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Joachim Müller, Reforming the United Nations: A Chronology (Brill, 2016), pp. 428.

Reviewed by: Michael Platzer (Liaison Officer for the Academic Council on the United Nations and Chair Vienna NGO Alliance for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice)

“Everything you ever wanted to know about UN reform and more” could be the subtitle of the book. To my knowledge, this is the first complete chronology of the UN reform efforts since its foundation in 1945. Joachim Müller, a long-time UN practitioner and one of the UN’s few intellectual historians, presents a mine of information. His work can serve as a resource book of what has already been tried and failed. This book is the seventh volume in a series. So, we are discussing a vast and deeply pondered subject.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan walking towards the General Assembly hall to deliver his speech on UN reform. photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The first difficulty in reforming the UN is that reform means different things to different people. Developed countries see reform as a matter of better management, efficient use of funds, close coordination of activities, and effective delivery of results. Developing countries may see reform as a matter of representative governance, as in the enlargement of the UN Security Council or in greater transparency in the appointment of key officials. Still others—civil society and ordinary people—see reform as a matter of empowerment, of unleashing the full potential of the UN to tackle global problems and urgent crises. When the BBC and CNN report breaking news, we want the UN to do something concrete. Here, reform is understood in terms of making actual changes, including structural and process modifications, implementation of new mandates, or development of effective management.

The book contains a chronology of the main reform initiatives in relation to the eight Secretaries-General. This is supplemented by a detailed chronology of reform events on a day-by-day basis. In addition, the book provides a short introduction to the UN, some recent reform documents, and useful supporting information, including a 30-page bibliography on UN reform. In the bibliography, there is a reference to a book published in 1950, which suggests that there was already talk about a reform just five years after the UN was established.

Utilizing the tenure of the eight Secretaries-General is a clever way of organising the discussion on the UN’s reforms. It puts initiatives into the context of their time and provides for a better understanding of why some reforms prospered whereas others failed. The scope and diversity of the efforts become clear when listing some of the main initiatives that occurred during the tenure of individual Secretaries-General.

Trygve Lie (Norway), the first secretary-general, built the foundation of the UN. He was instrumental in establishing the headquarters building in New York and defined the role of the Secretary-General, which was not apparent at that time, as a political actor.

Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) is credited with establishing peacekeeping and resolving a major financial crisis associated with that. During his tenure, there was a reform proposal, advanced by the Soviet Union, that called for the replacement of the Secretary-General by a troika. This proposal was not approved.

U Thant (Burma) was secretary-general at the time of rapid decolonisation and the massive increase of technical assistance. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) were established during this period. Sir Robert Jackson issued his famous Capacity Study arguing in favour of central coordination of development activities. Under U Thant’s supervision, UN’s staff had also expanded to 8,000 by 1970 generating concern about overlap, duplication, and inefficiencies. These issues remained with the UN ever since.

Kurt Waldheim’s (Austria) term was at a time when the UN became a forum for policy discussion on development. Developing countries demanded national control over resources and self-reliance through a New International Economic Order. One of the organisational adjustments was the creation of the post of Director General for Development and International Economic Co-operation.

Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru) was in charge when the US increasingly retreated from the UN. The US has levelled accusations of politicization and mismanagement against the UN. Disagreement of a political nature resulted in targeting resources and items in the budget process. The US’s non-payment led to a near financial collapse of the UN. The Intergovernmental Group of 18 succeeded in pacifying the US through cuts in budget and staff and an agreement on a new budget process based on consensus.

Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) took office at the end of the Cold War. During that time, there was a rediscovery of the UN’s capacities and a massive increase in peacekeeping. The new “Agenda for Peace” elaborated on preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. The UN’s efforts to develop an Agenda for Development were less successful.

Kofi Annan (Ghana) is credited with renewing the UN, developing the Millennium Development Goals, strengthening peacekeeping on the basis of the Brahimi Report, and agreeing to a reduction of US financial contributions. At the time of the 60th UN anniversary in 2005, corruption in Oil-for-Food programme and peacekeeping procurement became key concerns. Nonetheless, the General Assembly managed to approve the concept of “responsibility to protect”, establish the Peacebuilding Commission, and replaced the discredited Human Rights Commission by a new Council.

Ban Ki-moon (South Korea) launched a number of housekeeping changes with variable success. These changes ranged from restructuring to staff rotation and a zero-tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers. The renovation of headquarters project, which was inherited from Kofi Annan, was plagued with cost increases and delays. Other initiatives implemented at the time covered UN’s Peace Operations’ High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) that addressed asymmetric warfare, establishment of UN Women through consolidation of smaller entities and “Delivering as One” initiative, and the voluntary coordination of UN agencies at the country level. The approval of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will however, require substantial organisational adjustments and increased cooperation between the UN agencies and organisations.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with Mr. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General-designate. photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Unfinished business is described in a detailed review of the Security Council reform, which is the longest negotiation process of the UN taking over 20 years. The emergence of the Group of four with a global economic status drives the change. The Group of four members (India, Japan, Germany, Brazil) want permanent membership, whereas middle income countries and regional rivals object (Pakistan, Italy, Argentina). This resulted in a checkmate. Permanent members are simply reluctant to share their privileged position. An agreement on the reform of the UN Security Council would require two-thirds of the membership, including all permanent members, a hurdle difficult to overcome.

Looking back at the history of the UN reform, Joachim Müller provides some interesting insights. He elaborates on the drivers of reform and on the need for catalytic shift, such as the end of the Cold War, to make reform happen. The book examines diverse topics covering the varying roles of the US, developing countries (G77/Non-Aligned Movement), the European Union and the Nordic countries. A desire to protect national sovereignty is highlighted as a major constraint to a successful reform of the UN. With regard to the reform of the decision-making process, it is demonstrated that intergovernmental negotiations require consensus and often lead to lowest common denominator decisions. Finally, resistance to reform also comes from the ingrained interest of the bureaucracy, even by certain personalities and their protective countries.

Why is UN reform so difficult? The reason might be more deep seated. The UN is an organisation of nation states pursuing national interests. UN did a pretty good job with regard to what the founding fathers intended it to do, keeping the peace. Today’s challenges are cross-border and domestic in nature (“responsibility to protect”, humanitarian intervention, and environmental threats). Successful reform may require a deeper commitment to a multilateral approach and a certain abdication of national sovereignty. Reformers also needs to draw lessons from the past attempts. This makes the book, “Reforming the United Nations: A Chronology”, indispensable for anyone interested in a renewed or possibly just a reinvigorated UN. Change will also depend on the energy and commitment of the new Secretary General, Antonio Gutteres. This book will remain the standard reference book for years to come.