Debating the Effectiveness of the United Nations

NPR's Farai Chideya takes a closer look at recent developments from the U.N. General Assembly debate and explores the credibility of the multi-national institution with guests Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies and Paul Kennedy of Yale University.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Melodramatic, theatrical and over the edge - a new Broadway play? Well, it's in New York City, but no. That's actually how pundits are summing up the 61st United Nations General Assembly debate. With President George W. Bush talking tough on terrorism and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calling Bush the devil there's plenty to talk about.

So we're joined now by two guests. Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of a recent book titled Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power. She's in our Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Phyllis, good to have you back.

Ms. PHYLLIS BENNIS (Fellow, Institute for Policy Studies): Good to be with you.

CHIDEYA: And on the phone from New Haven, Connecticut, is Paul Kennedy, professor of international history at Yale University. Professor Kennedy's latest book is titled The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations.

Good to have you on the program as well.

Professor PAUL KENNEDY (Professor of International History, Yale University): It's good to be on the program.

CHIDEYA: So let's kind of break it down. A hundred ninety two nations, their leaders all gathered for what one major newspaper called a troubling display. Phyllis, is the U.N. effective in international affairs anymore?

Ms. BENNIS: Yes and no. It's effective when the major powers allow it to be effective. It depends a lot on how you define effective. If you define it the way George Bush defines it or John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, effectiveness is defined as following the U.S. lead and endorsing U.S. wars. When the U.N. does that, in my view, no it is not effective. When it stands up to those efforts, as it did in 2003 in the effort to justify the war in Iraq, I think the U.N. is very effective.

Beyond the very high publicity security aspects, though, there's the question of what the U.N. does on issues of development, on issues of wiping out communicable diseases, childhood education, clean water, economic development, the whole range of issues that we in the U.S. hear very little about. In those ways, the U.N. is much more consistently effective.

It's not perfect. It needs lots of changing, not least to be more democratic and more transparent. But it does a lot better on those issues than it does on issues of peace and security where the heavy hand of the United States, through the veto in the Security Council and in other ways, comes to bear on what the United Nations can and cannot do.

CHIDEYA: Paul, do you agree with Phyllis? And let me just throw something else out there. China, from what I understand, is the blocker in really addressing the issue of Darfur. So the U.S. is not the only country that has strong veto power. So is this really a fair playing field? Is the U.N. a playing field that can really address the issues of all nations?

Prof. KENNEDY: No. It never was a fair playing field. That was determined by those who drafted the charter at the beginning and therefore, you know, we ought to take not too seriously the dramatic events and histrionics in the pulpit of last week. Where the decision making will be on things like Darfur, North Korea, Iran, et cetera, is going to be in the Security Council, and there indeed are five large 1945 victor powers who have the veto; not just the U.S. but also China, Russia, Great Britain and France.

CHIDEYA: Those countries are arguably not all the same countries that might be most powerful today. How would the process, you know - I guess Phyllis and then Paul, first of all, let me just ask this: If the U.N. disappeared, if this multinational institution founded 61 years ago disappeared, what do you think would happen?

Ms. BENNIS: I think that people would create something that would be called something like United Nations 2. What it would be would be a United Nations light because it would, like the current United Nations, reflect the era in which it was created. Paul is absolutely right that the U.N. was never designed to be democratic.

There's always been this huge contradiction between power and democracy. Power lying with the Security Council, arguably the least democratic organ of the U.N. Democracy, to the degree that you can have democracy where China and Vanuatu get the same number of votes. But to the degree that there's democracy at all, it's in the General Assembly, which doesn't ordinarily have the power to impose international law the same way as the council can.

I think that what could be done, though, is to change that balance of power without going through what people talk about the difficulties of amending the charter; that's certainly true. But beyond that there is the whole question of the efforts by the General Assembly. There's many, many precedents and possibilities within U.N. systems for allowing the General Assembly to have -to take on more power and disempower the Security Council to a large degree. That would go a great deal of the way towards democratizing the U.N. overall.

CHIDEYA: Paul, what about you? What would happen if the U.N. ceased to exist. Or if it were changed, how might it change?

Prof. KENNEDY: Well, Phyllis put her finger on a very important point just a couple of minutes ago, which is all of the things which are done by technical agencies, by the non-politicized agencies - think of UNICEF, think of United Nations Development Programme, think in conjunction with that of the Bretton Woods institutions of the IMF and the World Bank, of international air traffic control - all of that we would have to have regardless of whether we had a Security Council or General Assembly.

