It is tempting to dismiss this week’s Millennium Summit at the United Nations as pure hype. After all, it declared its aim was the eradication of poverty and war in the 21st century. Good luck. Yet, if the U.N. and its members do not hold such ambitions, then there is very little hope for our world in the century to come.
This week’s gathering aimed to redefine and restructure the U.N. to make it better able to confront the challenges of the next century. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed objectives for the world body in a report to the General Assembly in April. It sets the following goals for 2015: to ensure that all children complete primary education; to halve from 20 percent to 10 percent the proportion of the world’s population that does not have access to safe drinking water; to halve to 11 percent the number of people living on less than $1 a day; to halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS. The report calls for “benevolent globalization” and aims at ensuring that the poor are not left behind as the world embraces the information revolution.
Any one of those would be a tremendous achievement. Taken together, they are fantastic. Mr. Annan acknowledges the magnitude of the challenges, but he is undaunted nevertheless. “Dreams are not Utopian,” he explained before the summit opened. “We have the means and the capacity to deal with our problems, if only we can find the political will.”
That is a big if. Fortunately, the rest of the world seems to be taking the challenge seriously. More than 150 world leaders, the largest such gathering in world history, joined Mr. Annan in New York to discuss the U.N. and its future. They had much to consider.
The plain truth is that the U.N. has never lived up to its promise. For much of its 55-year history, the organization was a victim of the Cold War, providing little more than a talk shop or a forum for ritualized denunciations that were divorced from the realities of world politics. While billions of people went hungry and unschooled, and millions died in conflict, their representatives debated points of procedure and their governments stockpiled arms.
When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, some envisioned a new world, free of ideological divisions and capable of resolving the problems that plague the poorest and weakest people on the earth. Those hopes were seemingly realized during the Persian Gulf War, when an international coalition, put together by the U.N. and led by the United States, rolled back international aggression in an unprecedented display of multinational solidarity.
That was the high watermark, however. Since then, the world has resumed many of its old ways. The divisions that once paralyzed the Security Council seem to be reasserting themselves, even though they have lost their ideological dimension. The spread of democracy and human rights has been frustrated by the readiness of authoritarian governments of all stripes to rally together; it is sad to see nations supporting the junta in Yangon when it silences Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. The economic divide between haves and have-nots is widening, and the forces at work seem to be beyond the purview of the U.N.
All the while, the U.N. continues to be the dumping ground for many of the world’s intractable problems. Despite an unprecedented budget crisis, the organization’s peacekeeping responsibilities keep mounting. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees contends with the growing number of people dislocated by war; last year, its caseload was 22.3 million people, down from a peak of 27 million in 1995, but still 7.3 million more refugees than it handled a decade ago.
The U.N.’s limits have become increasingly visible as the workload has increased. Budget constraints are inevitable, but the failure of some members to pay their dues — the U.S. is the chief offender — has compounded problems. The organization has been restructured to appease critics, but it is difficult to reconcile its growing responsibilities with its shrinking infrastructure.
The real restructuring has yet to be done. More than half a century after the end of the World War II, the U.N. Security Council still reflects an international order that vanished long ago. It is time to rebuild that institution so that it matches political reality in the 21st century. Some will say that argument represents little more than Japan’s ambitions writ large on the international stage. They are half right. Japan does aspire to a bigger role in the U.N. and in the world. But that is so this nation can help Mr. Annan realize his “dream” to rid the world of poverty and war.
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