Gert Rosenthal, Inside the United Nations; Multilateral Diplomacy Up Close, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 151 pp.

Reviewed by: Cigdem Pekar (Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Political Science, Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Turkey)

Inside the United Nations; Multilateral Diplomacy Up Close by Gert Rosental has been published in the Routledge’s “Global Institutions Series” as a part of its blue volumes in 2017. The book promises to shed light on the different aspects of major global and regional organizations, which enables the reader to profoundly understand the concept of ‘global governance’. The author, Gert Rosenthal, is an experienced Guatemalan economist and diplomat who has served in different posts at the United Nations (UN) for several years. During his 12-year work experience at the UN, he took active part as an ‘insider’ in all three intergovernmental organs of the UN; the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the Security Council.

Rosental relies on his “cumulative learning experience of so many years” to explain the “complex” multilateral diplomatic process of decision making at the UN organs. To this end, the author has chosen six case studies which clearly show dynamics of the consensus building at the UN through the engagement of member states and different actors such as NGOs, academics, civil society, business sector, and parliamentarians. He directs the attention of the reader to a set of features which have made UN’s work more complex and time-consuming since its establishment. According to the author, these features are as follows: i) expanding membership of the organization which makes consensus building “increasingly cumbersome”, ii) expansion of the international agenda which has led to “proliferation of resolutions”, iii) tensions between continuity and change in a decision-making process, iv) inherent quality of multilateral diplomacy which explains why typical UN resolutions are seen “too light in substance as far as tangible actions are concerned”, and v) the expanding membership’s distinct “pecking order” among members which has an effect on the degree of ‘leverage’ during multilateral negotiations. (p. 2-6)

First Session of the United Nations Security Council. photo credit: UN Photo/Marcel Bolomey.

Rosental has witnessed the negotiation process, captured in the six chosen case studies, as an experienced diplomat from the front-row seats. Following the introduction, which provides an overview of the working and decision-making principles of the UN, the author included six chapters exploring the cases and an overview chapter which summarizes the ‘lessons learned’.

In the first two chapters the author focuses on the consensus building at the UN General Assembly. He first provides his personal reflection on the preparation and adoption of the 2000 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). According to Ambassador Rosental, during the preparatory process for the Millennium Summit “all the stars appeared to be propitiously aligned” which has let it to become one of the most successful multilateral diplomacy exercises in the organization’s recent history. (p.17) Departing from this diplomatic success, the author sheds light on the preparatory process and the outcome of the 2002 International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico in the second chapter. Although the obstacles that developing countries face in achieving sustainable development have been debated for over a decade at the UN , according to the author, the conference held in Monterrey is a ‘fruit’ of the careful and progressive consensus-building that took place at the UN. This consensus was built on the aforementioned Millennium Declaration. Rosental emphasizes the positive atmosphere during the Conference’s negotiations and discusses lobbying efforts of the Mexican government to include Cuban and American leaders in the event. As a result, over 50 heads of state and government, including President George W. Bush of the United States and President Fidel Castro of Cuba, foreign and finance ministers, representatives of international organizations, and several NGOs have attended this successful event. In addition to the broad international participation, the Conference also attracted public attention to the national and international levels. Such attention is of vital importance as it enables organizers to obtain public support for the follow-up events.

From the author’s perspective, the two major international conferences: the Millennium Summit and the Financing for Development Conference were regarded by the authors as “successful products of the multilateral diplomacy” (p. 34). According to the author these two cases show the reader that “persistence seemed to pay off” (p. 33). Although negotiations take a long time at the UN level, compromises eventually take place and consensus is built at the end according to Ambassador Rosental. Furthermore Rosenthal emphasizes the important role played by the non-state actors, NGOs, business sector, and academics in mitigating some opposition from advanced economies in this consensus building process.

