The UN Needs a "Red Team"

Breaking the Bureaucratic Mindset to Jumpstart Reform

A UN peacekeeper from Brazil patrols a street in Port-au-prince, January 19, 2010. Bruno Domingos / Reuters

For decades now, the United Nations has struggled to avert crises before they happen rather than merely respond to them. In 1992, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called for conflict prevention in his signature treatise, An Agenda for Peace. But in the years that followed, the UN and the international community utterly failed to stop the genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and in Srebrenica in 1995. When Kofi Annan took over in 1997, he also prioritized prevention, but the UN largely proceeded on its reactive trajectory, unable to prevent the genocide in Darfur in 2003. During Ban Ki-moon’s tenure, conflicts in Mali, South Sudan, and elsewhere did not elicit a response until they had reached critical levels. And although the current UN secretary-general, António Guterres, spoke of the organization’s “inability to prevent crises” as its “most serious shortcoming” when he took the oath of office in 2016, the Security Council’s prolonged stalemate over the conflict in Syria shows that in the current political climate, its members are unlikely to change their approach anytime soon.

Guterres is now focusing on what is within the power of his office to change—namely, the Secretariat’s peace and security architecture—and he commissioned an internal review team earlier this year to offer thoughts on how to proceed with restructuring. This effort could very well lead to change, but past experience says otherwise. For 25 years, successive UN leaders, in recognizing the urgent need to move toward prevention, have sought to restructure the UN. They established new departments—Political Affairs, Peacekeeping Operations, Field Support, and a myriad of others—to address deficiencies in the rule of law, security institutions, peace building, and so forth within at-risk countries. Yet there has been no real transformation.

That is because a key problem for the bureaucracy has been its mindset, not merely its structure.

In order to alter its entrenched bureaucratic culture, the UN needs a tectonic shift in the way it thinks: a “red team” that can challenge the organization’s

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