LONDON — If good intentions could guarantee good results, the recently concluded Millennium Summit at the United Nations in New York would merit nothing but unreserved praise.
All the right notes were struck, all the right goals set and all the right aspirations articulated.
A “new international social compact” to uplift the world’s poor and create “a virtuous circle of development” sounds full of promise, while Secretary General Kofi Annan’s proposals for better organized U.N. peacekeeping deserve everyone’s support, and appeared to get it at the New York gathering.
Clearly, the present pattern — which is to send lightly armed and poorly coordinated multilingual forces with fuzzy mandates into the middle of hideous and bitter civil wars and rebellions — cannot be allowed to continue.
Even on the organizational side of the U.N., there were welcome signs of new thinking and a fresh dose of common sense. The proposal tabled by Britain for Japan and Germany to join a reformed Security Council would — if adopted — be an obvious and long-overdue correction to a thoroughly anomalous situation. The “Permanent Five” structure of the U.N. is over 50 years out of date. It is absurd that these economic giants have not long since been added to the central grouping of the organization.
And yet for all the ringing words and fine undertakings, something was missing from this great event. Governments and ministers may have made all the right noises, but the world is not composed of governments and ministers. It is composed of citizens and people. Governments are as weak or as strong in the face of global crises as the people who put them there and keep them there. This is more so than ever in the age of the Internet and the individual empowerment it brings with it.
The reason why U.N. peacekeeping efforts have been so feeble over the years is because governments have failed to persuade their electorates and supporters to commit adequate resources to these endeavors. And this in turn is because governments and their advisers have failed to explain to the people “back home” what is at stake or how their own local and national interests are involved.
So the problem is not a shortage of good intentions at the lofty level of the U.N. The problem is how to win democratic support and respect from the grassroots of the world’s citizenry for the huge international, and even supranational, endeavors needed nowadays to keep the world safe and stable for everybody.
Or, put another way, the problem is how officials and administrators operating in the lofty international arena can remain accountable to, and connected with, everyday life and everyday people in their respective countries.
Of course, this was always the problem with democracies, and even with more authoritarian rulers. People naturally tend to “think local” and to be suspicious of remote bodies that appear to spin in space and take decisions for which there is no apparent accountability. Being away at grand international assemblies or bathing in glory and high rhetoric on the world stage was always a dangerous pastime, from the age of the Roman emperors onward. All too often the “heroic leader” returned home to find his local support had evaporated and others had usurped his role.
But with governments now having to keep more closely in touch than ever with their electors, and having to share power increasingly with an “e-enabled” populace, the dangers of losing touch and failing to explain have become very many times greater. In fact the state itself has changed its composition. In an age of pluralism, can it even be assumed that official government leaders are in charge of a nation’s foreign policy and relationships?
Listening to the leaders at the U.N. summit there seemed to be little appreciation of these new challenges at all. One would think that the world had hardly changed since the days of the League of Nations in the 1930s. Yet if presidents and prime ministers cannot carry their restive supporters, and explain in convincing terms why taxes and resources, and even lives, should be committed to peacekeeping in distant countries, all the reforms of the U.N. will add up to nothing.
This has been the major difficulty all along. In the United States, the grassroots have never really been convinced that it is in their interest to support U.N. intervention — hence the persistent foot-dragging over subscriptions to U.N. activities.
Other countries are happy to pay up and show token support for peacekeeping missions. But if the folks back home do not understand what it is all about, or why a nasty little war in a remote African republic is directly linked to their lives and interests, the commitment is bound to be lukewarm and limited. No society wants to see its soldiers and officials, its sons and daughters, murdered in some vacuous cause of global stability, or even have their taxes raised to finance U.N. ventures whose purpose is unexplained.
In recent weeks, in Sierra Leone and Indonesia, there have been horrific incidents in which foreign military personnel or U.N. officials have been captured, tortured and killed. And for what? The answer may be clear in New York, but the politician’s task is to make it clear in the high street and the villages at home. That is now the demanding sort of democratic milieu that the information revolution has created and in which we live.
These basic requirements of democratic legitimacy and full accountability were the absent guests at the New York feast. They had better be invited soon. Otherwise, while the well-meaning dogs bark, the disorganized caravan of under-resourced U.N. incompetence and impotence will just keep rolling on.
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