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Analysis & Opinion
02.04.09 The Precarious Body Of The UN
By Sergei Balashov

The United Nation’s recent failure to efficiently regulate international issues has put the future of this organization in question. Widespread calls have been made for this body to be replaced altogether. But following the changes in the American leadership, the UN entered into a period of revival, and tensions within the organization itself escalated. Russia now sees this as an opportunity to expand its economic influence, but refuses to see its role in the Security Council diminished.

The main driving force behind NATO’s incipient renaissance was the change in the U.S. administration’s attitude toward handling foreign policy issues. During the tenure of former President George W. Bush, the United States had a rather uneasy relationship with the United Nations, the latter facing accusations of being irrelevant in the modern world and inefficient in resolving major international crises.

The tables turned when the United States invaded Iraq, and tried to convince the UN that military action against this state was justified. This authorization was not granted, and the United States then built its own coalition and began the war anyway, despite staunch opposition in the Security Council.

The place it had as a balancing and regulating force in international relations was slowly becoming irrelevant, with propositions being floated to replace it with less bureaucratic and more efficient multination bodies.
This strategy was echoed in John McCain’s campaign in the fall, when the Republican nominee looked for other means of legitimizing actions and bypassing the UN, which, in the words of conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, he intended to “kill.” He suggested setting up a new organization dubbed a League of Democracies, which would be “the core of international order.” “This initiative had many worried. It would distract the United States, an important player within the UN, and get it to act over the UN’s head,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, at a press conference this week.

But now, with Barack Obama in charge, the U.S. policy is the complete opposite of that of his predecessor, which is key to the rebirth of the United Nations as the undisputed regulating force in international relations. “The Bush administration practically buried the UN, calling it a useless organization, but now they’re catching a second wind.

Due to the crisis and the United States’ and their currency’s diminished role, the UN remains the only platform [to discuss and resolve political and economic issues]. Now they’re talking about setting up new organizations within the UN framework, introducing new principles and considering changes to the way it functions. Russia’s influence here is significant,” said Irina Tsurina, the head of the analytical department at the PRopaganda communication technologies center. Now, efforts to set up new organizations to replace the UN have come to a halt.

Apart from the major changes in the United States’ relations with the organization, the UN is gaining importance due to the half-year long global financial crisis. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is currently attending the G20 summit in London, mostly dedicated to finding a way out of the economic quagmire.

Last week, the Financial Times reported that UN advisors proposed to replace the G20 with a new global economic council, an economic equivalent of the Security Council. Since the onset of the economic crisis, Russia has repeatedly called for new global financial centers to be set up. The country also feels somewhat uncomfortable about being left out of the economic Group of Seven, despite being a G8 member.

Now, should new regulating bodies be set up within the UN, Russia sees membership in them as a chance to become an influential economic power. “It is important to us not to find ourselves left out, despite lagging behind on the economic side,” said Tsurina.

The UN has to undergo other changes as well, particularly in its handling of political and security issues. Recently, talks of expanding the UN Security Council have acquired a new intensity. However, just like such attempts that were made in the past, negotiations stalled.

Previously, plans has been made to expand the Council by six permanent members, with Germany, Japan, India and Brazil getting one vote each, and two more going to one Asian and one African country. But these plans fell through when three veto-carrying members of the Security Council, including Russia, opposed such an expansion.

Even the latest compromise proposed by Britain and France, for new members to have to stand reelections every several years, did not amount to a breakthrough. Once again, the Russian leadership has been reluctant to accept changes. “Russia has a comfortable position within the United Nations. It’s a permanent member of the Security Council, and it does not have any immediate need to hand this right over to, say, Germany or India,” said Alexander Konovalov, a political scientist and the president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments. “Russia is also looking to increase the importance of the UN itself, since if it decreases, countries with the most economic and political leverage gain more ground, and that is something Russia doesn’t want today,” he added.

Russia is one of the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council in the UN, and has extensive influence in the organization, with a say in every major issue that comes up. This makes Russia resistant to any such changes. “The struggle for influence will certainly heat up. Everybody understands that the Security Council has to be expanded and the UN democratized, but this path could be dubious and even dangerous. The number of those willing to make decisions is about equal to the number of UN member countries,” said Konovalov.
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