Ex-UN Under-Secretary-General: UN is the only body still able to solve global problems

As the UN General Assembly gets under way, calls are growing for the international body to change. Over the last few years, it has failed to prevent conflicts, raising question about whether the United Nations is effectively fulfilling its role. With the world changing and new powers challenging for their share in global decision-making, can the UN remain relevant? Will it embark on the road to change - or fade into history? We ask a former UN Under-Secretary-General - Shashi Tharoor is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:  Former UN Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. Now, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin recently said: “Decisions made outside of the UN are usually destined to fail” - Iraq, Libya, the spread of ISIS are all examples of unilateral action failing. So, why are some still pushing this one-sided approach?

ST: This is a tough one to answer, because it is true that in some of this issues it has been difficult to find consensus within the UN, and therefore countries have felt that rather than do nothing they need to intervene. The problem is that of course intervention by a self-appointed group of nations can never have a legitimacy that comes with a decision made by universal international organisation like the UN. This is why countries like India, Norway, many countries, will not send troops abroad for peacekeeping purposes, unless there’s a resolution from the UNSC authorizing it. That kind of position means that when actions are undertaken outside of this mandate, they will never have the same kind of acceptance and legitimacy elsewhere. 

SS: Now, the U.S.’s year-long campaign against IS has yielded more questions than results. Is it time to find a solution through the UN? In what way can the UN consolidate forces against Islamic State? 

ST: That too is very difficult one to answer, because the UN has not collectively been very good at peace enforcement. It has been good at peacekeeping, that is at the end of a conflict, the UN is unparalleled in its ability to come in, maintain the peace, and prevent a new conflict from arising. But to task the UN with peace enforcement is problematic, because peace enforcement is essentially war-making, and war-making requires command and control structures and a military operational capacity that is difficult to cobble together with member states who are not military allies. This is why when, the one occasion we can think of in recent years, would have been when the operation “Desert Storm” was authorized by the UNSC, it was not all UN member states, but rather a coalition assembled by the US and Saudi Arabia with UN blessing, that pushed mr. Saddam Hussein and his forces out of Kuwait. Now, that kind of action that is authorizing military action against ISIS remains a possibility, but the kind of collective action that your question was implying - to my mind, it is not realistic, because the countries involved are not part of a common military alliance. 

SS: You bring up really good point: is the UN lacking power to react to modern conflicts? Do they have the right tools to preserve the peace in war-torn countries? “Preserve peace” is the key two words there. 

ST: As a long-time UN person myself, I’ve tended to take the view that peacekeeping is what the UN should do and not war-making. Leave war-making to others: to national armies, to smaller coalitions, or the coalitions of the willing. Now, you ask, does this make the UN unsuitable for today’s challenges - but it doesn’t, because a lot of today’s challenges don’t necessarily require warfighting. There are other things that can be done. In the case of something like ISIS, clearly the military action against them on the ground in places like Iraq and Syria, where they have control over territories - that is often best undertaken by local forces with just international support.  But, some of the other important things that go behind the scenes: information-sharing, intelligence cooperation, raising public awareness, improving your public information capacity so that local populations are aware of the horrors perpetrated by the IS and not seduced by them - all of those things can be done through the UN, with all member states acting in concert. 

SS: The UNSC was severely undermined by the US going into Iraq, and when a resolution to ensure a no-fly zone over Libya all of a sudden became a war to overthrow Gaddafi. Has the world changed to an extent where countries powerful enough can just ignore the UN security resolutions, or indeed the UN as a whole with impunity? 