That said, I think there's a strong argument now for looking again at the composition of the Security Council. If this is the supreme body for issues of war and peace, then we ought to consider whether it shouldn't be joined in its permanent membership by significant countries, such as India, China and South Africa, for example.

Ms. BENNIS: You know, if I could just add one thing to what Paul said.

CHIDEYA: Go ahead.

Ms. BENNIS: Certainly, it is important to think about expanding the Security Council, but I think that the definition of U.N. reform has been bogged down in that for a long time. And we know that the five permanent members with the veto are very unlikely to allow a sharing or a diminution of the power of their veto. That's why I think we need to get out of the mindset that says that the Security Council is the only power.

There is a precedent - when the United Nations officially went to war in Korea in 1950, it was on the basis of a General Assembly resolution, not the Security Council because the council was paralyzed at the time. And the U.S. actually orchestrated it. It became known as the Uniting For Peace precedent. I'm sure Paul is familiar with it.

And essentially what it says is that when the council is paralyzed that issues that would ordinarily belong only to the council can be taken up by the General Assembly. The key is political will, and that's what I think we need to be looking at right now.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me - we have very little time left. I want to play a little bit…

Prof. KENNEDY: Can I comment with a response to that? I think Phyllis is - I think listeners should know that reform can operate at different levels. It could be constitutional structural reform of the composition of the Security Council. It could be very practical reforms; and we ought to bear that in mind, perhaps push for that.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me just refer to what has been the sparkiest, if I can use a little popular term, the sparkiest exchange between Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Bush. Chavez called Bush the devil, and then Bush's address -let's just take a listen to a little bit of it.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Security Council has approved a resolution that would transform the African Union force into a blue-helmeted force that is larger and more robust. To increase its strength and effectiveness, NATO nations should provide logistics and other support.

The regime in Khartoum is stopping the deployment of this force. If the Sudanese government does not approve this peacekeeping force quickly, the United Nations must act. Your lives and the credibility of the United Nations is at stake.

CHIDEYA: So there we heard the president of the United States really calling for action in Darfur - and China has oil interests in the nation. Who's going to basically push the issue of saving people in Darfur who are, by all estimations, undergoing a genocide?

Prof. KENNEDY: Which of us speaks first?

CHIDEYA: Whoever jumps in.

Ms. BENNIS: Go ahead, Paul.

Prof. KENNEDY: I think that it's going to be pushed by Blair in particular. And I think that China is going to gently and politically fold and agree to a U.N. intervention on the lines suggested by President Bush.

CHIDEYA: Phyllis?

Ms. BENNIS: I think that's quite likely. I think the problem that we face right now is that the African Union force that's there has not been given the support that they were promised by Western countries. It's interesting that even in President Bush's speech just then, he speaks of a NATO force. That's not going to fly in Africa. The key thing I think is to empower the African Union force, get them better equipment, get them some training on the ground right now and get them more forces and, crucially, more money.

The world has been great on rhetoric around Darfur but has largely left the African Union troops that are there trying to do a job that they're not nearly big enough or well equipped enough or trained enough to do quite bravely. And there's been very little actual support for them. It's been at the level of rhetoric.

CHIDEYA: All right. We have basically 20 seconds each for you. This is kind of like TV time as opposed to radio time. What's going to happen when Kofi Annan steps down, which won't be too long from now.

Ms. BENNIS: I'm very much afraid that the next secretary-general is going to be someone who is very, very much in Washington's pocket. I think that the candidates that are being looked at so far, with the possible exception of Dhanapala, who the U.S. has said they will not accept, none of them emerge as serious challengers to U.S. domination of the U.N.

Prof. KENNEDY: We could always be surprised, because we have been surprised in the past by…

Ms. BENNIS: Indeed.

Prof. KENNEDY: …extraordinarily interesting secretary-generals.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, on that note - we've been talking to Paul Kennedy, professor of international history at Yale University. He joined us by phone from New Haven, Connecticut. Also Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She joined us from our NPR bureau in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much.

Ms. BENNIS: Thank you.

Prof. KENNEDY: A pleasure.

CHIDEYA: And coming up, a new index says the war in Iraq is fueling terrorism and the pope reaches out to Muslims. We'll discuss these and other topics on our Roundtable next.

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