WASHINGTON -- To better understand the detailed and often tiresome 95-page report on the reform of the United Nations that came out this week, one must be transported momentarily to the early 1990s.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Soviets' persistently used veto in the Security Council, a new vigor emerged in the bustling, multilingual corridors of the world organization. The idea was that finally the world could be made anew! The United Nations could truly order the world!
In 1990, there were 10,000 "blue helmets," or peacekeeping troops, on U.N. missions in eight small operations costing some $400 million. By 1993, the tower on the East River was running 18 missions across the globe, with 80,000 troops under its command at the cost of $3.6 billion per year. It was a heady moment.
But it became apparent, first in the Balkan wars and then with the Central African genocides, that the U.N.'s ideas behind using force were wildly contradictory. They really believed only in "moral force." They would put soldiers of member nations into a place like Sarajevo and then let them be taken prisoner and humiliated by the Serbs because, as Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told me in those years, "Once we are using force, that is an expression of failure."
But those Americans who blame the United Nations alone for the disturbing failures of the '90s should take heed, for as Boutros-Ghali unhesitatingly pointed out to me then: "Remember, your government also voted more than 80 times in the Security Council to authorize these missions, knowing full well that we had no way to enforce them."
The passive, at times almost pacifist, early Clinton years coincided with this ultimately unsuccessful rush of blood to the head on the part of the U.N. and served to back up the contradictions. President Clinton didn't want to use power any more than the U.N. did, and until the Bosnian NATO operation in the late '90s, he gave us similarly unsuccessful operations in Haiti and Somalia.
Thus the stage was set for the eventual debut of the "Hate-the-U.N." Americans of today; for that entire decade, the far right was gnashing its teeth at example after example of failure.
So now, after several critical internal U.N. reports during the '90s, we have a new report, prepared by high-level world citizens and headed by former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun. Here are some of the high points of the report of the 16-member panel:
-- It identified a set of guidelines -- five criteria of legitimacy -- that the Security Council and anyone else involved in such decisions should address in considering whether to use force. These are seriousness of threat, proper purpose, last resort, proportional means and balance of consequences. These would "significantly improve the chances of reaching international consensus on what have been in recent years deeply divisive issues."
-- It defined terrorism for the first time. The U.N. panel members saw it as "any action ... that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act."
-- It recommended an expansion of the Security Council to 24 members from 15, but split between two alternatives: One would add six new permanent members (probably Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, Egypt and either Nigeria or South Africa), and the other would create a new tier of at least eight semi-permanent members.
-- Finally, near the end of the report, the members stated that "the United Nations was never intended to be a utopian exercise. It was meant to be a collective security system that worked." But it isn't working, the report says, and among the institutional weaknesses cited are the loss of vitality of the General Assembly, the lack of participation of members of the Security Council, a lack of working with regional and subregional organizations and, pointedly, a serious "legitimacy deficit" in the Commission on Human Rights that "casts doubts on the overall reputation of the United Nations."
Those Americans who learned to be dismissive of the United Nations are asking: "Do we even want to try to reform the U.N.?" And, even more, "Is it still even possible to reform the U.N.?"
I go back once more to the 1990s, which were so formative of all the chaotic contradictions and "kulturkampf" that we are seeing over the world organization today. I remember what Boutros-Ghali warned me of that afternoon: that, yes, the U.N. had its failures, but that the United States had, despite its power and because of its lack of leadership in the Security Council, let them happen. The defective decisions did not come out of nowhere; they were the result of exact decisions made by real people. Those same people can learn and change and make good decisions -- if they so choose.
That is why I believe, as I did during the '90s, when I covered so many fruitless acts by the organization and so much misery in the ugly Balkans wars, that the U.S. should work seriously to reform the organization and not, as the Bush people seem to think, at best to dismiss it and, at worst, destroy it. We desperately need a place where the peoples of the world come together -- more than ever as we face a disintegrating world. We need the U.N.'s humanitarian and analytical work.
We have quite enough studies and reports now to know what is missing. This one should, and actually could, serve as the basis for a new era -- if only.
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