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Power games

By John Langmore - posted Wednesday, 14 June 2006

The normal international struggle for political power which focuses on the United Nations is escalating into the most serious crisis for 60 years. Unless a cap on spending is removed by the end of June it may not be possible for the Security Council to meet because there will be no money to pay translators or security staff. This could compare with the US government shutdown in 1995 when Republicans in Congress tried to force their will on President Clinton - though that turned out to be a disaster for the Republicans because of the public’s antagonism to closure of public services.

The framework for this impasse was set last December in negotiations over the 2006-7 budget. John Bolton, the abrasive US Ambassador to the UN, had been arguing to withhold approval of the two year budget until his large package of American-centred reforms was accepted, provoking a stubborn response from many countries.

Pressured by the Europeans and other states, a compromise was agreed setting a cap on outlays of $950 million which allowed six months for negotiation of reforms but left the future of many programs uncertain and staff unsettled. There were rumours of more retrenchments but no framework or target date for decisions, increasing staff insecurity and reducing effectiveness.


Since January important agreed reforms have included:

  • the establishment of the Human Rights Council and the Peacebuilding Commission;
  • inauguration of the Democracy Fund sought by President Bush;
  • tabling of a report on methods for reviewing mandates older than five years by the Secretary-General; and
  • the establishment of an Ethics Office, a Management Performance Board, and so on.

In March Kofi Annan presented a detailed report on organisational issues, Investing in the United Nations: for a stronger Organization worldwide. His recommendations cover staff, leadership, IT, service delivery, budgeting, finance and governance. They focus on such goals as strengthening the Secretariat’s ability to manage complex operations; building middle and senior management capacity; shortening the budget cycle; and expanding the Secretary-General’s authority to redeploy posts and use available resources.

One of Annan’s purposes is to reduce tedious micromanagement by the 191 member states. However his proposals have been interpreted by developing countries as encroaching on their limited influence. He is perceived by many member states as too acquiescent to the US, so that strengthening of his power at the expense of the General Assembly could strengthen American power at the expense of developing countries.

On April 28, 2006 the Fifth Committee (where financial issues are discussed) broke a 20-year tradition of consensus by voting 108 to 50 for a developing country resolution requesting ten reports on the Secretary-General’s recommendations, so delaying decisions until well after the end of June, and this decision was endorsed by the General Assembly by the same margin. Most developed countries including Australia voted against the resolution.

This conflict between the rich and the rest has several causes. Developing countries distrust calls by the US for reform since these are perceived as cover for the Bush Administration’s relentless campaign to weaken the UN. As well as being ideologically opposed to multilateralism, the Bush Administration is attacking a competitor to its unilateral pre-eminence and retaliating for the refusal of most countries to authorise the invasion of Iraq. It has sought revenge by attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the UN and to make it more compliant with American preferences.


Developing countries also resent their marginalisation. UN governance has the same structure as global power in 1945. Failure to reform the Security Council to include such countries as Brazil, India, Japan and South Africa is partly because the US hasn’t supported admission of any developing countries on a longer term basis. So the call for reform masks an intense political struggle about power and the future control of the Organisation.

There has been advocacy for reform at the UN since shortly after it was established. All complex organisations must continually struggle to improve effectiveness. It is essential to regularly clarify goals and review strategies and a constant need for strengthening focus and improving administration. Many developing countries recognise this as clearly as developed countries.

Yet the polarisation caused by US hostility and symbolised by Ambassador Bolton’s aggressiveness makes acceptance of any American proposal ten times more difficult. This intense scepticism is compounded by threats by the US and more recently Japan, the second largest contributor, to withdraw funding if their proposals are not accepted.

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About the Author

John Langmore, a former MP and Director at the UN, is now a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and National President of the UN Association of Australia.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by John Langmore
Related Links
Don't shut down the UN
Financial Times - Annan hits at US use of 'the power of the purse' at UN
The Washington Post - At the U.N., Bluster Backfires

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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