22 June 2007 - 24 June 2007

The future of the United Nations

Chair: Ambassador Thomas R Pickering

Over a weekend of almost unremitting rain – a good omen, we thought, for fertile ideas – Ditchley discussed the United Nations in its global context and how it could most usefully navigate towards effective action.  Huge and varied experience was gathered in the Lecture Theatre, ready to conduct a comprehensive analysis of what was going right or wrong at the UN.  The discussion covered an enormous amount of ground, with some perceptive analysis of the lessons learnt in recent years.  This Note will not attempt to reflect all of it, but will concentrate rather on the areas where improvements might be made and results achieved. 

Our discussion of course covered a number of areas of disappointment, not least the meagre outcome so far from the focus on reform since the turn of the Millennium.  Nevertheless the great majority of participants regarded the UN as indispensable, performing a wide variety of essential and often well-managed tasks, many of which went unrecognised by its critics.  We noted that observers seemed to pay almost exclusive attention to the centre in New York, where many of the problems lay, whereas 90% of the UN’s effective action was being delivered somewhere else.  Relationships between member states frequently lay at the heart of the more intractable problems for the organisation and these played out more in New York than anywhere else. 

We were reminded that the UN had originally been conceived as a club for like-minded states, united in a determination to avoid the mistakes of the first half of the twentieth century.  The global atmosphere was now quite different.  Even the familiar markers of earlier decades – east-west, north-south, developed-developing, security-development – were no longer entirely useful.  It had to be recognised that the UN could not lead on solutions to the hardest issues.  Its record and its potential were much better on second-tier issues:  witness the effectiveness of peacekeeping efforts, for instance, in countries which did not often hit the headlines.  We had to be realistic and recognise that the UN could not, just because of its noble nature, provide a silver bullet to address the most damaging global deficiencies.

With this change in the context, the UN needed to recognise that the agenda had also changed.  Consensus-building might no longer be the organisation’s most productive task.  In the world at large, fewer people now talked specifically about development or human rights:  the focus was on the threats coming from globalisation.  The process for building the consensus on how to meet these had not yet caught up with the realities.  The necessary trust, both amongst member states and between member states and the UN, had not been established for the new era of priorities, the list of which varied widely between different regional and national perspectives.

While we could not help bemoaning the difficulties for the UN in adjusting to changed realities, the company spent a good deal of time discussing how the organisation could adapt in order to produce better results in the areas of greatest potential.  We debated whether the UN should be seen as primarily an actor or an instrument.  There were differences of view, but the majority tended to the latter view.  The specialised agencies performed a huge amount of good work on their own business and needed to be given credit for that.  In the area of inter-governmental business, however, the UN was best seen as first a convenor and then a legitimiser, with member states or other important actors managing the stages in between.  While the centre in New York, both diplomats and secretariat, might see things differently, the reality was otherwise in capitals.  This disconnect was perhaps as great as it had ever been in the UN’s history.  New York remained useful for state-based activities, exchanges, negotiations and agreements.  But when the problem to be addressed affected the welfare or security of peoples, then New York often generated confusion.  On most issues, the UN did not have to lead.  It was better viewed as an instrument for effective action in those areas where it had the human capacity, the expertise, the structure and the resources.  This inevitably implied a degree of selectivity.  The most important conclusion to come out of this conference was perhaps that the UN must avoid seeing itself as the comprehensive organiser of the world’s business.  It should rather focus on sector-by-sector action where member states largely agreed on the approach and assigned a task to the UN because it had the potential to perform it well;  or where the UN could best coordinate the vital and productive partnership with civil society and NGOs.  This theme will be visible in the recommendations set out below.

