September 20, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal)

U.N.-Plugged; Imagining the End of the “World” as We Know It

On Monday afternoon the electrical power blew out at U.N. headquarters, forcing the secretary-general and the foreign ministers of four of the world's most powerful nations, along with France, to evacuate the executive offices on the 38th floor. Nonessential U.N. staff were sent home–leaving a friend to quip, “Does that mean all of them?”

Power has since been restored. But Monday's blackout was about as close as anything's come to Ambassador John Bolton's much-quoted line that the U.N. could lose its top 10 stories and nothing would be different. The General Assembly session, continued without interruption in another part of the U.N. complex. The global economy ticked along. The world turned on its axis. On schedule, the sun set. All of which led to a taboo line of thought: What if we simply left the U.N. unplugged?

In the debate over U.N. reform, that is the no-go zone. It is accepted practice to issue tons of documents outlining endless reform, argue over all of it, despair of most of it, mangle the remainder and then recite as an axiom of the modern universe that the U.N. is a flawed institution, but it's all we've got. To whisper that maybe the U.N. is a relic beyond repair, and perhaps a new age of the world deserves a new and better institution, is to knock yourself right out of the debate. No one would want to do that; or at least no one who has invested the eons it takes to read Kofi Annan's 87-page reform plan, Mr. Bolton's sagely line-edited version of the ensuing reform document, the final version of the “outcome” document, the stack of U.N.-reform-related congressional proposals and testimony, the think-tank documents, the zillion-and-one op-eds, and of course the recent 847-page report of Paul Volcker's inquiry.

But in the fleeting twilight moment this past Monday of contemplating a U.N. without power, I did wonder what a new world council would look like, if instead of restitching the creation animated by our forefathers in 1945, we created an institution tailored to our own era–not the 20th century, but the 21st.

The upside of an entirely new U.N. could go well beyond better electrical circuits at headquarters, or more agile computer backup (for a while, the U.N. Web site went out along with the lights). The current U.N. dates back to a time when the frontier of information technology was the vacuum tube, the ascendant philosophy in the developing world was communist central planning, and the kind of war the U.N.'s founders sought to prevent was chiefly the domain of uniformed armies clashing under the flags of sovereign states.

The U.N. founders wrote a charter at the end of World War II filled with wonderful words about reaffirming faith in “human rights” and “the dignity of human beings.” They then contradicted themselves in practice from day one by respecting thug regimes enough to provide Stalin's Soviet Union a permanent seat on the Security Council and two extra seats in the General Assembly. They set up a U.N. system that not only failed to prevent a long series of wars but today fails to curb terrorism, or even adequately define it. In other words, to create an inclusive gathering of nations in 1945, our forefathers made some big practical compromises with their lofty ideals. In making those tradeoffs, their priorities did not reflect a world in which Osama bin Laden could surf the Internet.

Nor did they set up a U.N. replete with the checks and balances and transparency widely recognized these days as necessary to good governance. The U.N. founders did not provide adequate defenses against the tangled growth of U.N. bureaucracy, the packing of the ranks over the decades with cronies and rival national cliques, or the formation of influential lobbying groups of despotic regimes such as the former Soviet bloc or the current Arab League. And in setting up the U.N. as the mother of all multilateral aid agencies, the U.N. founders never came to grips with the vital principle that if private enterprise is the real engine of prosperity–which it is–then the secret is not to jack up government-channeled aid at every opportunity but to push chiefly for more liberty, even if that means a lesser role–and smaller budget–for the U.N.

If today's democratic leaders were to take the same prerogative as our grandparents–but without waiting until the world around them is reduced to rubble–and set out to create a U.N. from scratch, what would it look like? If we set out to meld the same worthy ideals of human rights and dignity that inspired the old U.N. with the practical needs, miracle technologies and hard-won wisdom of our own age, how would it work?

Would we choose to start with an organizational chart anything like that of the U.N. today–a labyrinth so vast and secret that according to Mr. Volcker's findings even the U.N.'s own management cannot decipher it?

Would we start with a Secretariat like the one we have today, which has in some disturbing respects evolved into a sort of singularly privileged 192nd member state? The original purpose of the Secretariat was to implement the decisions of the General Assembly and Security Council–in other words, to serve the member states. Over the years, the Secretariat acquired a budget in the billions, but somehow failed to develop the skills to handle it well. Now, Mr. Volcker's report informs us that no one these days expects the secretary-general to be hired for his administrative or managerial skills. Instead, he has become the “chief diplomatic and political agent of the United Nations.” OK, but in that case, who or what at the U.N. does the secretary-general represent? When Kofi Annan says “we”–as in “from our point of view” the liberation of Iraq was “illegal,” who exactly is he speaking for? The administrative staff? The Security Council? The General Assembly? Has he in contradiction of the U.N. charter (which is what he was at that moment claiming to represent) been promoted to the status of royalty, the head of a world state–in which case all now owe allegiance to the figure originally mandated to perform the functions of U.N. chief administrator and clerk?

Would we create a Security Council in which the despotic People's Republic of China holds a permanent seat and a fascist state such as Syria rotates through the presidency, but democratic Israel is systematically excluded from serving at all?

Would we create a General Assembly in which Zimbabwe, North Korea, Burma and Turkmenistan all wield a vote, but the elected leader of democratic Taiwan is not even allowed to set foot on the premises?

Would we create a U.N. in which the financial accounts are secret, the auditing is inadequate, and the standards are double or worse–lax for the highest officials and severe for lower-tier staff who lack patrons in the right places?

These questions belong to fantasy, of course. No one in power has seriously addressed them because no one important is seriously thinking of turning out the lights for good at Turtle Bay. But for a moment there, it was intriguing to wonder what, with the benefit of 60 years experience, we might now invent–if we ever left the old U.N. unplugged long enough to find out.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.

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