The Not So United Nations

The good news for Ban Ki-moon is that he has become Secretary General of the United Nations at a time when the prospects for conflict between or among the world’s great powers – the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Europe, and India – are remote. The bad news is that the prospects for just about every other sort of conflict are high and the international agenda is both crowded and demanding.

Ban needs to begin with a cold, hard assessment of his new position. A Secretary General of the UN is more secretary than general. He cannot command. It is not the same as being a president or a CEO. He possesses more influence than power.

Moreover, power at the UN is divided, not simply between the Security Council and the General Assembly, but more fundamentally between the 192 members and the UN itself. The UN is comprised of sovereign states, but it is not sovereign itself and cannot act as if it were.

More than anything else, the UN reflects the ability of the major powers (above all, the US, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council) to agree – and to back up their agreements with resources. When they are willing and able to do so, the UN can make a difference; when they are not, the UN can act in only the most limited way, if at all, regardless of what the Secretary General wants.