European Affairs

The EU Wants to Be a "Front Runner" in the United Nations     Print Email
John B. Richardson

John B. RichardsonFollowing the discord in the United Nations over Iraq in 2003, the European Union is actively considering how to strengthen its leadership role in the organization and extend its influence through a wider range of UN activities. The debate currently under way in the EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament is based on a policy document published by the European Commission in September 2003, The Choice of Multilateralism, which clearly reflects some of the lessons learned from the disagreements over the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. One of the paper's main themes is the European Union's positive experience of collective action among states, both inside and outside the Union, which the Commission believes to be a good way of dealing with problems in an interdependent world.

The Commission's latest communication builds on an earlier policy paper issued in 2001, which concentrated on the rather narrower field of EU cooperation with the United Nations in development and humanitarian aid. There has been quite good progress in these areas through the development of "strategic partnerships" between the Commission and various UN agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as with the International Labor Organization (ILO), and with the World Health Organization (WHO).

These agreements ensure that we can work together almost on a basis of interoperability; our financial regulations fit each other, and, in particular, we can channel EU funds through UN institutions. The new policy paper goes considerably further than that and looks at the whole range of EU-UN relations. It contains three central ideas.

The first is the concept of the European Union as a "front runner" in the United Nations. The idea is that since the European Union very largely shares the goals of the United Nations, we have a vocation to be among those pushing fastest and hardest for the realization of UN objectives through UN methods.

The second is that we want to help members of the United Nations with the implementation of their UN commitments. This is largely a question of using our bilateral arrangements with third countries to help them put into action what is decided in New York. The best examples of that currently are the commitments undertaken by countries at the Johannesburg Summit Meeting on Sustainable Development in 2002. The European Union is helping by bringing together its development aid and technical assistance, and ensuring they are consistent with UN decisions and what government members have to do as a result.

The third main idea is EU-UN cooperation in a more general policy sense. First, we have started what we call "cooperation on conflict-prevention," which basically means ensuring that the people dealing with a particular country inside the Commission have very close desk-to-desk contacts with their counterparts in the United Nations Secretariat.

That sounds obvious, but it has not happened in the past. Only a few years ago, a Commission official dealing with, say, Sierra Leone would never have dreamed of calling the person dealing with the same country in the UN Secretariat. We have to encourage that sort of collaboration, and create mechanisms for it to happen, and it is now increasingly taking place.

Another field in which we want to cooperate extensively with the United Nations is that of human rights. We attach enormous importance to this, and it is an area that is rapidly developing. There is much to be done, particularly in dealing with the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, but also with human rights questions in the General Assembly in New York.

We also want to cooperate in crisis management. In 2003, we agreed on a joint political declaration on the subject that was approved by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, then President of the EU Council, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. This is a policy area which is managed on a day-to-day basis not by the Commission but by the EU Council Secretariat, which also has an office in New York - an interesting twist from an institutional point of view. The Commission is also developing a coherent strategy on non-proliferation that will clearly have to be brought into the UN context when the time comes.

The European Union works hard to influence UN policy. When I arrived in New York in May 2001, my first big surprise was the high profile of the European Union in the United Nations and the huge number of EU meetings that take place in New York. Every year, we have over 1,200 "coordination meetings" in New York, in which the 25 EU states, now including the 10 nations due to join in May 2004, get together with the Commission to try to hammer out EU positions on almost everything that happens at the United Nations. These meetings take place in the office of the Council Secretariat.

This system functions remarkably well. All the member governments realize that adopting an EU collective approach is the only way of exerting their national influence. In the UN context, it is very difficult for a country to press its own national interests in competition with multilateral action at the EU and UN level. This has happened in some cases, but not very often.

An extremely interesting article by Paul Luif in the last issue of European Affairs showed that since the end of the Cold War there has been a steady increase in the percentage of contested votes in the UN General Assembly in which all EU members cast identical votes. The rate of voting together on these contested resolutions is now somewhere between 75 percent and 80 percent. Many resolutions, of course, are passed by consensus, in which, by definition, we all vote the same way.

We have also done analyses which show that there is a very high degree of alignment with the EU consensus among the 10 prospective new EU member states. On almost every resolution where the EU has a common view, the Presidency now speaks on behalf of the European Union and numerous other states that have aligned themselves on the EU position. These are not just the 10 new members. The consensus often also includes Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, which are candidates for EU membership, and other countries such as Norway and Liechtenstein which are not.

