17 March 1995 - 19 March 1995

The United Nations at Fifty: Identity, Finance, Working and Public Support

Chair: Ambassador Hisashi Owada

Ditchley had tackled in December 1994 the headline-catching issues of United Nations peace-keeping. We turned now - in our first conference under Japanese chairmanship - to the far wider but lower-profile range of activity which the UN undertakes in other fields, and to its own organisation and functioning. There was, we perceived, general public support for the UN in this wider sense, to the extent that most people in most countries took it as a given, and probably a good and necessary given. Beyond that, however, to the extent that detail was noticed at all the noticing was often of a critical kind. What then was distinctively valuable about the UN? and could it add more value, more efficiently?

The core concept, attested by the very facts of survival and a measure of adaptation through a bumpy half-century, was that of universality - humanity’s only global forum (even though the difference between state-universality, hitherto the structural principle, and people-universality showed up increasingly in tensions between humanitarian concern and traditional concepts of sovereignty). This status both gave legitimacy and conferred legitimating power. Its exploitation over the years had worthy successes to its credit. The UN had raised consciousness of global issues in salutary ways; it had helped in the evolution of human-rights standards (though its contribution to monitoring and implementation was unimpressive); it had contributed usefully in disaster relief; and some of its related bodies, notably specialist ones like the World Meteorological Organisation, the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the International Court of Justice (this last surely capable of more use) served essential if unglamorous functions for the world community.

Against all this had to be set strong perceptions, by informed insiders as well as outsiders, of an overall set-up - Headquarters and Agencies - poorly co-ordinated and marked by weak lateral communication, overlap and bureaucratic rivalry; a polycentric cluster of feudal baronies, one sharp comment suggested, rather than a rational system. We had in particular much discussion of the fact that the UN achieved little in the economic field which nowadays increasingly preoccupied governments; its links with the key international financial institutions (IFIs) - World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation - were sketchy, and no participant applauded the current working of the Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC). We reached however no consensus on ECOSOC’s future; some believed it an apt candidate (and not the only one) for the mercy-killing which the UN was mostly too reluctant to perform on its failed adjuncts; others looked to re-energise it - perhaps with a more capable staff and a fresh development-oriented remit - as a setter of policy frameworks. Similarly, we were not wholly agreed on whether the IFIs should be more systematically bound in; the majority view was sceptical of this, and feared that a stronger voice for the Headquarters and the General Assembly would simply blur focus and reduce readiness to contribute, especially at a time when the IFIs themselves were for the most part (though much of Africa remained an uncomfortable special case) moving away from state-based and towards private-sector-based concepts of how best in the long run to alleviate poverty and foster growth.

The UN’s record and role in development was a constant strand in our debate. We included sceptics and optimists, the former pointing to a failure-studded record of dependency creation, the latter both to an ineradicable political expectation of UN involvement and to the need at the least for a research mart, clearing-house, standard-setter and deviser of policy framework. The sceptics in riposte questioned what substantive choice-guiding content such a framework might have. There was wide agreement that the UN was in any event not well suited to running operational projects. But the UN could not stand entirely aside from development issues; and the developed must recognise that the prosperity of the developing was in the interest of all. The argument continued.

Our discussion of the IFIs, with their systems of weighted voting, launched us into the intractable subject of voting structure in the UN as a whole. One-state-one-vote created a deeply awkward mismatch between voting strength, responsibility and contribution - we noted that Africa comprised about one-third of General Assembly votes. Any particular proposal for change would however stimulate fierce opposition and no doubt generate fresh working problems. We conjectured that change might become feasible within some new overall bargain, but we did not identify the components of that.

The voting problem partnered, we knew, the still more difficult one of financing. The UN had a current deficit of around one billion dollars; alongside this, arrears of duly- assessed contributions were approaching twice that amount, with the United States the largest single culprit. The deficit problem was compounded by a long-standing legal prohibition, which some of us thought absurd, on even short-term borrowing. The resulting cash-flow shortfall was hugely damaging to morale and to management - an effect which generated a vicious downward spiral of under-performance and further under-financing. But the financing issue, so several participants judged, went beyond the problems of arrears and no-borrowing; expectations of the UN - even if it could avoid new unfunded mandates like the rescue of failed states - now and increasingly reached well beyond a budget which was anyway, on a broad view, of modest size. That budget - managed, moreover, by processes which found few admirers - was constrained by a crude unprioritised zero-growth rule which at best had outlived its usefulness.

We noted the potential value of some revenue-raising device which would more automatically provide the UN with “own resources” - global taxes on currency speculation, perhaps, or certain energy consumption, or airline use - attractive notions in some ways, especially if they were of economic or environmental merit in their own right; but the political and practical difficulties were plainly formidable.

We paused briefly on the special issues raised by UN- sceptical attitudes within the new Republican-led US Congress. There seemed little chance now of dislodging the long-standing reluctance to pay duly-assessed contributions on the present basis. We speculated on whether dialogue with Parliamentarians from other countries might bring home the reality that the US was in plain breach of law, and so induce a practical change of course; but we were not hopeful. For the future, the US stance sought to compel a change of the assessment system; but neither the principle nor the political will on which such a change might be built acceptably to others was yet apparent.