The conference examined whether the concept of a grand bargain between the developed and the developing worlds, involving security for development, remained valid.  The majority thought not.  For a start, there was no longer a clear division between developed and developing groups of countries.  Globalisation had distributed economic opportunities, human capabilities and indeed political power in ways that differed markedly from the past.  There was hardly a country that did not need both security and development.  “Development” was in any case a term whose meaning was becoming obscure.  While there was considerable support for maintaining the target of 0.7% of GNP for development aid coming from donor countries, trade flows and private sector investment should be regarded as just as important as the transfer of public sector resources.  The combination of all these instruments had worked well in large parts of the globe.  It was really only Africa where the problems of unremitting poverty were compelling.  Africa apart, the Millennium Development Goals were probably achievable.  Even in Africa, trade and private sector capital flows were likely to achieve more progress than government-to-government aid.  Donors should, in the eyes of many, focus more on the rule of law, public sector capacity-building, health and education than on economic projects;  though some participants pointed to the important objective of improving infrastructure in Africa.

This brought us to the significant role, at least potentially, of the regional organisations.  Most people felt that the UN and member states alike had concentrated too little on improving the capacity of, for instance, the African Union;  or on the creation of effective regional or sub-regional organisations where they did not now exist, for instance in parts of Asia.  As the United Nations faltered in its role as a universal actor, particularly in the General Assembly, regional entities were emerging more strongly as the realistic places for effective action.  Not only did the regional organisations need strengthening in their structures and bureaucratic capacity;  they also needed a more direct relationship with the UN.  While the regions would do well to respect the value of the global body as a norm-setter and coordinator, the UN should require a deeper sense of independent responsibility from the regions.  This was an area that might be given greater attention.  The high level panel’s report in 2005 had addressed this, but the follow-up so far had not been effective enough.

There was an intense debate about UN reform.  Should we be aiming for a big bang approach or for incremental improvements?  What had been achieved in the period 2003-2006 with all the post-millennium activity?  Should reform be focused on institutional structures or on specific issues?  Had we got the timing right against the influences of global change more generally?  Some of the answers to these questions will be reflected in the recommendations below, but the debate began to settle in the direction of playing down reform as a fundamental requirement.  It was becoming clearer that institutions in general were bad at reforming themselves even in a period of crisis.  Companies could do it;  so could nations.  But the multilateral system seemed to be bad at it.  Only a truly global crisis, such as a world war, could bring about dramatic institutional change.  Since no-one was inclined to advocate a bang as big as that,  and since the incremental alternative had its own problems of what choices to make and when, it was suggested that a sector-by-sector approach might have merit.  Many participants were inclined to stop talking about reform at all, preferring to concentrate on making the UN more effective in those constituent parts that showed the greatest potential. 

As for the Security Council, while the great majority felt that greater representativeness would be welcome and the veto set aside, it should not be a matter of despair if that did not happen in the near future.  However large the Security Council, there would still be jealousies and resentments on either side of the line.  Some suggested that, if they began to serve longer terms, some of the ‘aspiring’ powers – India, Brazil, Germany and Japan – would set in hand a positive change.  Such a development might also help the middle range of countries, which had a stake neither in the first world security agenda nor in the pro-poor set of development objectives and which in consequence tended to block UN initiatives, to play a constructive role in addressing the deepest global problems.  This needed new habits of consultation and engagement to be generated. 

The role of the United States, as single superpower and host country for UN headquarters, was a constant theme.  The problems between the UN and the US were not going to go away, even after the 2008 Presidential election.  A country as powerful as the US could and would select if and when it turned to the United Nations for action on a problem;  whereas most other countries did not have the choice.  Administrations of either political colour had been in the habit throughout the UN’s history of turning to the organisation as a damage control instrument, rather than as a solver of American problems.  The unilateral, or at least the America-first, inclination would not easily disappear.  Nevertheless the company strongly hoped for a change of tone in 2009 and for a greater recognition amongst Americans that the UN could work in their interests.  It was a paradox that, as the world became more threatening for the United States and as the potential of the UN to be helpful therefore grew, the image of the UN had deteriorated in American opinion polls.  It was also pointed out that the United States was probably mistaken in calling for comprehensive management reform at the United Nations.  This generated enough suspicion and resentment amongst other member states for the path to effective reform to become seriously blocked.  It would be much more helpful for the US to support improvements in those parts of the UN which were working reasonably well, or which had the potential to do so in the near future.

