The Flawed UN

A new web magazine, Triple Canopy, seeks to bring a more authentically "magazine-like" quality to its presentation of content. It's an interesting technological and aesthetic enterprise and the content's pretty good, too. There is, for example, an interesting pre-"monster" interview with Samantha Power. I liked this part:

HK: Do you think the UN is a functional organization?

SP: This is a distracting point. Not fully functional, no. But the UN’s dysfunctions are less the problem of the organization as such. They are the problem of governments and what they choose to pursue and neglect. Citizens have the power to make governments act differently; the UN as an organization does not. Sergio’s success would have been more robust, or more frequent, if governments had lined up behind him. Secretary-General Kofi Annan lining up behind him was not the same thing. There are plenty of changes that the UN as an organization can make to decrease its many inefficiencies, but the UN will continue to look dysfunctional until member states decide to prioritize global problems, which will require political pressure from below.

This is spot-on. There's a tendency to attribute policy failures of the UN's member states to "the UN" as if "the UN" is supposed to be able to take dramatic action in the face of indifference from the key countries. Meanwhile, you don't see the main people making this complaint arguing for measures to increase the independent capabilities of the UN organization. I note in Heads in the Sand that there are two kinds of people who point out inadequacies in existing international organizations (including the United Nations) -- those who genuinely want to do the difficult work of strengthening them and making it easier for them to cope with the problems they get charged with handling (which just so happen to tend to be the hardest problems in the world), and those who simply want to point to them in bad faith as part of a process of dismantling them.

Meanwhile (and relatedly) one thing critics of the UN tend to get vague about is "compared to what?" When the project isn't being dismissed as totally ineffectual, it tends to get dismissed as utterly utopian. Both critiques are, in my view, wrong but they're also a bit schizophrenic. The truth is simply that the UN's mission is difficult so we shouldn't be shocked that problems remain nor should we ignore the fact that a great deal of good is being done.