USA Outlines Big Plans for UN Reform

The United States Ambassador to the UN for Management and Reform Joseph Torsella outlined a new American push for reform at the United Nations in a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC today.

The plan itself is good on substance. Some highlights include reigning in personnel costs–which in effect means taking some personnel and management decisions out of the hands of the member states and under more direct control of the Secretary General.  This is something that member states from the developing world have typically resisted because it means they would give up a degree of influence. The plan also calls for strengthening and empowering the Office for Internal Oversight Services, which has been limited in its reach and streamlining logistics management–two very worthy goals.

When most of the world thinks about UN reform, they usually don’t think about the nuts and bolts about how hiring decisions are made or how many signatures are required to sign-off on the purchase of a minivan in Nairobi.  Rather, they think of things like why Brazil isn’t on the Security Council or how Libya made it on the Human Rights Council. Amb. Torsella did not address Security Council reform, but he did have some thoughts on how countries should be selected to serve on various UN bodies.

To me, this was the most interesting part of his speech.

As regular UN watchers know, membership to bodies like the Human Rights Council and Security Council are dolled out by region; Africa gets X number of seats, Europe gets X number, and so on. That, in itself is not an issue: equatable geographic representation is an important ideal. The problem is these regional groups sometimes forward an equal number of nominees as their are seats. This helps countries like Libya join the Human Rights Council.  To counter this trend, Torsella announced that the USA would be forging a “credibility caucus” voting bloc of like-minded member states that would push for competitive elections and try to keep abusers out of leadership roles on these kinds of committees.  The USA will also try to institutionalize the idea that countries under sanction should not hold leadership rolls on UN committees.  This is a sensible idea, but it is resisted in some quarters because the Global South see’s this as a power grab by the Security Council.

In all, the substance of the reforms is good. The proposals are not terribly different from US policy going into the last major push for management reform in 2005. (And back then, John Bolton was the public face of these kinds of common sense management reform.)

Generally speaking, there is a broad bi-partisan consensus on what UN reform should look like. The difference here in Washington is in how best to accomplish the task.

One side of the debate (mostly Republicans) believe that the United States should withhold funding until the UN implements the reforms the USA wants. In the late the 1990s, this tactic was tested and the USA stopped paying its UN dues. Sweeping reforms did not result. Rather, the USA looked like a bully and American allies in the quest for UN reform found it much harder to work with the USA toward common goals. This strategy failed. The updated 2010s version of this tactic is to change the way the USA pays the UN from dues payments to a system of voluntary contributions–that is, pay for only those programs that the USA wants.  This is very much an active discussion on Capitol Hill.

The other side of the debate (mostly Democrats) believes that achieving these reforms requires strong American leadership —  and strong leadership is demonstrated by paying dues on time and in full.  You can call this side “constructive engagement.” It uses American influence inside the system to affect outcomes, rather than barking from the sidelines. And as you can see from this expansive fact sheet on the numerous reforms that the Obama administration has helped to usher in at the UN, this tactic has a more successful track record.

Here in Washington, the trick is convincing appropriators on the Hill not to use UN funding as a cudgel.  As Ambassador Torsella said, that just makes his job harder.

Back in New York, the USA has many allies in the cause. The agenda that Amb. Torsella outlined today is basically shared by all Western countries and developed countries of the Global North.  The challenge lies in convincing the rest of the world that it is in their long term interest to support these kinds of reforms. That’s tough, but not impossible. The trick is building trust and goodwill. Threats to cut off funding don’t help.

UPDATE: See this statement from Better World Campaign director Peter Yeo, which reinforces my point about the value of staying engaged (and paying dues).