02 December 1994 - 04 December 1994

The United Nations at Fifty: Its Role in Global Security

Chair: Mr Denis McLean CMG

Ditchley’s wry serendipity set us to discuss United Nations peace-keeping amid the severest crisis of confidence that that activity had undergone since the Congo strife a third of a century ago. The UN had to its credit a substantial contribution to world stability during the East/ West confrontation of the Cold War; with that era now past, what was to be the prime focus for its security role? There was no shortage of conflict to be managed or, better, averted; but the high hopes immediately after the Gulf War had ebbed far, as settings like ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Somalia brought home the tensions between a sense of global interdependence and the forces of resurgent nationalism and sometimes of state breakdown.

Constant expectations by member nations that the UN must resolve a growing array of problems had imposed on the UN a new activism; but “do-something” demand seemed to have outrun capacity, and neither financing nor infrastructure had developed to match the expectations. The result was constant improvisation and a loss of confidence which now risked, especially in the crucial arena of United States politics, generating a downward spiral of under-resourcing and fresh operational difficulty. (Some participants conjectured that a special awkwardness arose from the circumstance that the United States - as any superpower might? - had perhaps a national culture to which concepts of conflict-handling less clear and time-defined than victory or defeat did not come easily. But we observed that currently-proposed Presidential guidance on US involvement was not rigidly framed.)

There were, we all agreed, marked shortcomings within the UN organisation itself. But prior questions arose about what member states desired of the UN in the security field. The community of 184 states seemed by no means at one on whether a new and more effective UN was truly to be willed and changes necessary to that end driven through. Concepts of UN intervention sat uncomfortably with those of national sovereignty to which most states remained deeply attached; there were difficult gaps between countries’ propensity to make demands of the UN and their readiness to shoulder the price - sometimes in lives lost as well as money and material contributed - of meeting them in harsh and confused settings; and many of the smaller or less wealthy countries still perceived UN attitudes as over dominated by the thinking and interests of the developed West. Difficult choices between freedom - which often meant disruptive change - and the stability of order presented themselves constantly; the difficulty was intensified moreover by the fact that the UN in practice was often the last-resort recipient of complex and intractable problems. It was strongly urged that the UN’s fiftieth year should be marked by a fundamental and candid debate - some of us, though far from all, believed its form should indeed be a review of the Charter itself - on what was wanted and feasible for the next half-century.

Could the UN do more, we wondered, to stave off conflict before it happened? Prediction was difficult; it was hard for the Secretary-General to move - especially in situations likely, almost by definition, to be sensitive - unless a member state took the initiative; and the collectivity of nations was usually even more reluctant than individual ones to grasp nettles before events had shown that to be unavoidable. But the Secretary-General’s “good offices”, directly or through special representatives, were (as many instances proved) a valuable resource provided that they were not overloaded. There seemed a strong case for improving the knowledge base on which he could operate, for example by fuller and better-co-ordinated use of the information and access already available to the Agencies and other UN-related bodies, and perhaps by some strengthened central capability for monitoring, collation and analysis. We heard briefly - but powerfully - the view that rising expectations of the Secretary-General demanded for the future a much more open and satisfactory process of election to the post.

We were in no doubt of the severity of the challenges now facing UN operations in situations of civil strife. Combatants were intermingled or hard to identify; classical military force (like air power) might be impossible to apply neatly and decisively, even if the will existed; attempts at defining thresholds of violence, or setting time limits, might merely stimulate one contending party or another to re-shape or spin out its activity rather than to end it. Amid all this it' was manifestly important for the UN, in the Security Council or elsewhere, to confront early and in candid discussions the definition of practical operational objectives, reflecting a political strategy related to an honest appraisal of local realities, and framed in terms able to guide hard decisions on the ground, not merely to command drafting consensus in New York. It needed to be recognised that many well-sounding aims were often incompatible with one another in situations of breakdown - to restore order? to minimise loss of life? to further the cause of justice? The UN might need a fresh and more nuancé vocabulary in which to express policy choices and to manage public presentation - the term “peace-keeping” itself, one participant suggested, had made a significant contribution to public understanding and disappointment about what UN deployment was designed and able to achieve in Bosnia.