In the third chapter the author sheds light on the ‘battle’ over the proposed budgetary commitments to the UN at the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly. During its 55th session in 2000-2001, the committee has witnessed intense negotiations between countries (or groups of countries) about the ratio of financial contributions. Ambassador Rosenthal, as the president of the Fifth Committee at that time, had the opportunity to closely follow the negotiation process. He used this experience to show the audience major players’ different positions and “red lines” regarding the member states’ contributions to the UN’s regular budget. (p.52) For example, while the US wanted a ceiling at 20 percent for their contribution to regular budget, Japan insisted on not going beyond 20 percent. The European Union kept on reminding the other member states that they are contributing above their share of global GNP. Without doubt readers would get more and more curious regarding the outcome of the negotiations. The author insightfully tells us the story of how “everyone got a little” (p.55) from the negotiations with small concessions and constructive role played by some major powers (such as Russia and China) at the end.

Fourth chapter focuses on the relations between intergovernmental organs of the UN institution. The author shares his personal views, as a former President of the ECOSOC in 2003, regarding the ‘identity crisis’ the Council has been experiencing since its foundation. Rosenthal correctly claims that this crisis stems from the Council’s relations with the General Assembly as a result of a ‘dilemma’ in the UN Charter. While Article 60 of the Charter puts the functions of the ECOSOC “under the authority of the General Assembly”, Article 71 states that the ECOSOC is a principal organ of the UN which is “not subject to the authority of any organ” (p. 59). In light of the latest developments, Ambassador Rosental cannot make projections regarding the future of the Council’s “identity crisis”.

Chapters five and six take a close look at the election campaigns and decision-making processes of the Security Council, which is the “world’s most important multilateral organ” according to the author. Regarding the electoral politics at the UN, the author provides his insights about the multilateral diplomacy on support mechanism among states. With a focus on different Latin American and Caribbean regional groups where countries bid to run for a seat in the Security Council for a two-year term (2012-2013), the author tells the audience a story of the ‘legendary’ election process which has gone through 47 rounds of balloting in 2006. (p.76)

In the sixth chapter the author focuses on the perspective of the small states on different issues in the Security Council, which, according to the Rosental, is a flawed organ of a flawed organization. Departing from the obvious tensions between the common interests of all members and the national interests of the ‘major players’, the author shares his personal views on the issues, such as lack of transparency and accountability in the Council, controversial matter of ‘over-representation’ or ‘under-representation’ of some regions, growing frustration with the status quo, and a long-debated subject of the possibility of Security Council reform. This discussion presents an important opportunity for the reader to understand more deeply the current ‘system of governance’ agenda of this crucial organ. (p. 104) However, taking into account author’s career in multilateral diplomacy, it is not surprising to read his concluding views on the Council. He concludes that, since the Council is still playing a crucial role in the collective security, the absence of the Security Council in the existing world order would become even greater risk. (p. 117)

General View of the Opening Session of Millennium Summit. photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

Concluding the book with a ‘lessons learnt’ chapter, the author enables the reader to re-evaluate the six different case studies and to remember the complex process of multilateral diplomacy at work in the UN. Furthermore, suggested readings included in the book provide the audience with a wide range of resources. These resources are helpful to those who would like to gain a deeper understanding of the UN, especially about the issues discussed in this book.

Inside the United Nations; Multilateral Diplomacy Up Close, written by Ambassador Rosental, significantly contributes to the audience’s understanding about the inner dynamics of the UN as an intergovernmental machinery by providing different examples of multilateral diplomacy. The author’s expertise in the diplomatic area and his first-hand experience in the case studies presented are one of the strengths of the book. Although the book covers a detailed analysis of UN’s working principles and the parameters at play in the decision making at the UN, it has a clear and intelligent language. In this regard, the structure of the book facilitates understanding of the UN more profoundly. In the first three chapters the author shows the dynamics of the UN multilateral diplomacy at work around specific events. The rest of the three chapters focus on the working principles of the different organs through case studies. Thus, not only students and scholars in the fields of international relations, politics, and diplomacy, but also general audience interested in these issues would greatly benefit from this book.