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LONDON — At first glance, the slightly dated, 30-story United Nations building in New York’s Lower East Side looks like misery mansion. Everything seems to be going wrong these days.

Americans have mounted venomous criticisms of beleaguered Secretary General Kofi Annan and the whole organization. The charge sheet starts with a list of alleged failures to take decisive steps in various humanitarian and security crises — ranging from inaction in the 1994 Rwanda massacres and refusal in 1998 to endorse intervention in Kosovo to, more recently, hesitation over Iraq and the horrors going on in western Sudan.

On top of this has come revelations of poor judgment and improper behavior — to put it mildly — over the handling of the oil-for-food arrangements back in the days when Saddam Hussein was still in power and apparently allocating Iraqi oil on the cheap to friends around the world, who then gratefully sold it to others, making a secret killing in profits both for Hussein and themselves. One accusation is that U.N. officials, and one in particular, knew all about this scam and let it roll, or even abetted it. Yet there is another way of looking at all these issues.

First of all, it must be remembered just what the U.N. is and what it isn’t. The U.N. is an open club for almost every sovereign nation on Earth, regardless of its system of government. This means that nearly half of its 191 member states are not democracies at all, or even bogus democracies (where elections may take place but one party or party boss rules without proper constitutional restraints).

This means quite simply that the general enthusiasm for democratic values, for human rights and for intervention where they are being openly abused is strictly limited. This applies particularly where intrusion on sovereign territorial rights is threatened.

Countries with dodgy domestic records are bound to ask why they should authorize action in Myanmar or Zimbabwe, for example. It might be their turn next to have action taken against them! Even if the secretary general was the greatest statesman on Earth, he could not order his members to get involved in matters that they would rather leave unexplored.

The situation with the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the main subordinate body supposedly focusing on human rights abuses, vividly confirms the brutal facts: A quarter of the member states on this panel are outright dictatorships.

Last year’s chair was Libya, hardly a model democracy. A few years back it was Cuba. Could or should there be some bar or filter to limit membership — either on this commission or in the U.N. as a whole — to nations which support genuine democracy and liberty?

One only has to ask the question to see that it would open up unending debate on the definition of a “pure” democracy that would bog down the whole organization even further. Who would lay down the criteria for good behavior? And which countries would be the judges?

The blunt reality is that far too much is expected of the U.N., especially when it comes to upholding global security and intervening in individual nations. The U.N. embraces a number of agencies. Although some are duds, some, like UNICEF, are highly respected and full of wonderful and dedicated people who do immense good in relieving human suffering round the world.

The U.N. is also by far the best collective forum at which to address, if not fully solve, such crucial world issues as water shortages or weapons trading. Optimists thought that once the Cold War was over it would also become the guardian of world security, driven forward by a united Security Council and, in particular, by unity among the five permanent council members who have the veto. But the prospect of a new liberal world order was always a pipe dream.

China, for example, has made it crystal-clear that it doesn’t care at all for U.N. resolutions demanding intrusion within national territories, regardless of the horrors said to be going on. Russia is not much more enthusiastic. While the British and the Americans have tended to be on the same side since the U.N.’s inception in 1945, the French have their own awkward agenda, as was demonstrated before the Iraq invasion.

This is the dysfunctional grouping at the heart of the U.N., thrown together by circumstances after World War II and unreformed ever since. Would changing the membership, and possibly the powers, of this central group improve matters?

Obviously, Japan and Germany should be part of any lead grouping, and India as well. A recent high-level panel as suggested two alternative ways to expand the Security Council. But whatever the reorganizational maneuvers, the basic reality has to be faced: The U.N. is a useful discussion forum and may be adding real value in persuading more nations to respect democratic values, but it is not the Parliament of Man, nor the sole source of international legitimacy, nor the guardian of global security. It never could be, and to expect its secretary general and staff to deliver on these fronts, and worse still, to attack them personally when they do not, is expecting far too much and quite unfair.

For maintaining global security and for addressing specific and destabilizing affronts to human rights, the world will continue to have to rely on coalitions of nations coming together and agreeing on common action. If the disparate U.N. can be brought to endorse such actions, well and good. If not, that should be no surprise. But nor should it be an excuse for lambasting this well-meaning organization and its managers.

As the saying goes, “Don’t shoot the pianist. He is doing is best.”

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