We agonised inconclusively about the grounds on which the UN might in the future simply take, and then publicly justify, decisions to say No to particular involvements proposed. Many of us thought that such decisions must increasingly be needed if the UN was not to be gradually overwhelmed by a lava-flow of insoluble problems; but to refuse the attempt to help would in each hard case require shared clarity of vision and a shared toughness of resolve for which recent experience shared few encouraging signs, especially as high-profile media coverage of conflict-driven disasters triggered powerful human sympathies among the publics of more fortunate countries. The significance of the media indeed recurred throughout our discussion, in terms which from time to time criticised their potential to distort or over-simplify and commended their ability to concentrate attention on the tackling of shortcomings. Few of us thought the UN itself was consistently skilful in the handling of the media, though we had to acknowledge the problems which an international secretariat had to face in sustaining coherent and timely presentation amid often- conflicting national priorities, sensitivities and attention-seeking.

We managed to do little more than wring our hands about the difficulties of paying for operations, and of confronting financial realities in good time. These repeatedly caused intervention to start late and on a shoe-string, and so militated against the firm early action which often offered the best chance of success; and the culture of short-term improvisation impeded proper preparatory investment, for example in the training of staffs and force components. Better agreed costing conventions were needed and fairer - including, less rigid - arrangements for assessing ability to pay. The US determination to cap its contributions at25% portended severe problems.

Training standards, we heard, were among several respects in which practical improvement was badly needed. For good political reasons broad national participation in operations was important; yet national forces varied enormously in their professional standards, their equipment, their ability to co-operate with others and their psychological readiness for deployment far from home in unfamiliar conditions and for unfamiliar roles - disadvantages all of which were often perpetuated by wastefully-frequent rotation patterns. There was a strong case, despite the political difficulties, for a new drive - in which the Secretary-General might take the lead - to codify standards, maintain their observance, share training (as was done to notable effect among Scandinavian countries) and strengthen arrangements for systematic absorption and dissemination of the fruits of experience. Improvements of an analogous kind were needed in the staffing, orientation and training of the secretarial and support organisations likely to be involved.

This last point linked, as many thought, with the need for clear and unitary lines of command - requiring individual nations to refrain from own-contingent back-seat driving - and for politically-approved rules of engagement that did not shirk responsibility for the difficult cases that would arise on the ground. The post-Yugoslavia turmoil pointed this up sharply - as it did also the deepening mismatch between humanitarian missions and enforcement ones; the two required widely different force size, composition, equipment and deployment, and prior commitment to the former was apt to be a serious obstacle, rather than a suitable staging-post, to commitment for the latter.

We heard strongly-presented arguments that some of the ills that beset the UN in rapid and flexible response to emerging problems might be alleviated by the creation of a special standing force, internationally recruited from volunteers, which could be deployed at short notice in roles akin more to police than to military action. Significant practical snags were adduced against such a force, but the discussion acknowledged that the problems at which the concept was directed were real and at present lacked solutions.

The discussion ranged widely if more briefly over other issues: the case for reform of the Security Council if it was to command the confidence and facilitate the involvement of a broader set of responsibility-sharers; the need not to lose sight of less glamorous aspects of UN support for world security, such as the continuing search for useful new measures of arms control (as for instance over arms transfers); and the importance of the UN’s contribution, in conjunction with such institutions as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in tackling underlying economic and social factors which contributed to conflict risk and intensity. We noted in this last regard the value of more conscious addressal of subsequent recovery tasks as an integral element in conflict-management strategies.

Differing opinions were voiced about how far the UN should or could delegate security-related tasks to regional organisations, or to ad hoc “coalitions of the willing”. There was manifestly a contribution to be made (sometimes indeed no alternative in practice existed) by such entities, as was shown in the Gulf War and some of the unpublicised activities under the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe; and we were vigorously reminded moreover that the concept of the UN as sole legitimator did not command general assent. We noted at the same time that in several regions - including some of the most unsettled - regional organisations were non-existent, or weak, or the object of suspicion as the perceived vehicle of hegemonic pressure.

