Home Field Advantage at the UN

Steve Saideman on why it’s true the UN is only as good as its members, but that doesn’t mean its structure doesn’t shape how those members interact.

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25 September, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Every year, we see many but not all of the leaders of the world give a speech at the start of the UN General Assembly session.  There are many rituals involved, including blaming the UN for things and asking for reforms.  The tweet below reminds us that the UN gets more blame than it should.

However, there is such a thing as home-field advantage.  Every stadium has its own quirks and characteristics that tend to favour some players and teams and disfavour others, whether it is the Green Monster in Fenway Park or the cold weather in Chicago, Buffalo, and other northern (well, for the U.S.) cities without domes. 

Any institution is not just a building and a set of procedures but an arena where the structure of the institution empowers some actors, weakens others, and leads to some strategies being deployed more often than others.  The United Nations is no exception, and we need to keep in mind that the institution itself is not so much an actor as it is a place where various actors compete, and that the UN’s design shapes how those competitions are fought and who wins.

The most important attribute of the UN is that all members are treated as equal except when they are not.  Any and every member can have its leader or a representative speak to the UN General Assembly each fall.  The president of Burkina Faso has the same opportunity as the president of the United States.  The prime minister of Canada has the same chance to address the rest of the world (even if he chooses not to take advantage of it) as the prime minister of Samoa.  This formal equality matters a great deal, especially to those countries that are hardly equal in any other way. Of course, just because everyone can speak does not mean that everyone gets equal attention.

The second key attribute is that five members of the Security Council are permanent.  The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and the People’s Republic of China do not have to worry, as Canada does, about getting a seat at the table.  They also have vetoes, which means that the UN often becomes pretty irrelevant when the permanent members don’t agree.  It has been so long since the Cold War that we have almost forgotten that the UN is often a bystander, handicapped by the vetoes of the U.S., Russia and/or China.  There will be much talk about Syria at the UN this week and next, but given that Russia and the U.S. are on opposite sides, like the good old days, there is little the UN can do.

The third key attribute is a stunning lack of accountability.  In Bosnia, the UN was crashing a car pretty much every day.  Why?  Many of the drivers had never driven before getting behind the wheel of a UN vehicle, and driving a UN vehicle is like driving a rental car, except doubly so – no one ever washes a rental car (well, except a key character in Breaking Bad), and no one cares about the condition of a vehicle belonging to an international organization because there is little punishment if one does wrong.  Indeed, crashing cars is among the least problematic things that UN peacekeepers have done, and abetting human trafficking among the worst.  All the UN can do is send someone home.

The fourth key feature is that contributions to any mission are voluntary.  So, if there is enough disinterest, the forces in the field will have very little capability, as was the case in Rwanda.  Again, as the Holbrooke reference reminds us, this is not the UN’s fault but the fault of its members.  Well, mostly.  The UN has a bureaucracy that is often especially interested in the protection of the institution.  And as Michael Barnett’s Eyewitness to Genocide testifies, that institution did not cover itself in glory in the spring of 1994 either.

So every fall, leaders from around the world come together to celebrate the United Nations and, well, lambaste each other.  This year Obama snarked at Putin over American exceptionalism.  A few years ago, it was Hugo Chavez essentially calling George W. Bush the devil.  So perhaps it is only suitable that I rain a bit on the UN parade this week by pointing out that while it has some noble purposes and has done a great deal of good, the UN as an institution is very much like any sporting arena – the shape of it determines the strategies that are used and favours some players over others.  We can laud its intent but we need to keep in mind its limitations.

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