Mending the U.N.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

While most Americans focused on President Bush’s speech to the U.N. this week, panning or lauding it according to taste, the rest of the world noticed that Kofi Annan, between taking his own swipes at U.S. unilateralism, proposed some radical changes to the world’s key diplomatic body.

OK, so U.N. reform isn’t exactly new, as the BBC reports:

“As Mr Annan pointed out, expanding the Security Council has been on the agenda for more than a decade. He told world leaders that in the eyes of their peoples the difficulty of reaching agreement did not excuse their failure to do so.”

But the difference is that, this time, the secretary general really seems to mean it; since the U.S. action in Iraq made a mockery of international security arrangements, the U.N. is fighting for its credibility, which is to say its existence, as an organization.

Critics of the U.N. say, correctly, that the Security Council, with its five permanent veto-wielding members, doesn’t reflect the true power dynamics of the contemporary world. Britain and France have veto power; Japan and Germany (both much bigger economies) don’t. Nor do India and Brazil, for all their millions of people. So Annan proposed, vaguely as yet, that the Council be expanded.

It’s also said that the U.N. General Assembly, given all its varied members with their often competing interests, is a terrible place to get a decision made. This problem extends even to decisions about reform. Reuters Asia compares reform to the weather (“everyone talks about reform of the U.N. Security Council but no one can fix it”). But the Secretary General has reformist bona fides, as the Christian Science Monitor notes:

“A career U.N. official himself, Annan has made institutional reform his highest priority since assuming office six years ago. He has been credited with successfully reshaping much of the U.N.’s management – organizational and administrative procedures ranging from budgetary and personnel policies to relations between the Secretariat here and field operations around the world.

What remains unchanged are the governing bodies – the General Assembly and the Security Council.”

Developing and developed nations vie for representation and a voice in the U.N. Second-tier developed countries push for stronger alliances — in 1997, Italy teamed up with other nations and proposed that permanent membership remain unchanged. The proposal lead to a rotating 10-member group of nations that serve on the Security Council for two-year terms.

These limited terms are not enough for some countries. South African President Thabo Mbeki said powerful nations exclusively pushed their own interests, taking actions that contradict the purpose of the U.N., the South African Star reported. Mbeki also drew a parallel between the U.N. and that other maligned international body, the World Trade Organization, insisting that developing countries’ needs and demands are rarely considered:

“What we have said today may not be heard because we do not have the strength to have our voice heard.”

Like Annan, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called on the U.N. to reconsider its role in light of recent threats to world security. The August 19 bombing of its Bagdhad headquarters according to Reuters, pushed the U.N. to “clarify [its] roles and responsibilities.” Schroeder touted the “expansion of multilateralism” in the U.N., and offered to assist the U.S. in rebuilding Iraq. The chancellor also mentioned that Germany would, thank you very much, appreciate a “greater voice” in the U.N., according to the Agence France-Presse.

The Christian Science Monitor points out that perceptions of the U.N. largely depend on the end goals of those judging:

“At one extreme, the U.N. is seen by many critics, especially in the developing world, as an extension of the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon in crisis zones such as Iraq. At the other extreme, conservative critics in the US view the institution as little more than an impediment to the exercise of American power.”

The U.N. needs to get over itself and recognize that it isn’t an effective world governor, says the Washington Post . While some say the U.N. should be powerful enough to dissuade nations — any nations — from acting unilaterally, the Post’s editors say the U.N. should scale back its goals and settle for lesser but more realistic objectives.

“In his paper, Mr. Annan referred to an international “consensus” that has grown weaker over the past few years and to a “climate of cooperation” that had been seriously eroded. This nostalgia is misplaced. In fact, the United Nations, over the half-century of its existence, has never been a model of international cooperation and has never been universally accepted as a ‘legitimate authority.’

If the Security Council is to be redesigned, “radical reform” should reflect not only the contemporary balance of power but also a more modest assessment of what the United Nations can reasonably be expected to do. With a reorganized structure, the United Nations might be better able to manage other agencies such as the World Health Organization that fill a genuine international need. It might be better set up to oversee the international civil servants who help with postwar reconstruction in places around the world.”

Whatever the degree of reform, most nations agree that some changes have to be made — and soon. The Christian Science Monitor notes that the U.N. isn’t getting any younger:

“In effect, [Annan] has set a one-year timetable for the assembly to begin debating specific measures to reshape the organization.

More broadly, officials say, the question of the U.N.’s effectiveness has reached a kind of do-or-die moment and can no longer be ignored – even among those whose influence may be diminished as the organization evolves.

‘Being a permanent member of the council is only worth something if the council itself is relevant,’ says Shashi Tharoor, a prominent aide to the secretary-general. ‘And there’s increasing concern that it may not continue to be without serious reform.'”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.