ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives

REVIEWS, 19 May 2014

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

Brett D. Schaefer(Ed.), ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009)

There have always been in the USA Right Wing critiques of the United Nations whose battle cry is “Get the U.N. out of the US and the US out of the U.N.” The Heritage Foundation had published an earlier collection of essays in much that spirit.(1) The attacks, however, were often factually incorrect, and the understanding of how the U.N. works in reality was superficial. As the US Senator and policy advisor Daniel Moynihan once quipped, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”

This current collection of essays, including those by John Bolton and Terry Miller, both of whom served as US Ambassadors to the U.N., are of a better factual level, though most of the authors would be happy to see the U.N. replaced by a “League of Democracies” in which the USA would play the key role. Kim Holmes sets out the idea of a Global Freedom Coalition in his chapter “Smart Multilateralism”. His position is that “Multilateralism is not an end in itself. It is one of many foreign policy tools, admittedly a very important one, in the diplomatic kit. Basically a dialogue among nations that hope to work out common approaches to common concerns, multilateralism complements the enormous amount of bilateral diplomacy that thousands of government officials conduct every day to promote and protect their nations’ interests and priorities.”

If the U.N. can not be replaced by a body of the likeminded, then it may be reformed to make it a better instrument for the advancement of US aims. The book merits study for its analysis of how the U.N. system operates in the fields of environment, arms control and conflict resolution, human rights, and trade and development. The chapters are generally accurate overviews of U.N. and Specialized Agency activities with website addresses and useful bibliographies, even if the books cited have a ‘right slant’. It is the ‘reforms’ proposed that are colored by their aims of only advancing US national interest. However the US government is not the only state concerned to advance what its leaders consider to be its national interest.

There are two and a half themes that run through the book. The first, an old argument, is that the US pays too much money for what it gets in return. However, there are no comparisons with the costs of other multilateral bodies such as the European Union or with the administration of national governments.

The second theme is that the U.N. has grown too complex. As Holmes notes “The U.N. is simply too poorly primed for American multilateralism It is a vast labyrinth of agencies, offices, committees, commissions, programs, and funds, often with overlapping and duplicative missions. Lines of accountability and responsibility for specific issues or efforts are complex, confused, and often indecipherable. For example, dozens of U.N. bodies focus on development, the environment, and children’s and women’s issues. Coordination is minimal. Reliable means to assess the effectiveness of the bodies’ independent activities is practically nonexistent.” These comments have been made by others, including those who have worked in the U.N. system. (2)

What the authors do not mention is the difficulties of governments with smaller delegations than those of the US to find their way through the labyrinth of the U.N. system. Also unmentioned is any comparison between the U.N. and national governments also filled with ministries, agencies and funds with overlapping and duplicate missions.

The half-theme that runs through several of the chapters but is developed fully in none is the role and power of the representatives of non-governmental organizations. The President of the Heritage Foundation, Edwin Feulner, notes “Non-state actors operating through advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations, virtually unknown at the U.N. in the early 1980s, now exert influence over U.N. deliberations and activities on a level that is sometimes nearly on par with sovereign states.” Susan Yoshihara adds “Aided and abetted by activist NGOs, the U.N. retains sweeping plans to remake the world, but at steep cost to its traditional role of providing vaccinations, medicine, clean water, and a helping hand.” One can question if providing vaccinations and clean water were traditional U.N. roles. Having been a NGO representative to the U.N. in Geneva since 1973, I have followed closely the growth of U.N. development activities — much of it in response to the membership of new states, especially from Africa starting in the early 1960s. The growth has been largely in response to events, the Nigeria-Biafra War of the late 1960s and the Sahel drought of the 1970s have been key moments that required multi-level responses. The U.N. has grown not by having “sweeping plans to remake the world” but in response to immediate needs of people and the difficulties of a single national government to meet these needs.

The book is worth reading for a better understanding of a strong, if misguided, current in U.S. politics. These criticisms need to be taken seriously, but, I believe, that reforms must be taken within the U.N. and not in alternative —as yet uncreated— institutions.


1)    Burton Y. Pines (Ed.). A World Without the U.N. What Would Happen If The United Nations Shut Down? (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, 1984)

2)    See Maurice Bertrand Refaire L’ONU! (Geneva: Editions Zoe, 1986)


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 May 2014.

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