LAST WEEK'S report from Kofi Annan on the reform of the United Nations is subject to the paradox that colors most pronouncements from the secretary general. His office requires him to address the world's biggest challenges. The new report ranges from economic development to global warming to peacekeeping, not to mention proposals to shake up the management of the United Nations and reform the membership of the Security Council. Yet real power is vested not in the secretary general but rather in the U.N. member states. They raise taxes and command armies, and they will determine whether Mr. Annan's proposals make any difference.
Mr. Annan is right to use his bully pulpit to push national governments in an enlightened direction. His call for a big jump in development aid is justified, even though it may be wishful; the same goes for his support for a new international framework on climate change.
World Bank Pragmatism (The Washington Post, Mar 28, 2005)
Saving Nonproliferation (The Washington Post, Mar 28, 2005)
Playing Both Sides in Jordan (The Washington Post, Mar 27, 2005)
Women of Islam (The Washington Post, Mar 14, 2005)
Lt. Col. Brown's Address (The Washington Post, Mar 5, 2005)
A Tyrant Cornered (The Washington Post, Mar 3, 2005)
But his most valuable ideas may be those that deal with the United Nations' key weakness: the failure of the Security Council to act as a forum for addressing collective security issues, either because its members cannot reach a consensus (as in the run-up to the Iraq war) or because they are unwilling to commit the resources to turn resolutions into action.
The Security Council will never have the sole right to decide when and if the United States should use force, particularly so long as undemocratic governments are part of it. But it's better to gain Security Council approval where possible, and the interval before the Iraq war revealed how difficult this can be. Even though weapons proliferation magnifies the threat posed by rogue states and terrorists, the world has not agreed on a way to sort out which of these threats justify the use of preventive force.
In response to the Iraq deadlock, Mr. Annan commissioned a rethinking of collective security. Even though its authors included people from countries and constituencies bitterly opposed to the Iraq war, it concluded that preventive force is indeed essential in some circumstances. The report from Mr. Annan moves the ball a little farther. It agrees with the Bush administration that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are among the prime threats of the new century. It disagrees with governments (notably Middle Eastern ones) that refuse to condemn terrorism explicitly. "The right to resist occupation . . . cannot include the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians," the report says, in a clear reference to terrorism targeting Israel.
If more governments understood the necessity for military action, it might be easier to mobilize troops and equipment to carry out the Security Council's mandates. The United Nations currently has more peacekeeping missions on the ground than ever before, but rich countries contribute few troops, and the missions are overstretched. Mr. Annan endorses various remedies: The European Union has promised to create standby battle groups, and the African Union aims to create peacekeeping reserve units. Mr. Annan also proposes a new peacebuilding office to coordinate U.N. work in war-torn countries.
Any report on this scale is bound to have an abstract and utopian feel; why debate peacekeeping theory when the world is doing virtually nothing to halt atrocities in Darfur? But the Annan report offers practical proposals to address genuine problems. The United States should lead its allies in taking these proposals seriously.