World Policy Journal: Toward a More Nimble UN

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Toward A More Nimble UN

September 26, 2012

Nothing underscores the gulf between the United Nations’ rationalistic longings and the reality of geopolitics quite like a nuclear catastrophe. Born out of the League of Nations’ failure to prevent World War II and the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the UN has spent the last 67 years attempting to make the world comprehensible, offering itself as the forum where all of humanity’s ills can be brought and addressed. Many of these efforts have met success, but the founding question of how to prevent aggression by sovereign nations, especially those with nuclear weapons, still haunts the UN. As it expanded to take on all the potential calamities of the world, the institution split itself into disparate organizations working independently from each other. The result is an inability to coordinate, making it near impossible for the UN to address holistically the core issues that can lead to violent conflict.

On Friday, heavyweights from the UN gathered for a panel on Global Security Challenges, particularly those posed by asymmetric threats, at the Louise Blouin Creative Leadership Summit in New York City. Each official’s remarks reflected both the liberal-rational worldview that defines the UN and the narrower values of their own offices. Patricia O’Brien, Under-Secretary General of the Office of Legal Affairs, called on the nations of the world to respect the rule of law and their sovereign responsibility to protect against atrocities. Angela Kane, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, looked to greater interdependence and moral pressure to prevent tragedy. And Ambassador Tibor Tóth argued that it was in every state’s best interests to join and obey treaties, such as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty whose Preparatory Commission he heads.

The high, gold-embossed ceilings of the Main Bar of the Metropolitan Club left ample space for the elephant in the room—Iran. Just two days before a brigadier general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard threatened that an Israeli preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities could bring about World War III, the representatives of the UN’s nonproliferation regime had no clear answer for how either Iranian nuclear armament or an Israeli strike could be prevented (when they were even willing to speak on the issue). There is no doubt that the UN’s ability to verify nuclear explosions has improved greatly. The cutting-edge International Monitoring System set up by Tóth’s Preparatory Commission was instrumental in detecting North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Perfect hindsight, however, will not guarantee the safety of either the Israeli or the Iranian people, and an Iranian nuclear test, even if we knew exactly where it took place, would mean the time for nuclear weapons treaties and negotiations had already passed.

Now, while the asymmetric threat of a nuclear Iran is still theoretical, we must seek to address the systemic and persistent conditions that are driving Iran to ignore its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to comply with all IAEA safeguards and ensure that they are not developing a bomb. Stefaan Verhulst, chief of research at the Markle Foundation and the only non-bureaucrat on the Blouin Summit panel, described the underlying causes of the current state of the Middle East, of which terrorism, revolution, and state aggression are only symptoms. An excess of young males has led to radicalization and social unrest, directed as easily at Israel and the West as it is at the region’s autocrats. Skyrocketing food prices increase this unrest, themselves a symptom of climate change’s slow burn. The continued lack of a viable alternative to the Middle East’s oil forces precarious alliances and dangerous interventions in the region by the West. It also encourages China, which relies on Iranian oil and is expected to have a record $50 billion in trade with Iran this year, to continue opposing sanctions against Iran on the UN Security Council.  In Iran, where oppressive food prices are at least as much the product of Western sanctions as they are of climate change, these factors have coalesced to produce a populace willing to support the development of a nuclear program despite the possible consequences.

If there is hope to stop Iran’s possible nuclear armament, it will come not through the IAEA or Angela Kane’s Office for Disarmament Affairs but through diplomacy and military operations between Iran, the U.S., and other UN Security Council members. But what the UN should do, what it holds the unique potential to do, argued Verhulst, is to address these root causes not on an issue basis but together. In the individual case of Iran, such efforts would likely be too late, but unless they are taken, asymmetric threats like Iran will continue to pop up around the edges of the developed world. Unfortunately, there are high institutional hurdles preventing the UN from dealing with national security threats holistically.

Although the organization as a whole monitors nearly every issue pertinent to humanity, its individual offices and officials work in silos. Food security is monitored by the Food and Agriculture Organization, climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, demographics by the UN Population Fund, and nuclear weapons by a variety of organizations, each led by officials whose vested interest is to preserve the relevance of their own agency. All of these organizations report, directly or indirectly, to the UN Secretariat and General Assembly, but given the sheer volume of agencies within the UN, their various concerns do not produce dynamic or coordinated responses. The UN has the potential to be a paradigm-shifting organization, but when it comes to national security issues, they end up behaving like a milquetoast superpower, deploying sanctions, rhetoric or peacekeeping forces when prompted by individual events without ever being able to touch the fault lines beneath.

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