Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Saving Congo, One Woman at a Time (November 24, 2003)
"The impunity enjoyed by anyone with a gun, and the savagery of the sexual assaults women suffer as a result, has stunned and sickened aid workers."

Oil for Food: A Great Experiment Ends (November 17, 2003)
"The oil-for-food program wasn't perfect. It was manipulated by both the Iraqis and the West. None of that, however, should obscure the essential value of the concept."

A New-Look Security Council: What Makes a Winner? (November 11, 2003)
"The question of which countries might rightly claim new permanent seats is becoming less hypothetical. A group of newly emerging powers is already circling the chamber demanding a permanent presence."

Leveraging Private Money for the United Nations (November 3, 2003)
"Since the late 1990s, the U.N. Fund for International Partnerships has been playing matchmaker between small, innovative U.N. programs in need of cash and an increasingly wider world of private corporations and foundations willing to give them a boost."

U.N. and U.S. in Iraq: Nobody Won This Round (October 27, 2003)
"There is, in plain words, no great desire to help the United States out of a more difficult postwar period than the U.S. Defense Department apparently planned for."

AIDS, Asian Values and States of Denial (October 20, 2003)
"Asian leaders often acknowledge only that infections happen in what they call 'deviant populations.' Yet it is well known that sex industries across the region attract men from every level of society."

U.S. Rebuffs to Neighbors Should Raise Concerns (October 14, 2003)
"Ever since the epochal terrorist attacks on the United States two years ago, no two countries have been more important to American security than Canada and Mexico. So why has the United States been so indifferent to its neighbors?"

Testing the U.N. in Afghanistan, With Iraq in Mind (October 6, 2003)
"The United States has now given the Iraqis six months to conjure up a constitution.... In Afghanistan, time to write a constitution has run out. Nearly two years after the United States toppled the Taliban, the publication of the promised new charter is behind schedule."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | December 1, 2003
from U. N. Wire Sixteen Wise People and the Future of the U.N.

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—Secretary General Kofi Annan, shaken by the beating the United Nations took from Washington over Iraq this year, said a few months ago that he would go outside the world body's glass box to assemble an international panel to study global security threats and rethink how the organization (and the world) could better respond.

Among those who follow U.N. affairs, there was much anticipation, even cautious excitement, that interesting days were coming. Annan is known for making courageous appointments and, having pledged not to seek a third term, had nothing to lose and everything to gain from naming a crackerjack team.

"The past year has shaken the foundations of collective security and undermined confidence in the possibility of collective responses to our common problems," Annan told member nations in a grim assessment this fall, underlining the urgency of the task.

Why then, since the 16-member panel was announced on Nov. 4, have so many once-hopeful voices among U.N.-watchers been reduced to silence?

First, the panel.

As chairman of the group, the secretary general named a Thai former diplomat and businessman, Anand Panyarachun, who twice stepped in as prime minister in a prolonged political crisis in Thailand in the early 1990s. Anand, a graduate of Cambridge University, is not very well known outside Southeast Asia and has sometimes been critical of the West, especially the United States, where he served as ambassador. The brutal reality is that if the panel's report, due to appear within 18 months, becomes weighted with old, Cold War "nonaligned" rhetoric that absolves the developing nations of their share of blame, there will not be much serious consideration of it in the United States, where a public discussion of America and the world is long overdue.

That said, however, Anand has taken a very positive and constructive attitude toward managing the forces of globalization, most recently in a sweeping speech about the state of the world that he made to Rotary International at its annual conference in Brisbane, Australia, in June. His analysis echoed the secretary general's thinking and would be applauded by many Americans.

Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser to Presidents Ford and George H. W. Bush, is the only American on the panel. There are no Canadians or Mexicans.

The others in the group are Robert Badinter of France, a legal and constitutional expert who has worked with transitional states in Eastern Europe; Joao Clemente Baena Soares of Brazil, a former secretary general of the Organization of American States; Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and most recently director general of the World Health Organization; Sir David Hannay, a British diplomat who served in Kabul, Tehran and at the United Nations; Mary Chinery-Hesse, vice-chairman of Ghana's national development planning commission; Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group and former foreign minister of Australia; Enrique Iglesias of Uruguay, president of the Inter-American Development Bank; Amre Moussa of Egypt, secretary general of the Arab League; Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar of India, who led the first U.N. mission in the former Yugoslavia in 1992-93; Sadako Ogata of Japan, former U.N. high commissioner for refugees; Evgenii Primakov, former Russian foreign minister; Qian Qichen, ex-foreign minister of China; Nafis Sadik of Pakistan, former executive director of the U.N. Population Fund and now Annan's special envoy on AIDS in Asia, and Salim A. Salim of Tanzania, formerly head of the Organization of African Unity.

Critics of the panel do not fault the individual members. All are vastly experienced people who bring a wealth of knowledge about world crises to the table. What has disappointed some organization officials, past and present, as well as scholars of the United Nations in universities, think tanks and foundations, is that all are essentially "establishment" figures—however capable a least some of them may be at provocative, iconoclastic thinking. Moreover, a large number are seniors of retirement age whose wisdom may be of the highest value but who will not be balanced on the panel by younger voices. This is, after all, an exercise in imagining the future of the United Nations.

Sir Brian Urquhart, who joined the United Nations at its founding, rose to undersecretary general and remains a walking encyclopedia of the organization, called it "ludicrous" to confine the panel to experts whose average age is in the 60s. As others are saying also, Urquhart sees no break in tradition here. Over the years, other panels have been similarly constituted with no fresh, truly outsider voices, and their reports now languish on bookshelves. Another former high-ranking U.N. official called the new panel "a cross between déjà vu and amnesia."

Other well-informed people are less critical. At the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, the director, Shepard Forman, suggests having a little patience until the results of the panel's deliberations are published. He says that the international group will be listening to a wide range of individuals and research organizations, including his center. The panel will also have as its research director Stephen Stedman, a respected senior fellow at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies.

Stedman has worked with the NYU center recently in developing a consultation process to inform the panel, and Forman describes his work as "very, very good." Forman also argues that successful international panels have been formed in the past, notably the commission led by Lakhdar Brahimi—a former Algerian foreign minister now in charge of U.N operations in Afghanistan—who three years ago produced a powerful report on the problems of U.N. peacekeeping and how to fix them.

As always, however, governments and regional blocs will be the final factor in choosing to accept recommendations—or reject change if it is deemed not to be in their interests. The secretary general is known to want his 16-member panel to look at U.N. structures, especially the Security Council, which he has come to believe is an anachronism in today's world. But almost any change in the way the council works or is constituted, is likely to trigger dissent. Europeans will cling to their inflated representation, no country with a veto will part with that power, and developing nations are expected to squabble over which of them would get permanent seats if the council is expanded.

It is going to take a profoundly jolting, creatively breathtaking report from this panel to overcome this wall of resistance. And this could be a last-chance opportunity to reinvigorate a battered United Nations.

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.

More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.