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United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had hoped that the summit of world leaders that has been held this week would yield another “San Francisco moment”: a coming together of nations that produced a renewed commitment to international law and the institutions that would help implement it. He is sure to be frustrated. Basic questions about the role of the U.N. have not been answered in the feverish negotiations over the blueprint that has been drawn up to guide it through the 21st century. Until those questions are answered, the hopes invested in the U.N. are more likely to be dashed than realized.

More than 150 world leaders have gathered in New York City for the U.N.’s 60th anniversary summit. The gala event was originally intended to mark the adoption of a document that would reshape the world body to better cope with the challenges of the next century. The U.N.’s flaws have become increasingly apparent in the post-Cold War era. The list of problems is long: genocide, growing income gaps between rich and poor, continuing violations of human rights, manifest inequality. The gap between promises and actual progress grew too great to ignore.

As doubts about the efficacy of the U.N. mounted, the Iraq war exposed the divisions that lurked in its corridors. While some complained about the ability of a state to flout the will of the international community, others noted the U.N.’s inability to deal with the fundamental concerns of its members: guaranteeing international peace and security.

In the aftermath of the Iraq debacle, Mr. Annan convened a high-level panel of experts to identify the primary challenges of the 21st century and figure out ways to meet them. From that report, Mr. Annan drafted his own agenda — “In Larger Freedom” — which he presented to U.N. member nations to debate and approve at this week’s meeting.

Unfortunately, that effort was overshadowed by several other events. The first was the controversy over the nomination of Mr. John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Mr. Bolton’s views (and behavior) set off bitter debate in the United States, ultimately forcing President George W. Bush to use a recess appointment to get him to New York. The delay deprived the U.N. of a key voice during critical negotiations over reform.

The second issue was the unsuccessful effort by the Group of Four — Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan — to get support for their proposal to reform the Security Council. While UNSC reform is an essential element of any U.N. reform package, the G4 plan was distracted from the debate over Mr. Annan’s proposals.

The final development was the release last week of the report into the Iraq oil-for-food program. That investigation revealed corruption, mismanagement, inefficiency, malfeasance and misfeasance. It badly damaged Mr. Annan’s credibility and that of the U.N as a whole. It also shifted the terms of debate over U.N. reform away from the ambitious proposals to reshape the organization to far more mundane — but critical — efforts to ensure that it runs better.

The result is a document that is best described as “watered down.” It includes a new human-rights body (which some criticize as being a change in name only from the existing Human Rights Commission) and a Peacebuilding Commission to help countries emerging from civil war, and establishes an obligation to intervene when the prospect of genocide or war crimes exists.

More significant is what the document omits. There is no agreement on how to deal with nuclear proliferation and disarmament, a failure that Mr. Annan rightly called “a real disgrace.” Terrorism “in all its forms” is condemned, but there is no definition of just what constitutes terrorism. Neither is there a commitment to dismantling the trade barriers that stand between greater prosperity for the poorest citizens of the world.

The applause for the document, and its adoption on Tuesday in New York, were less enthusiastic than they could have been. Mr. Annan’s ambitions have been thwarted. Many would say that is a good thing — and the objectors are not all the usual suspects. Many smaller states object to management reforms that would vest more power in the secretary general’s office. They worry that they would be marginalized if power was shifted away from the General Assembly.

Therein lies the U.N.’s main problem. The organization is only as strong as its members allow it to be. The secretary general has only the powers that are given to him; his failures have traditionally been the result of limits placed on his authority — not the result of a failure to use the power he has. Yet when the U.N. fails at a given assignment, its detractors are quick to give it the blame. It is a recipe for failure for an institution that is too important to be abandoned. The world needs an institution dedicated to the preservation of world order and a rule by law.

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