Last week, Edison W. Dick, former president of the UN Association of the National Capital Area and renowned international lawyer received the Arthur W. Johnson Leadership Award for his many years of strategic vision and leadership in fostering his country's relations with the United Nations. He received his award on the 6th of June - the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, for which General Eisenhower's mission statement in his directive was simple: "You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces."
In this sense, I mentioned to Dick, this was the first major United Nations peace enforcement operation - a watershed moment in the history of global governance.
But it was Dick's presentation that showed how far we've come since then. In his remarks, he reviewed "the importance of specialized agencies and other related organizations in the UN system. "These agencies receive precious little publicity," he noted, and yet play an increasingly vital role in global governance - laying out the rules that effect more things in our day-to-day lives than we may realize.
Johnson, for example, helped the UN establish the Secretariat for the World Meteorological Organization in 1950 and was a delegate to the WMO World Congress. "The WMO provides invaluable and authoritative scientific research on climate change issues. It provides important global weather tracking services making possible the timely exchange of vital weather information," Dick related.
Meanwhile, the current UNA-NCA president, retired ambassador Donald T. Bliss, represented the United States in the International Civil Aviation Organization, headquartered in Montreal, Canada. ICAO, which has been around since 1944, is the only organization setting worldwide regulations and standards that allow millions of passengers each year to fly safely and securely from one country to another. This UN specialized agency serves as the medium for all forms of cooperation in civil aviation, including harmonizing safeguards against terrorist attacks on or from airplanes. It works closely with The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for the world's airlines, representing some 240 airlines or 84% of total global air traffic - and example of international public-private partnering, if you will.
The ICAO is taking action to prevent another commercial airliner from disappearing over international waters, as happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, being discussed later this month in Washington at an event sponsored by the UNA-NCA.
All in all, there are over a dozen UN specialized agencies, including:
- The International Labor Organization, which was initially established in 1919 to promote social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights. It became the first specialized agency of the UN in 1946.
- The Food and Agricultural Organization, which along with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, works to alleviate poverty and hunger by promoting agricultural development, improving nutrition, and attaining food security. The standards it sets for food storage and shipping help U.S. farmers sell their products abroad.
- The International Maritime Organization is responsible for the safety and security of shipping in international trade and the prevention of marine pollution. (Of course, as president Obama noted at West Point, "we can't try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by our United States Senate, despite the fact that our top military leaders say the treaty advances our national security.")
- The International Telecommunication Union coordinates global communications networks or the Universal Postal Union regulating international postal services, fostering the free flow of information around the world while, at the same time, exploring ways to secure personal data and information from exploitation. Think about that the next time you call or send a text to family and friends overseas, search the worldwide web, or get an unexpected email from Nigeria.
- The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) protects and enhances the world's natural and cultural heritage - on a steadier basis than the "Monuments Men" of World War II - as well as freedom of speech and the media, and the improvement of public education standards.
- The World Health Organization promotes technical cooperation for health regulations and systems among nations and carries out programs for the control and eradication of deadly and globally contagious diseases like bird flu and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. "It clearly plays an irreplaceable role in improving the quality of life around the globe," Dick explained.
- The World Intellectual Property Organization became a specialized agency in 1974. "Its role in the protection of patents, trademarks, copyrights and other forms of industrial property among nations," Dick said, "is absolutely necessary for the conduct of international commerce in the 21st Century."
- "What would this century look like without the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund?" he added. "Without these institutions economic growth and the improvement in basic living standards outlined on the Millennium Development Goals would be virtually impossible." The IMF, headquartered in Washington, DC and involving 188 countries, works to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world. It played a vital role in preventing global financial meltdown during the Great Recession through coordination and cooperation among central banking systems.
- The World Tourism Organization sets international standards for an industry and trade in which the U.S. remains the world leader. It promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability, and offers leadership and support in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide. UNWTO encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism to maximize tourism's socio-economic contribution while minimizing its possible negative impacts.
