We need an end to UN leadership that is more Secretary than General

Every October five of the ten non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are elected by the General Assembly. This year they were: Argentina, Australia, Luxembourg, South Korea, and Rwanda.

I don’t think I’ve met many people, even in international affairs circles, who could have named the five that this year’s cohort replaced (South Africa, India, Colombia, Germany, and Portugal in case you were wondering).

The reason is clear: the institutional structure of the Security Council reduces all but the permanent members, the veto powers, to a ceremonial role. Which countries hold the non-permanent positions is essentially irrelevant.

The Security Council is the most prestigious of the UN’s organs, charged with upholding the core value of the charter (“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”), yet clearly its current form is beyond broken, its composition a farce.

This should worry us all. It certainly worries me.

Earlier this year I interviewed Lord Malloch-Brown, ex-Deputy Secretary General of the UN under Kofi Annan about reforming global institutions. Now seems as good a time as any to publish that interview.

Here’s me describing the central point Malloch-Brown made then:

The United Nations, for which he worked for many years, Malloch-Brown unsurprisingly sees differently. But his experience inside it has strengthened his conviction that “the UN desperately needs strengthening.”

The main task? Effective leadership at the top.

I remember at the time thinking this was foolish, that the UN is basically a network of different bodies which overlap, compete too much, and fall well short of the influence they should have given their scope and funding. That if they aren’t reformed from the bottom up a strong, principled leader will be ossified by them as much as a weak ineffectual one.

I’ve since reviewed this and come to the conclusion that Malloch-Brown was basically correct.

The Security Council is a good example. Here are my (completely unoriginal) proposals for a council fit to uphold the central tenet of the Charter:

  1. Remove the veto and institute a two-thirds majority decision mechanism for all resolutions;
  2. Expand the membership level to 21;
  3. Expand and redress the permanent membership to better represent global population;
  4. Rebalance the regional group requirements to end the distortion towards the Western European and Other Group, which is clearly unnecessary and at least partially anachronistic;
  5. Remove the same regional bias in favour of WEOG in the permanent membership;
  6. Introduce a limited term ban (including suspension of permanent members) of three years on any nation condemned by the council or another named body, such as the ICJ, for acts of aggression.

These are all institutional changes, that ostensibly have nothing to do with the current leadership. The trouble is the structure of the UN and its leadership aren’t really separable.

The current formulation of the council isn’t a law of nature. It endures because no strong, principled leader has been willing or able to force through deep changes to it. I certainly can’t imagine anything like the above proposals happening without a concerted campaign from a Secretary General.

Malloch-Brown put it like this:

“The bottom line is so long as the UN is led by someone who is more Secretary than General, and make no mistake the hegemonic states prefer that, there’s little hope for any kind of effective global policy, let alone the peaceful resolution of violent international conflicts.”

That seems basically correct. The hegemonic states want ineffectual UN leadership for a reason – it precludes their neutering.

Image courtesy of the United Nations

An Interview with Lord Malloch-Brown

Lord Malloch-Brown at the World Economic Forum in May 2010.

Lord Malloch-Brown is a British politician in the traditional style. He started at a good school, got a first in History at Cambridge, and then worked for a year with the United Nations. In his words: “it was the kind of education that had a legacy of colonialism, an international legacy, but that taught one about the world”

His career since has been anything but traditional. He is currently chairman of FTI Consulting and has previously held some of the most powerful diplomatic positions in the world. After a spell as political correspondent for The Economist, he entered the UN, first at the High Commissioner for Refugees under Kofi Annan, before taking a key position in an international political consultancy that successfully advised the opposition to General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the opposition to Marcos in the Philippines, and a swathe more in Eastern Europe.

When he was finished helping to topple dictators, Malloch-Brown became Vice-President for External Affairs at the World Bank, then head of the United Nations Development Programme. In 2006 he became Deputy Secretary General of the UN itself, again under Annan, where he earned the disdain of Washington’s political elite, and even that of President Bush.

The genesis of Malloch-Brown’s interest in global politics comes very strongly from his family life. “My father was exiled from South Africa, and had a real passion for politics; it was very much the atmosphere of our household.

“But it was also a globalist’s household, one internalized the idea that national level policy just didn’t do it any more, and that the big questions of my adult life were going to be global questions bigger than a Britain which was in post colonial decline.”

Malloch-Brown wanted to find a stage that mattered, a world stage, where Britain could be an important player. “If that were true then, the questions young people entering the political world now will face are even more global,” he opines.