The role of the office of Secretary-General naturally came into the discussion.  We agreed that the core issue for any Secretary-General was productive interaction with the member states.  It was vital that the SG’s office should receive the right support and be organised efficiently, to give this interaction a fair wind.  If the approach remained too constrained and narrow and if the flow of exchanges was not genuinely two-way, then the potential for the Secretary-General to either lead or respond, as seemed appropriate on each issue, would be diminished.  The Secretary-General’s task became ever harder as the world grew more complex.  Perhaps greater understanding was needed on both sides of the SG-member states relationship for the full potential of the office to be realised. 

Out of this debate a number of both general and specific recommendations could be gleaned.  This Note cannot cover all the points raised in such a wide-ranging discussion, but places a value on the following general guidelines: 

·      The UN should concentrate its action on what it can do most effectively.  It did not have to be the organisation that connected up all global activity.  Sectoral or specific choices should be made where there was comparative advantage for the UN.  That did not mean that the UN as a forum, as a norm-setter and as an advocate for collective activity, could not be universal in its rhetoric or its availability;

·      Once those areas of effective action had been chosen, the UN and its friends, governmental or otherwise, should mobilise more actively to support the organisation in performing its tasks.  This approach would be much more likely to regain the trust of member states and other customers than an attempt to be universal; 

·      The UN Secretariat should raise its capacity to defend itself more robustly, with a fully modernised approach to communications; 

·      The UN should beware of too public and substantive a focus on “reform”.  While a comprehensive management shake-up might seem to have a value, it was unlikely to succeed.  It would be a sufficient objective to appoint managers with a higher average capacity and to upgrade and streamline the human resources management system; 

·      The goals already set for the organisation, for instance the Millennium Development Goals, should remain in place and be consistently implemented (comprehensive “reform” should be an exception to this);

·      The Secretary-General and other leaders at the centre should be conscious of the need, on each specific task, to gather a catalytic group of member states to move things forward.  This was the most important product of the SG’s interaction with member states.  In this the Secretariat had to be fully aware of the different perspectives and interests of different groups – a complex business, but in the end manageable;

·      In all of these points there were a number of cross-cutting themes which constantly had to be borne in mind:  the need to engender trust between different groups of states;  the setting of priorities;  the reflection of different objectives for different groups of states;  the realisation that criticism of the UN was a reality and could often be constructive;  the focus on limiting the organisation to what it deliver in practice;  the acceptance that the world’s realities outside the UN constantly had to be reassessed. 

There were also a number of specific points worth listing: 

·      Every effort should be made to shut down mandates from the past that had no remaining practical use; 

·      the implementation of programmes already decided, with potential for results, should be given priority; 

·      in the context of management improvements, each UN agency should be given responsibility to manage its own improvement agenda, with the agency head made accountable to the SG for this;

·      Systematic human resources management improvement should be set in hand and regular management training instituted;

·      Intra-secretariat coordination, with a two-way flow, should be improved; 

·      Peacekeeping was, on the whole, going well and should be given focus and positive presentation, but careful attention needed to paid to the increasing problem of overstretch.  The Peace Operations 2010 initiative, prioritising the rule of law, should be firmly supported.  The area where improvement was needed was field support activity; 

·      The UN should begin to develop a detailed role on climate change.  The politics would become awkward as developing countries affected by climate change started to blame human activity in the developed world.  The UN was a good place to promote linked interests:  for instance, both Canada and India had concerns about melting ice in their territories; 

·      There was a growing momentum behind Responsibility to Protect.  More work needed to be done on making troops available for this purpose, as well as on reducing suspicions of a Western agenda.  There was also value in encouraging the governments in territories where abuse was taking place to develop their own responsibility and capacity for action.  If a culture of cooperation could be engendered, the use of force would become an action of last resort; 

·      Another major area where the UN could develop new activity was in fostering a dialogue between member states, or groups of member states, about the values to be pursued in a global society.  An effort to get member states to agree on shared objectives, to counter the tendency towards highly divided priorities, might bear fruit if well managed;

·      On Middle East issues, notably the Peace Process and Iraq, the UN should be very wary of seeming to take a lead.  But it could have an important support role if agreements materialised;

·      On counter-terrorism, the UN Secretariat missed a chance in 2001-03 to support the Security Council and coordination between member states.  The one role it could usefully play now was to stimulate cooperation and coordination between agencies and non-UN institutions involved in any aspect of counter-terrorism and related criminal activities; 

