Obama's 4-Part Plan to Fix the United Nations

As the president says, the UN is "indispensable" but "flawed" and badly in need of improvement.

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Sacks of food are unloaded from a UN helicopter in Pibor / Reuters

It's a dirty little secret among supporters of the United Nations: The closer you get to seeing how the sausage is actually made in Turtle Bay, the more you wonder whether the UN-bashers have a point. The entire system is in such dire need of an overhaul--from its encrusted bloc politics and rigid personnel policies to its bureaucratic waste and pockets of cronyism--that even the most dedicated multilateralist may begin to channel his inner John Bolton. The big difference, of course, is that committed multilateralists are dedicated to reforming and strengthening, rather than crippling and weakening, the world body. Speaking last Friday at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ambassador Joseph Torsella, the Obama administration's point man for UN management reform, explained what the United States is doing to shake up business as usual in New York. Its point of departure, as President Obama has stated, is that the United Nations is both "flawed" and "indispensable."

Let's start with the flawed part. As Torsella rightly noted, there are "at least two UNs," and neither presents a pretty picture. One is the global institution itself. This "UN" is composed of departments, programs and agencies that deliver many essential services like peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. But it is also plagued by outmoded management systems, too little transparency and accountability, and mind-boggling waste. The other "UN" is composed of 193 diverse and often fractious member states that too often treat the world body as a spoils system, cling to outdated blocs like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) or the Group of 77, and play to the galleries with irresponsible behavior. And predictably, the two "UNs" tend to blame each other for their failures.

The United Nations is also trapped in the past, structured to address traditional dangers of inter-state war, rather than the transnational threats--like "proliferation, terrorism, degradation and disease"--that dominate today's global security agenda.

The administration's agenda for UN reform rests on "four pillars," Torsella explained: thrift, accountability, integrity, and excellence.

Torsella himself admitted that achieving all of them is not realistic, so it's important to prioritize among them. Restoring the UN's "integrity" should be job one. Nothing weakens the United Nations more than self-inflicted wounds to its reputation, whether it is electing Cuba to the Human Rights Council, or permitting North Korea to assume the chair of the UN Disarmament Commission. The administration is working hard to prevent the UN from being its own worst enemy, Torsella explained, including by "working overtime to keep the worst offenders off UN bodies," fighting for competitive elections (as opposed to regional rotations) for seats on UN bodies, and preventing countries under Security Council sanctions from assuming UN leadership roles. One of the administration's most promising ideas is forging a new "credibility caucus" in New York to establish "membership criteria" and "promote truly competitive elections" to the Human Rights Council.

Promoting "accountability" registers as a close second. Transparency at the United Nations remains appalling. This facilitates mismanagement and contributes to public mistrust worldwide. Under heavy pressure, UN member states agreed to create an Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), but funding and staffing remain inadequate, and the office is subject to political interference. To shed more light across the UN system, the Obama administration is pressing for a stronger OIOS, urging greater involvement by civil society watchdogs, and asking "UN funds and programs to post audits on the web, as UNICEF and UNDP recently pledged to do." As Torsella explains:

Websites like the U.S. government's recovery.gov, the UK's dfid.gov, and Kentucky's opendoor.gov make unprecedented amounts of information--about salaries, contracts and budgets--easily available to the public. We're going to ask the UN system to do the same.

Furthermore, some reasonably minor and feasible management reforms could drastically improve the UN's ability to deliver--and even deliver "excellence." Changing UN personnel rules would make it easier to hire qualified staff and eliminate under-performers. Second, consolidating the delivery of services by multiple UN agencies within target countries, under a strong UN resident coordinator system, would allow the UN to truly "deliver as one." And a third step would be strengthening the evaluation of UN development programs--taking a page from the World Bank and other institutions--by focusing on outcomes and impact, not simply inputs.

In a period of fiscal austerity, finally, the UN cannot be immune. Here's where "thrift" comes in. Over the last twenty years, the UN's regular, two-year budget (not counting peacekeeping or other missions) rose an average of 5 percent a year, far faster than inflation. But thanks to pressure by the United States and like-minded governments, Torsella noted proudly, UN member states had just voted for only the second budget reduction in the last fifty years (and the first since 1998), a 5 percent decline from $5.41 to $5.15 billion.

As Torsella reminded his CFR audience, the United States has a fundamental stake in a credible, effective, and legitimate United Nations.

"Because--at its best--the UN can help prevent conflict, keep the peace, isolate terrorists and criminals, go where nobody else will care for the neediest of the world, smooth the channels of global commerce, and promote universal values that Americans hold dear. That's why the United States led in creating the UN in 1945, and why we continue to lead in renewing the UN today."

The reform agenda Torsella described reflects this constructive legacy in being sober, reasoned, and balanced.

That's a far cry from what we've heard from the Republican presidential candidates. Like their counterparts in the House, the GOP contenders have adopted a slash and burn approach to the world body.  Newt Gingrich, this weekend's victor in South Carolina, last summer called for defunding the UN. (Prior to dropping out, Texas Governor Rick Perry advocated the same in a televised debate). Rick Santorum, who's taking his fight to Florida, has made halving U.S. funding for the UN part of his official platform. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, called recent UN work an "extraordinary failure," and endorses John Bolton's proposal that the United States defund the Human Rights Council--despite recent U.S. progress in improving that body's functioning. The libertarian Ron Paul gets even spookier, describing the United Nations as a threat to American liberty. (In 1998, he even warned that it "would confiscate our guns" if it got the chance).

Whoever is elected in November must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many of the reforms UN critics identify are needed not only in Geneva and New York, but also in Washington, DC--underscoring the foolishness of trashing a flawed but indispensable organization. Kudos to Ambassador Torsella for putting forth such an ambitious framework and for illuminating a viable path for UN reform.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.