I ask him what he thinks of the famous argument of Cambridge economist Ha Joon Chang – that the importance of global information exchange technology is overstated, and that the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 was more important than the internet. Malloch-Brown laughs. “There have been great bursts of globalisation over the centuries, and many of them have been tied to communications revolutions, however in the past those movements have always been followed by setbacks in global integration,” he replies.

On the eve of the first world war, he says, the global economy was quite integrated, until it was thrown asunder by war. “The difference is this time the internet does mean the volume of information crossing borders is on a scale never before seen and this has been accompanied by a growing share of global GDP coming from international trade. We’ve passed a critical tipping point where, unlike these early dry runs of globalisation, it can’t be undone. This is the real thing.”

“A really global world is here, it’s not going to be reversed, the issue is: what is our political reaction to it – is it to embrace and manage it, or to resist it?”

He maintains that globalisation will be the paradigm of the coming decades. “I think it’s only just starting. If the 20th century was about class, the 21st will be about globalisation.”

One example of this ‘paradigm’ he gives is the need for a change in the internal culture of Transnational Corporations (TNCs). “Gone is the idea that every market is to all intents and purposes like the next. The role of national market traits, and personality, is going to rank much much higher.

“Successful TNCs are not only going to have to understand economics, which is now their only concern, they’re going to have to have political DNA, because there’s no doubt that the volume of regulation in states is going to grow.”

What assessment does he make of how states are currently managing the realities of global trade? “Firstly, the very concept is under attack. It’s identified as a banking elite at one end and low-cost exploited labour force at the other. Unfortunately there’s some truth to that.”

When Malloch-Brown speaks about the so-called ‘anti-globalisation’ movement, it’s not with the opprobrious tone you might except. The critics of NAFTA, he concedes, made strong, prophetic points. “I think NAFTA was an extension of that early World Bank liberal view of comparative advantage and no tariffs and it led to a very uneven development in places like Mexico and to problems that are still being dealt with. So mine is not an uncritical pitch for globalisation, that’s why it’s a pitch for managed, governed, politically led globalisation rather than just a hidden hand of markets globalisation.”

His answer to these issues, as a “sentimental globalist”, is the establishment of effective, democratically accountable global institutions, and that means radically changing the institutions that currently exist.

“The European Union is crap,” Malloch-Brown says, “Europe isn’t going to go away, but the Brussels institutions may. I think there’s a significant enough convergence in Europe, culturally, that the concept will stick around, but I do think there needs to be another go at finding the right governance institutions and arrangements for it. And it may have to come in a kind of big bang next time, rather than the gradual attempts to merge into union that we’ve seen. Certainly the EU way has not worked.”

The United Nations, for which he worked for many years, Malloch-Brown unsurprisingly sees differently. But his experience inside it has strengthened his conviction that “the UN desperately needs strengthening.”

The main task? Effective leadership at the top. There are just two Secretary Generals Malloch-Brown cites as good examples of UN leadership. The first is the second Secretary General, the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld. “In the 1960s, Hammarskjöld presented the UN as the ally of decolonization, and of the new independence in Africa and elsewhere.

“This was challenged by countries that did not want to accept the end of empire, and Hammarskjöld died under still suspicious circumstances.”

I ask him who he believes killed the late Secretary General. “It may have been the CIA, but to be honest, if I were to put money on it, I think British Northern Rhodesian farming colonial interests were more likely to have been the culprits, with a wink and a nod from the British government.”

The second Secretary General he admires is Kofi Annan, who Malloch-Brown “was lucky enough to work for”. Annan wasn’t assassinated, but he did face what Malloch-Brown calls “a massive political onslaught”, not least from Washington, which he himself attempted to defend Annan from. Kofi, he says, “was a fabulous man, who was gentle but firm, and just a very, very, visionary figure.”

Malloch-Brown believes that a UN fashioned more as Kofi Annan would have liked it, and with key structural changes such as the end of the veto, would have been able to respond to a situation such as that in Syria far more effectively. But then he would say that, he admits to me that Kofi is a personal friend, and that the two retain regular contact. [Annan’s reputation has not weathered his appointment monitor the Syria crisis well.]

What would Kofi have done differently, if he still held the powers of the Secretary General? “I think he’d have done a better job of negotiating and making the different sides understand each other’s points of view, and would’ve tried to find a way around this. Annan was a hugely skilled diplomat in that sense.”

“The bottom line is so long as the UN is led by someone who is more Secretary than General, and make no mistake the hegemonic states prefer that, there’s little hope for any kind of effective global policy, let alone the peaceful resolution of violent international conflicts. That must change.”

This interview was conducted on February 7th 2012.

Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum



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