·      The coherence agenda was fading as a headline issue, but should not be abandoned.  There was plenty of good work to be done, especially at the field level.  The General Assembly, on the other hand, was unlikely to make progress on this; 

·      The Human Rights Council had started badly and was unlikely to recover as a reputable organisation for the promotion of human rights.   Effective action in this area would need to be developed by other organisations in specific initiatives; 

·      Intergovernmental oversight of the UN’s activities could be useful, but was in a thoroughly confused state at UN headquarters.  Having large numbers of diplomats micromanaging professional activities was not helpful.  It might be worth running a pilot project with independent regulators in specific areas and then enlarging the concept if it seemed to work. 

The conference was in no doubt that there were several other areas where focussed UN action would be valuable.  But even the list above showed that there were critical areas where the UN could make progress.   One of the most complex implications of global change was that the world was becoming more integrated, but also more ungoverned.  Nation states, members of the United Nations, had to take primary responsibility for addressing the fundamental issues.  But the UN had a valuable role to play in a large number of areas, if these were carefully chosen and effective action was made the top priority.  The conference very much hoped that this approach would form the basis of Secretary General Ban’s approach in his first term. 

This weekend was a rich mixture of deep professional respect and concern for the UN and strong advocacy for a pragmatic approach.  The developing world was under-represented, but its concerns were given a fair hearing.  We owed a lot to our Chairman, whose firm hand and careful guidance kept the discussion in a constructive mode.  And there was no doubt about our collective belief that the UN would stay fully relevant for a long time to come.  The to-do list, however, remains a daunting one.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression. 


Chairman:  Ambassador Thomas R Pickering
Vice Chairman, Hills & Company, Washington DC;  Consultant, The Boeing Company.  Formerly:  Permanent Representative to the UN, New York (1989 92).  A Director, The American Ditchley Foundation.

HE Mr John Dauth LVO

High Commissioner of Australia to New Zealand (2006-).  Formerly:  Permanent Representative to the UN, New York (2001-05).

HE Dr Gerhard Pfanzelter

Permanent Representative of Austria to the UN, New York (1999-).

Dr David Bercuson

Director, Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, The University of Calgary (1997-);  Special Advisor to the Minister of National Defence on the Future of Canadian Forces (1997).
Ms Louise Fréchette
Distinguished Fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation, Waterloo, Ontario (2006-).  Formerly:  Deputy Secretary General, UN Secretariat (1998-2006).
Mr Paul Heinbecker
Director, Laurier University Centre for Global Relations and Distinguished Fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation, Waterloo, Ontario (2003-).  Formerly:  Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN (2000-2003).
HE Dr David Malone
High Commissioner of Canada to India and Ambassador to Bhutan and Nepal (2006-).

Dr Alistair Edgar

Executive Director, Academic Council on the UN System, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario (2003-);  Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University (on secondment 2003-08).

HE Ms Ellen Loj

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark (1973-);  Ambassador of Denmark to the Czech Republic (2007-).  Formerly:  Permanent Representative to the UN, New York (2001-07).

Mr John Richardson

Head, Maritime Policy Task Force, European Commission (2005-).  Formerly:  Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Commission to the UN, New York (2001-05).

Ms Sylvie Bermann

Director, UN and International Organisations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris (2005-).

HE Mr Wolfgang Ischinger

German Foreign Service (1975-);  Ambassador of Germany to the UK, London (2006-).  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, the Ditchley Foundation.
HE Mr Thomas Matussek
Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN (2007-).

HE Mr Kamalesh Sharma

Indian foreign Service (1965-);  High Commissioner of India to the UK (2005-).  Formerly:  Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to East Timor (2003-04);  Permanent Representative to the UN, New York (1997-2003).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Mrs Sadako Ogata

President, Japan International Cooperation Agency (2003-);  Chair, The Advisory Board on Human Security (2003-);  Member, UN Advisory Committee on Genocide Prevention (2006-).

