Two years ago, Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, gravely informed the U.N. General Assembly that the organization had reached "a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded." The world was no longer chiefly menaced by hostility among nations, as it had been then; the U.N. had to adapt to a world threatened by failed states, ethnic hatred, crippling poverty and nonstate actors like Al Qaeda. Annan convened a "high-level panel" to recommend "radical" changes in the U.N.'s structure and culture. Later this week, more than 170 heads of state, gathered in New York for the U.N.'s 60th anniversary, will respond to Annan's challenge. It appears, at the moment, that their answer will be "We're O.K. where we are, thanks."
If U.N. reform falters this week, or if only a few noncontroversial measures pass, the blame is bound to fall on the Bush administration and its confrontational ambassador, John Bolton. It's true that Bolton has shattered a great deal of crockery since arriving in Turtle Bay last month, loudly disparaging the laboriously assembled reform package and then submitting a new version with 750 amendments, as well as making common cause with the Chinese to block Security Council expansion. And it's true as well that the United States, owing to its unique position of power and the ideological proclivities of this administration, is willing - no, eager - to make a very public bonfire of the high-minded principles of multilateralism. What is less noticed, however, is how many other states - Russia, China and many members of the U.N.'s still-extant "nonaligned movement" - are perfectly content to dance around the embers. Many members of the U.N. are simply not willing to sacrifice whatever they define as their national interests for the collective good that the organization aspires to represent and advance.
What then? Edward C. Luck, a professor of international affairs at Columbia, argues that the institution works well enough if you don't have absurd expectations; in any case, he says, the really grave failures, like the ruinous debate over war in Iraq, are caused by profound differences of view, and of power, among major states, about which the institution can do nothing. Luck concludes that the U.N. would be better off seeking incremental reforms that don't force the members to make hard choices.
But perhaps rather than reconciling ourselves to the U.N.'s inherent limits, we should ask whether we can imagine a different kind of institution - one, for example, that looks more like NATO, which consists only of members with a (more or less) shared understanding of the world order and thus a shared willingness to confront threats to that order. This new body, which I will call the Peace and Security Union until someone comes up with a more resonant name, would require members to accept, in advance, a set of core principles, including: Terrorism must be unambiguously defined and confronted both through police and, where necessary, military means; states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens, which in turn confers an obligation on the membership to intervene, at times through armed force, in the case of atrocities; extreme poverty and disease, which threaten the integrity of states, require a collective response.
Who should be eligible to join? There has been some discussion, mostly in conservative circles, of a new organization of democracies. But many third-world democracies resist almost any encroachment on other countries' sovereignty, whether in the case of "humanitarian intervention" or the singling out of human rights abusers; to grant them automatic admission would be to jeopardize the P.S.U.'s commitment to core principles. And it would be just as dangerous to automatically exclude China, since large parts of Asia - and not only Asia - would be reluctant to cross a Chinese picket line.
A better solution is to stipulate that any state that formally accepts the core principles and pledges to put them into effect will be permitted to join the P.S.U. Very few nondemocratic states would be willing to meet this threshold, especially if they could be ejected should they renege on their commitments. But no state could reasonably claim that it had been unfairly excluded.
Anyone, of course, can swear to anything; the key issue would be the commitments entailed by that pledge. In order to prevent the shameful passivity that the U.N. showed in Rwanda and Darfur, a unit in the P.S.U. would make findings in the case of alleged atrocities; an affirmative finding, whether or not the state in question was a member of the organization, would automatically trigger a graduated series of measures, culminating in armed intervention, which members would have to support. And in order to distribute the peacekeeping burden fairly, states (including the U.S.) would have to designate military units for enforcement activities, as well as the kind of muscular peacekeeping that involves howitzers and helicopter gunships. They would have to make specific pledges to increase foreign aid and debt relief and to lower trade barriers to benefit impoverished countries.
The major Western states would be inclined to join the P.S.U. because they fear that the U.N. as currently constituted is not up to the challenge of halting atrocities, confronting terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. But if the P.S.U. is seen as an alliance of Western states, it will have very little legitimacy in the third world, where most of its forceful actions would inevitably occur. Developing nations must be given a powerful motive to join. This is one reason that the P.S.U. would take seriously the "soft" threats of poverty and disease, which are of consuming interest to the developing world. The P.S.U. will also find room on its Security Council equivalent for countries like India, Brazil and South Africa - as long as they embrace the organization's objectives, of course.
The P.S.U. would function as a more coherent and effective version of today's Security Council, but it would not be able to ignore the political realities that so often hamstring the council. No such organization, no matter how constituted, could prevent the United States from pursuing what it deemed a matter of vital national interest, as the U.S. did in the case of Iraq. What it could do, however, is offer a forum sympathetic enough to American views and interests to coax the U.S. back into the admittedly vexing world of multilateral diplomacy. That, in fact, would be a major selling point for other states, who fear that absent an effective U.N., the U.S. will settle the world's hash on its own or with ad hoc coalitions of the willing.
I'm not so na´ve as to expect any such organization to actually come into being. It took World War I to create the League of Nations and World War II to make the case for the U.N. The failure of Kofi Annan's reform package would not exactly be World War III. But does that mean that we have to wait for another cataclysm to get things right? In early 1945, F.D.R., thinking of the failed League of Nations, said, "This time we are not making the mistake of waiting until the end of the war to set up the machinery of peace." Perhaps this time we should not wait for the war to begin.
James Traub, a contributing writer for the magazine, is at work on a book about the United Nations.Category: 9/11 and its aftermath