We reminded ourselves, amid all this complexity and difficulty, that in many respects the UN was the only instrument available; that our world would be a worse one without it and without the sharing of concerns that it represented; and that it had to its credit important security successes, even if in the nature of things these mostly attracted less attention than the failures. There was, without doubt, a heavy and multifarious agenda of improvement to be tackled; but equally without doubt, the world’s likely needs for the next half-century made the vigorous tackling of that agenda a task amply worthwhile.

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

Chairman: Mr Denis McLean CMG
Distinguished Fellow, US Institute of Peace, Washington DC


The Hon Dr Neal Blewett
The High Commissioner of Australia to the United Kingdom

Professor Amin Saikal
Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies, The Australian National University

Dr David Chuter
Ministry of Defence official, currently working in Defence Export Services Organisation

Dr Christopher Dandeker        
Senior Lecturer, Department of War Studies, King’s College, University of London

Lt-Col Charles Dobbie OBE
Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

Admiral Sir James Eberle GCB
Governor of the Ditchley Foundation. Director, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House (1984-90)

Ms Glynne Evans CMG
Head, United Nations Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Mr Andrew Gowers
Deputy Editor, Financial Times

Sir David Hannay KCMG
Permanent Representative, United Kingdom Mission to the United Nations, New York

Mr Mark Laity
Defence Correspondent, BBC

General Sir David Ramsbotham GCB CBE
CBE Consultant: to Ministry of Defence (author of report “The Art of the Possible), on the management of the UK contribution to UN peacekeeping operations

Professor Adam Roberts FBA
Montague Burton Professor of International Relations and Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford
Mr Mark Robinson MP

Member of Parliament (Conservative), Somerton and Frome
Major-General Rupert A Smith DSO OBE QGM
Commander-designate, UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), Bosnia- Herzegovina

Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Warden, Green College and Director, Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding, University of Oxford

Sir Brian Urquhart KCMG MBE
Scholar-in-Resident, International Affairs Program, The Ford Foundation, New York

Dr Jim Whitman
Leader of United Nations Project, Global Security Programme, Cambridge University (the project research is a policy-oriented study of the coordination of UN humanitarian assistance).

Colonel J David Harries
Director, Centre for National Security Studies, National Defence College, Kingston, Ontario

Professor Michael K Oliver
Visiting Professor, Bishop’s University; National President, UN Association in Canada

Professor Henry Wiseman
University Professor Emeritus, University of Guelph

Lieutenant General Matti Kopra
Chief of Defence Staff, Finnish Defence Forces

Monsieur Serge Boidevaix
French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Dr Günther Altenburg
Deputy Director, Head of United Nations Office, General Affairs, United Nations Department, Foreign Office, Bonn.

Dr Wolfgang Biermann
International Security Advisor to the SPD Executive Committee, Bonn

Mr Bryce Harland
New Zealand High Commissioner, London

Dr Mats Berdal
Research Fellow (previously Research Associate), International Institute for Strategic Studies, London

Mr Alvaro de Soto
On special leave from the Peruvian Diplomatic Service (career Ambassador); United Nations: Assistant-Secretary-General, Senior Political Adviser to Secretary-General Mr Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and member Secretary-General’s Task Force on UN (peace-related) Operations

Congressman Douglas Bereuter
Member, House of Representatives (Republican), First Congressional District of Nebraska

Mr Herbert Levin
Executive Director, America-China Society

Ambassador Herbert S Okun
Executive Director, Financial Services Volunteer Corps

The Hon Thomas R Pickering
Career Ambassador, United States Foreign Service

Dr Enid C B Schoettle
Member, National Intelligence Council, responsible for Global and Multilateral Issues, Washington DC

The Hon Walter B Slocombe
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

Mr James S Sutterlin
Lecturer and Fellow, International Security Studies Program, Yale University and Director of Research and Adjunct Professor, Center for the Study of International Organizations, Long Island University

Professor Richard H Ullman
David K E Bruce Professor of International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

Mr Casimir A Yost
Director, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University