ST: There are precedents for various cases where countries have acted on their own responsibility and their own initiative, when they judged that their national interests so dictated. What happened in 2003 over Iraq, however, was that the countries that marched into Iraq, did so after failing to get Council approval for resolution that they were trying to present. They actually sought the UNSC approval initially, and after 6 or 7 weeks of fruitless negotiations, when they realized that they didn’t have a majority or even a working number in the Council to pass a resolution, they then went on their own - and that’s what made that case a bit different and a bit troubling for votaries of international law, because they said that you can’t have a situation where try and get legal approval and when that’s not given to you, you do something without that approval. But these are many of the cases that require further study. My own feeling is that one can’t entirely prevent member states from doing what they judge best, and frankly, also, what they believe they can get away with. But they won’t do things that will risk provoking a wider confrontations. If there’s serious opposition from other states, other major states, then one state may hesitate to take this kind of action on it’s own. In the kinds of situations we’re seeing, of course, there’s not great urgency or desire, on the part of many countries, to confront the ISIS forces on the ground. They are, perhaps, willing to bomb from the air, but beyond that, I think all they are prepared to do is to give support to local forces. There’s no great willingness to take a risk of their lives and treasure in the conflict they are not sure they can easily win. 

SS: Sure. mr. Tharoor, I want to talk to you about something very important: the reform of the UNSC. That’s a topic that has been a major theme in the build-up  to the 70th General Assembly. A number of countries are pushing for a permanent seat in the Council, but how do strike a balance between efficiency and representation - for instance, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said: “20 members would be acceptable” - but would that be right? What do you think? 

ST: There’s no particular number that is magically correct. When the Security Council was founded in 1945, it was 11 members out of a total UN membership of 51. In other words, 22% of the UN was in the Security Council. If today you put 22% to the UN, then that would give you a Security Council of 39, and it will be like a conference, no longer a decision-making council. So there’s no real agreed formula. Whatever, politically, member states can agree upon would be enough, and if there’s a consensus around the number of 20, I think those states that are seeking expansion will have to join. But with all respect to my dear friends in Europe, it does seem odd that Europe with 5% of the world’s population should have 33% of the seats in the Security Council, or that five countries have permanent seats, nearly because they happened to have won a war 70 years ago. The geopolitical realities of 2015 are not the same as those of 1945, and I think you have to recognize the growth of new countries in Africa and Asia and elsewhere that have emerged from the colonial experience, who were not members of the UN when the UN was initially founded and the UNSC established… 

SS:  So what should a criteria be for new permanent members? For instance, how do you accept India as a permanent member and not upset Pakistan or why Brazil and not Argentina, for instance? 

ST: Well, on India-Pakistan the answer is very simple: there’s simply no comparison either in size, or population, in GDP, in contributions to the UN - in anything. There’s no comparison between the two! 

SS: Okay, talk to me about the criteria - what do you think the criteria should be? 

ST: The answer that I was going to give you is that the criteria should be the degree of value to the organisation, and the degree of indispensability to the conduct of world affairs. Obviously, that militates in favor of bigger countries having a voice. Now, Pakistan has objected that India has a disputed frontier with it, and therefore it should not be made a permanent member. But China is a permanent member, and China has a disputed frontier with India too - and there’s no problem there; countries have to conduct themselves responsibly, and I can assure you that India would conduct itself responsibly. But I understand the difficulty. You pointed to one very important issue, which is how do you decide? Why Brazil - because it occupies, on the Latin-American continent, a position analogous to India’s in the South-Asian continent, but at the same time, Brazil is Portuguese-speaking country that would have to represent a vast majority of Spanish-speaking countries, and that would raise other questions of representation. In Africa, how do you chose amongst the competing claims of the largest economy -  South Africa; the largest democracy - Nigeria; and the oldest civilization of Egypt? It’s very difficult to make these choices, and that’s why a formula has been so elusive in the last 20 years, a formula that will resolve this question. But the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it: because if you don’t reform the Security Council, the big danger for the UN is that the decisions of the Council will cease being accepted by those countries who feel that they lack legitimacy.

SS:  So, the Security Council is pretty much the only instrument to solve international conflict. What do you think about calls to actually change the rules of the game there: like, proposals to, for instance, strip Russia from its veto power? 

