United Nations is strong. The organization ought not to have its work delayed and diminished by fiscal uncertainties. Moreover, governments might welcome not having to cajole reluctant legislatures each year to vote their national assessment, and states in economic distress would be relieved that funding came from a source other than their exchequers. There is no lack of ideas on potential new sources. Most involve taxes on the use of the global commons (a small levy on currency transactions or tickets for international airline flights, for example). Since international business, tourism, and communications rely on international governance structures, the argument goes, a modest contribution to the latter's operating costs seems appropriate. That said, however, all the proposed global taxes raise technical and legal issues that would require detailed study and negotiation through the General Assembly. The question remains: would member states at last permit the United Nations a revenue source other than their own contributions?


These are breathtakingly large problems, and in the present political climate readers may doubt that what has been proposed above could ever be achieved, even if they themselves subscribe to such ideas. Yet they might also recall that, despite setbacks, the United Nations has altered and evolved in ways that were striking at the time but are now taken for granted. Meanwhile, decade by decade we move closer to worrying demographic, ecological, fiscal, and socioeconomic thresholds. The world faces a blunt choice between initiating prudent and substantive improvements in the next few years or being forced into emergency measures if and when the situation deteriorates. Since no one can know our global future, is it not worthwhile to invest a small amount of humankind's capital in a worldwide insurance policy—which is what the United Nations is intended to be?

There are really only two paths to follow. Critics can deride the United Nations, its secretary-general, its "bloated bureaucracy," its failures in Bosnia, and so on. After all, there is a subtle argument that the world community needs a scapegoat for its setbacks and embarrassments, and since democratic governments have to deflect criticism from themselves, one of the United Nations' functions is to take the heat. As societies collapse, peacekeeping missions founder, and social stresses mount, there will always be someone to blame—the United Nations.

The alternative is to take advantage of the world organization's fiftieth birthday and the meeting of the heads of state and government in New York in late October during anniversary celebrations, to develop a process for considering substantive improvements in the system. While the United Nations is not the inefficient, incompetent body unfair critics depict it to be, it clearly requires a serious overhaul to prepare it for the years ahead. The process has already begun with the formation of study groups in the General Assembly and with the publication of reports on the United Nations' past, present, and future timed to coincide with the organization's half-century. Member states, acting through their permanent missions in the General Assembly, must now push ahead with a sustained examination of the various reform proposals, understanding that no single one will be perfect but that a distillation and then an advancement of the better ideas is urgently required. The historic moment should not be missed. The world owes it to the generations yet to come.


[1] See the interesting discussion in Prospects for Reform of the United Nations System (Italian Society for International Organization, Cedam-Padova, 1993), pp. 445-449.

[2] See, for example, the Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighborhood: The Report of the Commission on Global Governance, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995; and the Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations, The United Nations in Its Second Half-Century: The Report of the Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations, New York: Ford Foundation, 1995.

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  • Paul Kennedy is a Professor of History and Bruce Russett a Professor of Political Science at Yale University. Since 1993 they have served as Co-Directors of the Secretariat to the Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations, supported by the Ford Foundation. The views expressed here are their own and should not be attributed to the Working Group or any of its members.
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