A crucial task for Europe and the U.S.WASHINGTON Sixty years ago, the United States and the major European powers laid the foundations of the United Nations, the most important multilateral body of the 20th century. Now the United States and Europe must come together again to ensure the survival and effectiveness of this institution as it faces the multiple challenges of the 21st century.
At the opening of the UN General Assembly two years ago, Secretary General Kofi Annan delivered a somber address. "We have," he said, "come to a critical fork in the road, a moment no less decisive than 1945, when the UN was founded." Annan was referring to the bitter divisions that had emerged within the United Nations over the war in Iraq. Since then the organization - and Annan - have been shaken further by the oil-for-food scandal, an inability to respond effectively to the human tragedy taking place in Darfur, and charges of sexual misconduct by UN peacekeepers.
Based on the report of a high-level panel of 16 eminent international experts, the secretary general has now offered his recommendations on what must be done to reform and revitalize the United Nations, and check its perceived slide into irrelevance.
The United States and the European Union should seize the opportunity presented by Annan's report to enter into a serious dialogue on making the United Nations the credible and capable institution envisioned by its founders. This will ultimately require a broad dialogue involving many governments and others. But as was the case in 1945, the roles of the United States and Europe will be crucial. It is impossible to envision a successful effort to revitalize the United Nations in the absence of a solid trans-Atlantic consensus on the substance of a reform agenda.
Drawing on the secretary general's report, what might constitute the key elements of such a consensus?
Some will want to start with some of the report's bolder proposals, such as enlargement of the Security Council and new criteria for the legitimate use of force. Such issues should, indeed, command urgent trans-Atlantic attention, but if history is any guide, it is precisely on these issues that agreement is likely to be most elusive. Therefore, it will be important not to neglect or postpone other urgent aspects of the reform agenda where near-term progress can and must be made.
The dramatic situation in Darfur, 10 years after the world's failure to respond to the Rwanda genocide, reflects the continuing failure of the international community to strengthen the UN's capacity to mount effective and timely peace operations. The notion that the international community has "a responsibility to protect" by taking collective action in cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing remains a hollow promise.
Likewise, promises of assistance to developing countries - Annan is calling for the world's richest nations to set aside 0.7 percent of their gross national incomes by 2015 for aid to the developing world - will be meaningless so long as the many UN offices and departments continue to operate in a disjointed and uncoordinated fashion. Both Europe and the United States should be able to agree on an agenda for improving the effectiveness of the UN's own development efforts, as well as the mechanisms for coordination with other international assistance agencies.
Third, the United Nations itself must be renewed. The trans-Atlantic partners ought to find common ground in strengthening the understaffed and underfunded UN human rights machinery. At the same time, the UN secretariat should be streamlined. Annan has recommended a one-time "buyout" to get rid of the dead wood. Finally, the institution's accountability watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight, must be strengthened and its mandate extended to include the Security Council, which failed in its responsibility to oversee the oil-for-food program in Iraq.
Reaching consensus on a reform agenda, however, will not be easy. In recent years, the United Nations has served not as common ground but as an arena for magnifying U.S.-Europe differences. But that may be changing. Last month a document signed by 55 prominent foreign policy and national security experts from both sides of the Atlantic stated that "optimism has grown that the U.S.-European partnership can find new vitality" and urged the United States and the European Union to "commit themselves to working for the revitalization of the United Nations."
But all parties must move quickly. Annan has called for a summit meeting of world leaders in September to take action on his recommendations. America and Europe have a vital role to play in insuring that this promising moment for UN reform does not slip by - and that the United Nations will be relevant to the future, not a relic of the past.
(George Moose, Edward W. Gnehm and Karl F. Inderfurth each served as senior U.S. diplomats at the United Nations. They are on the faculty of the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.)