Problems of staffing at the UN engaged us a good deal. For all that there were many capable and dedicated individuals, and that the total size of the staff was anyway no more than around ten thousand, there were powerful concerns that the UN still lacked a staff cadre uniformly professional, clearly accountable and fully committed to the support of the Secretary-General. Notions of national balance made it hard to insist on competence, especially within a culture with a propensity to focus on achieving acceptable verbal formulation rather than practical output (though we noted that an overdue pruning of dead wood would be eased if budgetary allocations made buying-out more feasible). We were at one in regarding as pernicious the system of appointment by election, at least at any level below Agency Head; and we sought more effective training, for example by way of a staff college, and perhaps more use of secondment and term contract.

Widespread unease was expressed about the opaque and unsystematic methods by which Secretaries-General were themselves appointed. Some questioned whether nations truly wanted greater effectiveness in that role; but there was a case vigorously propounded that if a better UN was desired confident leadership, with enhanced power to set the agenda (for example by inaugurating the main General Assembly debates), was essential.

Several participants saw particular and growing scope for such leadership in the field of preventive diplomacy. That field was by no means easy, especially as conflict increasingly took intra-state forms; there were awkward strains between involvement and sovereignty. But a UN contribution - especially if it could be based on more systematic intelligence than was currently the norm - could help valuably, not only in early warning but in risk-reducing action, as by the setting of trip-wires.

One aspect of UN practice much commended was its openness (at least comparatively to most national governments) to the concerns and voices of non-governmental organisations. We were counselled against overloading the NGO concept - they were sometimes single-issue actors, with mixed motives, uneven legitimacy and limited concern for difficult choices about priority - but their contribution was one which the UN did well to nurture.

As we constantly reminded ourselves, the UN is ultimately an assemblage of states; and the attitudes of states themselves were accordingly crucial. Many capitals showed serious defects in their depth and consistency of approach over time, in coherent co-ordination between their own components and in their real readiness to hold back from micro-interference; calls for general change in the UN often partnered resolute resistance when particular forms of it rubbed against national comfort. Reform was made a laborious and mostly disappointing process.

Did we truly want, for the next half-century, a UN functioning better and focused better (which by no means necessarily meant more widely)? Most of us were minded to answer Yes - the world faced a continuous task of managing change without forfeiting stability, and the UN’s existence had an important part to play in this. But we found it hard to see precisely what themes of reform offered both substantial dividends and realistic prospects of achievement; the obstacles were evident, and the past record mostly discouraging. Our majority instinct was perhaps in favour of incremental improvement sustained over time, however much we might ideally have yearned for transformation. Even that more modest goal, we judged, would require determination and clear choice of priority by a group of willing change-seekers; and the reform bargain would have to contain something for everyone.

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 Hisashi Owada
Permanent Representative of Japan to the United Nations, New York


Dame Margaret Anstee DCMG
Lecturer, writer and consultant
Ms Anne Applebaum
Deputy Editor, (formerly Foreign Editor), The Spectator

Miss M G D Evans CMG
Head, United Nations Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Mr John de Fonblanque CMG
Assistant Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Mr Stephen J Gomersall
Minister and Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Professor John Groom
Professor of International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury

Mr Nicholas Hinton CBE
Director-General, Save the Children Fund

The Rt Hon The Lord Judd
Life Peer (Labour)

Mrs Sally Morphet
Senior Principal Research Officer, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Mr Edward Mortimer
Foreign Affairs Editor, Financial Times

Mrs Rosemary Righter
Senior Leader Writer, The Times

Sir William Ryrie KCB
Director, Baring Brothers & Co Ltd, London
Professor Sir Hans Singer
Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex

Sir John Weston KCMG
UK Permanent Representative to the UN-designate

Mr L Yves Fortier CC QC
Chairman, Ogilvy Renault, Montreal
Professor Jack Granatstein
Distinguished Research Professor of History, York University

M Jean-Marc de La Sablière
Director of African and Madagascan Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris

Professor Winrich Kühne
Senior research fellow, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Ebenhausen

Dr Gunter Pleuger
Director for United Nations, Human Rights Questions and Humanitarian Help, Foreign Office, Bonn

HE Mr Kenneth K Dadzie
High Commissioner for Ghana, London

Mr Ryu Yamazaki
Deputy Director-General, Foreign Policy Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tokyo

Dr Max Frenkel
Swiss foreign policy editor, Neue Zurcher Zeitung

Ambassador Karl Th. Paschke
Under Secretary for Internal Oversight Services, United Nations

Professor William B Allen
Dean and Professor, James Madison College, Michigan State University
The Hon Douglas J Bennet
Assistant Secretary of State for International Organisation Affairs
The Hon David E Birenbaum
Ambassador to the US Mission to the United Nations
Mr James O Jackson
Time Magazine: Chief European Correspondent
The Hon Donald F McHenry
University Research Professor of Diplomacy and International Affairs, Georgetown University
Mr David J Scheffer
Senior Adviser and Counsel to the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Mr Stephen I Schlossberg
Director Washington Branch, International Labor Office
Hon Stephen M Schwebel
Judge of the International Court of Justice
Ambassador Daniel L Spiegel
US Permanent Representative to the U.N. and Other International Organisations in Geneva
Mr Charles H Weitz
Consultant and Lecturer on United Nations Affairs