The Necessity of a Building

The UN’s ambitious renovation project has, predictably, attracted the attention of bloggers questioning the cost of the building and the value of the UN in general. Writing at Hot Air, Ed Morrissey thinks that the construction of the new building poses a broader question.

The renovation really isn’t the issue here…Either the UN is a worthwhile use of American funds or it isn’t. If it is, the renovation doesn’t make it less so, and the building obviously needs a lot of work…

True, but this is not the entirety of the matter. Of course the construction of a new building doesn’t make the UN less of “a worthwhile use of American funds.” Renovation of its headquarters doesn’t make it more deserving of American funds either. The relevant point here, which needs to be made more emphatically, is that, if the is UN indeed “worthy” of U.S. funding — which we here at UN Dispatch firmly believe it is — then it affirmatively needs a new building in order to continue its mission.

Ed also objects to the cost of the renovation, calling it “a rather expensive project even for the United Nations.” This, however, neglects to mention the reason that the building’s costs have expanded — namely, because the U.S. has dragged its heels throughout the process, raising pedantic objections as the costs of construction continued to rise.For those who oppose the UN, the real point in highlighting the costs of the replacing the old building — which even Ed admits is in decrepit condition — is to call into question the entire notion of supporting the international organization. According to Ed:

If the UN isn’t a worthwhile expense, then the renovation makes no difference, either. One has to wonder why nations don’t simply put their money towards the programs that actually deliver benefits and forego the fancy building and standing bureaucracy that adds little to the benefit of anyone…

The problem here is that, in order for the programs that Ed lauds to be able to function, they need to be able to operate out of, yes, a building — and preferably one without asbestos. The people working in the 39 floors of the UN Secretariat are not simply faceless bureaucrats; they are the individuals that make the UN machinery run, and that, though they are far from the field, enable many life-saving programs to thrive.

So if the building isn’t necessary, then what is?

What the UN needs is an overhaul of its membership, its leadership, its bureaucracies, and the HRC [Human Rights Council] most of all. Unfortunately, it’s easier for everyone to renovate the building without considering the cancers within it.

Critiques of the UN — its members, leaders, bureaucracies, etc. — can be legitimate and constructive. Assuming that constructing a new building to meet fire and safety codes precludes pursuit of reform in these areas, however, is misguided. It will be very difficult for reform to succeed if there is no place to house the fruits of that reform. The U.S. should take the lead on both of these initiatives — reforming both the UN’s headquarters and its substance — rather than balking at funding programs that the U.S. itself calls for. Ed is right to remind us that the building can be no more than the Member States it contains — but that doesn’t make the building any less necessary.