NEW YORK -- The global security crisis that began on Sept. 11, 2001, and deepened with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq now resembles the multi-tentacled villain of that recent Spiderman movie. Nothing seems to escape its grasp.
When a panel of eminent former officeholders published its list of high-minded ambitions for the United Nations last week, the recommendations were eclipsed by the spreading Iraqi oil-for-food scandal, which has triggered surprisingly vigorous calls in Washington for the resignation of Secretary General Kofi Annan.
In Kiev, voter protests about flagrant fraud and heavy-handed interference in Ukraine's elections by Russian President Vladimir Putin rekindled East-West tensions. The tumult left the Bush administration uneasily balancing a "realistic" bias for a pro-Putin policy -- to keep his support in fighting al Qaeda and other global terrorist networks -- against its idealistic "Wilsonian" commitment to spreading democracy abroad.
In Central Asia, American troops began combat operations designed to clear the way for parliamentary elections in Afghanistan next spring. A synthesis of the powers of the bullet and of the ballot -- the essential tools of humanitarian intervention -- is being created in the ruins of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's terrorist training camps.
It is tempting to see these and other foreign policy challenges as the spreading of a new world disorder that undermines existing international institutions, law and cooperation. But this view rushes past the reality that cause and effect are inseparably tied in the reshaping of the global security and political environment. The obsolescence of Cold War-era institutions and codes have contributed significantly to the eruption of the new disorder -- and may even make them incapable of dealing with it.
That thought seems to have been too radical for the panel of retired politicians and policymakers Annan named last year to recommend changes at the United Nations. The commission might have done well to weigh seriously whether they were trying to reform the unreformable, much as Mikhail Gorbachev sought to save the Soviet Union through "reform communism."
The parallel comes to mind in part because two of the panel's most prominent members, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the first Bush administration, and Yevgeny Primakov, former prime minister of Russia, tried, with Gorbachev, to keep the Soviet Union together in the face of irresistible centrifugal pressures. Suggestions from former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans to reexamine fundamentals were left behind in favor of incremental tinkering on the edges of a hurricane of change.
Don't misunderstand. I don't think the United Nations should be blown up. A revitalized world body is essential for an acceptable measure of global stability. But the panel's failure to look deeply at the need for radical change in the way the nearly worthless General Assembly functions, or to come to consensus on what the goals and values as well as the size of the Security Council should be, risks condemning the world body to failure.
One recommendation calls for a golden parachute for many of the U.N. Secretariat's staffers, who were described as "dead wood" by one panel member. Such a generalization does injustice to dedicated and efficient employees who are frequently called on to risk their lives in the line of duty.
The recommendation gives insufficient recognition to the broad lack of accountability that prevails amid a swelling sea of credible accusations against U.N. staffers of sexual harassment, human rights abuses, conflict of interest, gross corruption and even meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Hiring new personnel into the same faulty structure will change little in the long run.
I have known and admired Kofi Annan for three decades. It is inconceivable to me that he would lie about what he knew about his son's dealings with a company involved in monitoring the oil-for-food program or tolerate bribery of subordinates by Saddam Hussein's regime.
But an evasive, inept pattern of responses by his organization to these charges is undermining Annan's credibility and that of Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who is carrying out an internal probe at Annan's request. Full, frank and fast disclosure is now the only way to dispell the aura of coverup that is drawing increasing Congressional and media scrutiny.
It is now Annan's management of the credibility crisis as much as the clear errors in judgment in the oil-for-food program that will be decisive. And he must clear the decks of the scandal to get U.S. support for ambitious reforms.
A changing world will rapidly leave behind a world organization that concentrates on tinkering and clinging to outmoded privileges and practices. To understand that, just look where Gorba- chevism got Gorbachev.