On the eve of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the biggest of all international organizations faces more criticism than ever for its sluggishness, inefficiency, bordering on irrelevance in today's world. The innate complexities of our globalized and multipolar world, however, make the UN more indispensable as a platform for global dialogue than ever before.
"That thing they call the UN", was how the former French president Charles de Gaulle described the United Nations as far back as 1960. The UN's image has hardly improved since over the years and the commentats of UN watchers are regularly fringed with irony as they refer to the bureaucratic "deadlocks" that inherently characterized the discussions in an institution which is composed of 193 member, each acting in their own self-interest, and each with their own set of priorities.
Although this "UN bashing" may occasionally be justified it is, on the whole, exaggerated. What would international relations be like without the UN? Where would leaders from the entire world find a neutral place to meet and hold discussions, including (and especially) when tensions are running high, or even after war has broken out?
The days when the chancelleries of London, Paris and Berlin decided the future of the world are over; gone the days of the red telephone and the balance of power between the Americans and the Soviets. International relations are now multipolar and more unpredictable than ever. Every regional problem today has implications for a multitude of global players, with interests that often run contradictory, and where more often than note, the UN is the only platform that can push them towards dialog.
Rather than perpetuating chronic pessimism about the United Nation's failures, it would be prudent to spend a little time remembering where and how the UN has played a significant role in mitigating conflict and improving international cooperation, while also suggesting areas for improvement. Baby steps towards peace, democracy, relief, and development are taken every day by the men and women of the UN agencies. These stories unfortunately don't make the headlines.
Who knows, for example, that before every successful democratic election in a developing country (as was recently the case in Kenya and Mali), teams from the United Nations have paved the way for the electoral process, bringing the candidates together to determine the rules that apply to everyone, forming independent and legitimate electoral commissions and sending in observers on polling day.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), even if they will unfortunately not be realized on time, have also created substantial momentum to effect concrete improvement on the most important development key indicators (education, health, youth employment...). This initiative would not have been possible without the impetus and the support of the United Nations.
Do we really need to be reminded of the incredible work of the UN's emergency intervention teams, the only ones in the world who possess the capacity to respond to natural disasters or conflict-induced human emergencies in just a few hours or days? Without the UN, how would the international community cope with these situations? Would it wash its hands of them?
The United Nations organization should be seen as a whole. The media talk most often, and legitimately so, about the deadlock situations. But these very deadlocks show how necessary it is for all of the countries in the world to come together and compare their points of view. In a troubled world filled with uncertainty, the UN can and should represent global leadership through dialogue.
These last few years have shown an absence of true leadership across sectors. Why not reflect upon transforming this "huge machine" into a wonderful "tool" for world stability, social development and conflict resolution? This is not an utopian vision, but an opportunity for those who govern us to demonstrate their political will and determination to collaborate in the global common interest and to demonstrate true global leadership.