ST: No, I don’t think that’s feasible, because the entire logic of creating the veto power was because the founders of the UN wanted mechanism that would keep all the major powers in the world united inside the UN. You know, the League of Nations have collapsed because many of the big powers of the day were not members, or have been expelled from it. They didn’t want that to happen. Any step that could be contemplated, that would deprive the UN of Russia, or China, or one of the major countries, would not be acceptable to the vast majority of members - and in any case, it could not be done, because Russia would have to concur in such an arrangement under the rules for governing the UN Charter. So, I don’t think you need to worry about that. 

SS: Now, as you put it, the absence of reform could discredit the UN while at the same time, the UN is irreplaceable. With all these complications it seems very unlikely that reform will be enacted any time soon: is there a way out of this sort of dead-end for the UN?

ST: I do believe that what we need to do is put a formula to a vote on General Assembly, and see what the votes are like. Right now what is happening is... this has gone on for more than  20 years. I remember Boutros-Ghali in 1992 saying that he looks forward to UNSC reform being completed by 50th anniversary of the organisation. Well, the 50th anniversary has gone by, the 60th has gone by, the 70th looms next month - and it’s going to go by without UNSC reform. So, we actually have an opportunity to find a formula which many countries are proposing, put it to a vote and see what happens. We can’t keep on waiting for the perfect solution, the perfection never comes. 

SS: Now, is the rise of blocks such as BRICS, for instance, is partially an answer to under-representation of new large economies under the UNSC? 

ST: It’s not an answer at all, because it’s a separate body outside the UN framework. It’s very valuable that we have all these different organisations, that cooperate with each other in constructive way and that permit dialogue across hemispheres, across continents, across different political systems, but they can’t replace the one universal organisation there is, which is the UN. I mean, BRICS is doing well, it’s representing something very interesting, but I think the day that it starts trying to be an alternative forum for dispute resolution and so on - then it fundamentally questions the entire logic of a universal organisation to which all these members belong. 

SS: By the middle of the XXIst century the emerging economies will likely have some parity with developed economies. Now, if the Western club doesn’t encourage cooperation or give them a voice in making global decisions - what will happen? 

ST: That is a very important question, because in fact, by 2040 it is estimated that economies of the BRICS countries will equal or overtake the economies of the original G7 countries - and that means that they really can’t be ignored. Right now in the Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF and the World Bank, China has a same weighted vote as Belgium. The decisions taken by the G20 in Pittsburgh in 2008 to shift some of the weighted vote towards the developing and transition economies hasn’t been implemented. So, I would argue that this is a big danger; these countries are not asking to overturn the world order - they are saying: “Give us a place in this system! Give us room at the high table.” But if the leaders of the Western countries say “we won’t make room for you” - that could very seriously divide the world in ways that I genuinely believe are not in the global interest.

SS: Can entities such as BRICS with their developing cohesion, new financial institutions, et cetera - be the start of something that may eventually replace the UN? I mean, the Western world will have G7 and the now-developing economies will have the BRICS. Africa will have the African Union. Are we headed into a multipolar era of regional blocks? 

ST: I’m not a fan of that idea, Sophie, because I believe in the value of the universality. I think the great strength of the UN, its principal asset, is that every country belongs to it, and every country that emerges, wishes to belong to it. So, it really has that great legitimacy that comes from a universality, which no other body can have. You mentioned G8 and BRICS, one can mention G20 also - but there is no underpinning of an international law, these are all self-appointed groups, and if they decide to take a law into their own hands, is it truly international law anymore? I would have some profound misgivings about doing that. I would rather reform and strengthen the one universal organisation we have - the UN. 

SS: But, you know, you keep saying that UN is very important, but if we don’t reform the UN, won’t it lose its legitimacy? 