Mr Terje Roed-Larsen

President, International Peace Academy, UN, New York (2005-).  Formerly:  Special Co-ordinator for Middle East Peace Process, UN (1999-2004).

HE Mr Yury Fedotov

Russian Diplomatic Service (1971-);  Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the UK, London (2005-).

Baron Dr Peter Piot

Executive Director, UNAIDS (1995-);  Under-Secretary-General to the UN, New York.

Mrs Anna Tibaijuka

Director-General, UN Office, Nairobi (2006-);  Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Habitat (2002-).

Mr Nicholas Ferguson

SVG Capital Plc:  Chairman (2005-), Director (1996-).  Formerly:  Chairman, Schroder Ventures (1984 1996).
The Rt Hon Lord Hannay of Chiswick GCMG CH
Chairman, The UN Association of the UK (2006-).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Emyr Jones Parry
HM Diplomatic Service (1973-);  Permanent Representative of the UK to the UN, New York (2003-).
Ms Bronwen Maddox
Chief Foreign Commentator, The Times (2006-).  Member, Programme Committee and a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Timothy Morris
HM Diplomatic Service (1981-);  Head, International Organisations, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2006-).
Mr Stephen Pattison
HM Diplomatic Service (1981-);  Director for International Security, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2004-).
Sir John Sawers KCMG
HM Diplomatic Service (1977-);  Ambassador of the UK to the UN (designate).  Formerly:  Political Director, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2003-07).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Director, Policy Foresight Programme, James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization, University of Oxford.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Mark Turner
UN Correspondent, The Financial Times.

Professor Mats Berdal
Professor of Security and Development, Department of War Studies, King’s College London (2003-);  Visiting Professor, Norwegian Defence Staff College, Oslo (2006-).

Mr Jean-Marie Guéhenno

Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, UN, New York (2000-);  Member, UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters (1999-);  Chairman, Institut des Hautes Études de Défense Nationale, Paris (1998-).
Ms Carolyn McAskie
Assistant-Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, UN, New York (2006-).

Mr Sam Daws

Executive Director, UN Association of the UK (2004-);  Director, 3D Associates, Geneva and Oxford (1990 ).

Mrs Judy Cheng-Hopkins

Assistant High Commissioner for Operations, UN High Commission for Refugees, Geneva.

Ambassador Harriet Babbitt

Attorney at Law, Washington DC;  Board of Directors:  The World Resources Institute and The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
Dr Elizabeth Cousens
Vice President, International Peace Academy, New York (2004-).
Mr Steve Crawshaw
UN Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch, New York (2006-)
Ambassador James Dobbins
Director, RAND, International Security and Defense Policy Center.
The Hon Dr Kim Holmes
Vice President, Foreign and Defense Studies and Director, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, The Heritage Foundation (2005-).
Professor Donald McHenry
Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.  A Director, The American Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Joseph S Nye
Distinguished Service Professor, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (2004-);  Director, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington.
Ambassador Carlos Pascual
Vice President and Director, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution (2006-).
Mr Eric Rosand
Senior Fellow, Center on Global Counter-Terrorism Cooperation, New York (2006-).
The Hon Nicholas Rostow
University Counsel and Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs, The State University of New York (2006-);   University Fellow, The Levin Institute of International Relations and Commerce (2005-).  Member, American Ditchley Advisory Council.
Ms Brooke Shearer
Consultant, International Partnerships for Microbicides.  Formerly:  Executive Director, World Fellows Program, Yale University;  Senior Adviser to the Secretary of Interior;  Director, President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, The White House.
Professor Stephen Stedman
Senior Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation (2002-);  Director, Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies, Stanford University.
The Hon Strobe Talbott
President, The Brookings Institution, Washington (2002-).  Formerly:  Founding Director, The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization (2001-02);  Deputy Secretary of State, US State Department (1994-2001).

Dr Bruce Jones

Co-Director and Senior Fellow, Center on International Cooperation, New York University.

Sir Mark Malloch Brown KCMG

Vice Chairman Soros Fund Management and The Open Society Network, New York (2007-).  Formerly:  UN Deputy Secretary-General (2006-);  Chef de Cabinet to UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan (2005);  Administrator, UN Development Programme (1999-2005).