- The World Trade Organization is among those not considered a UN specialized agency. Among the most important related agencies, however, it is the only international body dealing with the global rules of trade between nations, while the UN Industrial Development Organization sets standards for industrial development that also helps ensure corporate social responsibility. It is under the aegis of the WTO that the U.S. is lodging its complaints against China for industrial espionage.
- And just about every international investor knows about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which looks at issues directly affecting everyone's daily life, like comparative school systems, how much people pay in taxes and social security, pension systems, and how much leisure time they can take. In addition to providing a forum for governments to understand what drives economic, social and environmental change, the OECD sets out to make life harder for terrorists, tax dodgers, crooked businessmen and others whose actions undermine a fair and open society. It measures productivity and global flows of trade and investment and analyses and compares data to predict future trends.
- Then there is the International Atomic Energy Agency. Besides its obvious importance to global survival, its role in helping to set international standards for compliance on nuclear safety ranges on everything from the prevention of nuclear disasters as seen most recently in Fukushima, Japan, or the agreement being brokered with Iran.
- The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons gained fame last year in its role in overseeing the removal of Syrian chemical weapons, winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
- Last but not least are a whole host of committees such as the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, the Rights of the Child, NGOs, and others The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space overlooks five treaties and agreements of international space law, including the Principles Governing the Use by States of Artificial Earth Satellites for International Direct Television Broadcasting. These laws cover "non-appropriation of outer space by any one country, arms control, the freedom of exploration, liability for damage caused by space objects, the safety and rescue of spacecraft and astronauts, the prevention of harmful interference with space activities and the environment, the notification and registration of space activities, scientific investigation and the exploitation of natural resources in outer space and the settlement of disputes."
"Congress, in its wisdom," Dick reminded us, "decided that the membership of the State of Palestine in UNESCO should preclude US funding of this body."
Besides those under the sway of lobbyists, there are many who cling to tired delusions of unilateralism, American global hegemony, and the darker side of exceptionalism - based on beliefs more than facts.
Despite consistently strong U.S. public support for an organization it largely founded - ranging from two-thirds to three-fourths - an institution with a far lower approval rating has failed to appropriate all of its assessed dues to this organization for 15 of the last 20 years. Too many there remain suspicious of UN ambitions for "world government" and still see the black helicopters hovering around the East River.
But if you want to play, you have to pay. Considering that the U.S. is assessed a little over a quarter of UN operating costs - in other words everyone else pays nearly three quarters - for its citizens to derive the full benefit of these managed global systems, that looks like a pretty good deal.
If you want an example of an international failed state, look at the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing body responsible for the World Cup tournament beginning this week. Older than the UN by a half-century and with more member associations than the UN has member states, FIFA is rife with corruption - from bribery scams and shadowy decision-making leading to poor World Cup locations like Brazil (which is far from ready to host this year's games and threatens to get ugly early) and Qatar (one of the hottest desert countries in the world) to match-fixing scandals and skewering teaming, subsidies, and other rules to heavily favor European teams.
"As for poor government," The Economist noted, "FIFA has been supplying examples for years."
One of the main reasons is that FIFA, unlike the UN, has weak mechanisms for accountability and transparency. Like corporations, they are beholden more to their shareholders than the public at large.
No other country than the United States has been more responsible for UN reform and has exercised greater influence over the future direction of the most successful international governing body in history. That can only come, however, through engagement - not evasion. If Americans simply decide to grab their toys and quit the sandbox, refusing to play nice with the others, then someone else will take their place - and they may not at all like the results.
"We can't exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else. We can't call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it's taking place... That's not leadership; that's retreat. That's not strength; that's weakness. It would be utterly foreign to leaders like Roosevelt and Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy." Or to George Herbert Walker Bush, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN.
Citing Kennedy, Mr. Obama spoke about his identification of a need for peace based upon, "a gradual evolution in human institutions." "And evolving these international institutions to meet the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership," he added.
If you want good global governance, you have to provide good global citizenship.
The author is also Co-Chair of the Peace & Security Committee of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area