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The Heritage Foundation recently hosted a book release for ConUNdrum: The Limits of the UN and the Search for Alternatives.
Is the United Nations more trouble than it is worth? According to editor Brett Schaefer, it might well be, but it sure isn’t going anywhere. Consequently this book is not about whether or not the UN should exist. It’s about how the UN can be made better and, failing that, when to use it versus when to give it a wide berth. As Heritage Foundation President Edwin J. Feulner said, it’s about “what to do when the UN is the wrong venue.”

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton wrote the Foreword of this timely and enlightening book. He addresses where the UN goes wrong, because it is very clear that the UN does go wrong at times, as well as some alternatives to the UN.

Ambassador Bolton’s main point is driven home over and over again. The UN needs a major overhaul. He told us in the audience to look back to the last 25 years of the UN, “the nature of the bureaucracy and its basic precepts have not changed that much.” Perhaps a miniscule amount of reform has occurred but certainly nothing fundamental. Consider the UN’s massive failures such as the infamous oil-for-food scandal. “[Oil-for-food] represented endemic problems with the UN itself,” says Bolton.

Bolton suggests that the key to bring accountability, efficiency, and transparency to the UN lies in changing their basic funding to that of voluntary contributions, a system reminiscent of the rather successful World Food Programme. That way, he says, “if they don’t perform, countries can take their money elsewhere.” This would give the UN more of an incentive to efficiently manage their finances. Bolton and Schaefer both explain that the countries that invest the most into the UN are, of course, the ones with the most to lose by the currently mismanaged funds. The United States, which pays over 2 billion dollars, is very concerned about efficiencies.

Kim R. Holmes, Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, wrote a chapter on Smart Multilateralism: When and When Not to Rely on the United Nations. The point of his chapter is that “multilateralism is not an end in itself.” The U.S. has to be careful that it goes only to the United Nations when they feel they are likely to actually receive help, otherwise it is seen as a diplomatic failure. Even if the UN is willing to help, it should be taken into account that the UN’s help could potentially delay action. “More often than not, when the UN gets involved in these matters, the result is diplomatic stalemate.” Consider current events. Holmes points out that “in the last six months, the North Koreans and Iranians have become even more defiant of the Security Council.”

The U.S. is not being tough enough when allies pledge support in word but back out when it comes to the vote. According to Holmes, “sometimes we need to play harder ball with our allies.” France and Germany did not support the U.S.’s decision with the Iraq War. “European diplomats beat up on us all the time,” he says, yet if the U.S. chooses to exert pressure, it is invariably labeled unilateralist.

Holmes suggests that there is a commonly held viewpoint in the United States that the UN is “an ideological cause more than it is a real institution.” In some cases this makes people less inclined to criticize the UN because doing so would be to attack a grand ideal. “It’s not just an idea. It’s a diplomatic tool like any other,” refutes Holmes. Brett Schaefer agrees with Holmes that the UN is essentially a diplomatic tool. He says, “it is 192 member nations, each of them trying to further their own agendas.”

If perhaps the U.S. were unilateralist, independent of the UN, this book would not be pertinent. However, President Obama made it clear that he intends for his administration to rely on the UN. He has called the UN “indispensable and imperfect.” Imperfect, certainly. One can hope that he will heed the warnings in this book and not be afraid of a little unilateralism.

Sarah Carlsruh is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.