ST: Well, that I agree. It has to be reformed, but I believe we should make serious efforts to reform it, rather than build alternatives. I mean, we can certainly create various ways in which we interact with each other - because, we’re living in the world of Internet, of the World Wide Web, where all countries are connected to each other, networked in various ways, in various overlapping relationships; but, at the same time, we can’t substitute that one global body we have with smaller ones, because those smaller ones, it seems to me, risk undermining the principle of universality. I would suggest to you that there’s a wonderful old story from a former Soviet foreign minister, an ambassador to the UN, Yakov Malik, who said once that...when asked about whether the UN should be dropped and we should have alternative groups, he said it reminded him of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Edem: Adam finds that Eve is becoming indifferent to him, and Adam says to Eve: “Eve, is there someone else?” The truth is, there’s no one else, there’s nothing else that can match the UN. We have to recognise the value of that. 

SS: Going back to the emerging markets: I mean, the emerging powers aren’t trying to break down the current world order; in many ways, there are actually searching for paths to cooperate with what’s already there, what’s already established. Why it is that the Western countries are wary of their success, for instance, resisting the opening of Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Bank? 

ST: I think, frankly, they in the West made a mistake. I think, first of all, in the fulfillment of Pittsburgh decisions of 2008, American senators have prevented ratification of this agreement, and that’s not the American Administration which was in favor of making that weighted votes shift. When it came to Asian Infrastructure Bank, it was the American government that tried to encourage its friends and partners not to participate, and I think they recognized that they made a big mistake in doing that, because many of their friends went ahead and participated anyway, all but a handful. I think that their rational would hold much better if the existing Bretton Woods institutions were more democratic than they actually are.

SS: Now, 2016 will see the election of the new Secretary-General of the UN. However, it will almost certainly play second fiddle to the American presidential election in terms of interest, right? What does it say about the top position in the UN, it is really a position of power?

ST: No. It’s a position of influence, Sophie, but of power - no. I think, really, most of the powerful member-states want a Secretary-General who is more Secretary than General, and I think that what the Secretary-General is able to do very often is to move the international agenda through effective articulation of ideas, playing a very valuable convening role in getting governments together, and promoting important new objectives, such as, for example, the sustainable development goals which will set targets for the next 15 years, beyond the likely term of the next Secretary-General. Those are all things that a Secretary-General can do, but exercising power? As Stalin said about the Pope: “How many divisions has the Pope?” Secretary-General has no power that member states are not willing to give him.

SS: Now, when you were running for a Secretary-General in the UN, your bid was vetoed by the US, and it’s actually claimed that U.S. Secretary State Condoleezza Rice didn’t want the UN Secretary-General to be too powerful, or too influential, like you put it. Is that inevitable that this position has to be weak to be acceptable to all, to keep the balance? 

ST: Right. We know this from very disloyal memoir, written by her ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who actually quoted her, quote on quote as saying: “We don’t a strong Secretary-General”. I think, that’s actually a pity, because I don’t think that governments benefit from an approach like that, and I would certainly hope that in 2016, governments will take more responsible attitude. I believe the odds are that it’s likely to be somebody from Eastern Europe - probably, somebody who speaks Russian. I think that the UNSC, and particularly the permanent five, have an obligation to ensure that the person picked has the ability to manage consensus, to promote global interests and global agendas, to get along with all sorts of countries, and at the same time, to articulate a set of ideals and vision that will carry the world forward in the next decade.

SS: But should the UN Secretary-General be a position of more influence and more power, what do you think? Should the UN Secretary-General be more powerful?

ST: ”Power” is a dangerous word, because it implies military strength and the capacity to affect certain events around the globe. That power rests with the UNSC and not with the Secretary-General. The Secretary-General can only carry out mandates given to him or her by the UNSC. I think, frankly, we are not yet ready for the kind of World Government, where Secretary-General can move armies by himself or herself. We are still a collection of sovereign states, and these sovereign states will want to work together to ensure that governments can actually get their wishes done across the world through the mechanism of the UN. No more and no less; it still is a very important and influential role for the Secretary-General, but the UN is above all the member states. 

SS: Mr. Tharoor, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. We were speaking Shashi Tharoor, former Under-Secretary-General of the UN, chairman of the Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs of the Indian Parliament, discussing how to change decades-long talk of UN reform into an action, and if there’s a way to make everybody’s voice heard in the process. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.