Achieving EU consensus on UN resolutions is important for two reasons: first, EU positions, almost by definition, avoid the extremes. You cannot get 15 member states, and now 25, to agree on an extreme position. And it is no coincidence that joint EU positions very often turn out to be near the consensus of the UN. If the European Union can agree on something, there is a very good chance that it will be very near the position where the UN as a whole ends up. This is relevant to the idea of the European Union acting as a "front-runner." When the European Union takes the lead, many countries do in fact follow.

A good example of this occurred recently after the Palestinians introduced in the Security Council a resolution on the Wall or Security Fence that is being built by Israel on the West Bank. It would have been vetoed in the Security Council and went to the General Assembly. We conducted long and complicated negotiations with the Palestinians that produced a version that all EU members could accept. We made the text much more balanced. It was less pro-Palestinian, and balanced by condemnations of Palestinian practices as well as Israeli practices.

Eventually, the European Union took over the resolution and sponsored it instead of the Palestinians. On that basis, it went through the General Assembly with only four votes against and twelve abstentions. The four votes against were cast by the United States, Israel, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. I think it is fair to say that the United States and Israel were not unhappy with the way that resolution developed, even though they voted against it. It shows what the European Union can do when it is able to act cohesively in the General Assembly. There is a lot of potential there for the "front runner" function.

The European Union's bid to strengthen its leadership role comes at a time when there is a great deal of talk about reforming the United Nations in general. In that context, it is important to consider what the United Nations is actually there for. What are its real functions?

There is no doubt in my mind that its first function is that of a world forum, a "talking shop." Although that phrase is often used in a derogatory manner, talking is actually good. It is how the world community tries to construct a consensus. And it is particularly valued by smaller states. There is a great deal of contact between the world's great powers and even between the less great powers. But the United Nations is the forum in which the world's small powers can speak, and sometimes at least be heard. That is an important role for the United Nations.

The second role of the United Nations is to create a worldwide consensus on development policy. I think it is fair to say that the UN Millennium Summit in 2000 made considerable progress in dissipating many of the disagreements and resentments that have bedeviled the development debate for many decades. That meeting was followed by two enormously important UN conferences, in Monterrey in the spring of 2002, and Johannesburg in September 2002, which have in the view of many UN officials created a consensus about the way forward with respect to development.

To finance development you need to increase trade, deal with debt, organize debt relief, increase official development assistance and encourage more private investment. It is also important, however, to improve governance in developing countries and establish more coherence in the international community on development policies. Institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN Development Program, the European Commission and a whole host of others including the U.S. Agency for International Development must talk to each other to ensure that their actions are complementary and not contradictory. The Monterrey Consensus on all these issues was a great achievement for the United Nations.

That is particularly so in the field of governance. The developing nations now accept that a country cannot develop, no matter how much assistance it receives, if it does not have a market economy and a rule of law, and if it does not respect human rights, even if it is not a democracy. The essential point is not that these principles, particularly democracy, are always followed. The point is that there is now a consensus that if a country does not respect them, it will pay a price - it will not develop. That is accepted even by countries that are not yet democratic.

Protection of human rights is, of course, the next function of the United Nations. The whole development of UN declarations and conventions on human rights has helped to foster a global consensus on how governments should treat their citizens. Here again, even where the principles are not implemented, they provide a template against which the behavior of governments can be measured and, if necessary, condemned. That is enormously important.

The next role of the United Nations is maintaining security, under the aegis of the Security Council. It is easy to forget how much the United Nations does to maintain peace and security around the world, and there have certainly been peacekeeping failures in the past. But since the peacekeeping operations of the UN received the Nobel Prize in 1998, UN peacekeeping forces have brought peace and democracy to Namibia, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique and East Timor and have helped to rebuild Bosnia and Kosovo. So, there is a lot that actually works, as well as things that do not.

The remaining function of the United Nations is to act as a world legislative body. Sometimes the General Assembly legislates by negotiating conventions that are then applied by all its members, ratified, and transformed into national law. The best examples are the conventions on various aspects of terrorism, all of which were in place before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Their implementation received an enormous boost from the worldwide consensus that much more needed to be done after those attacks.

This analysis reflects the European Union's view of the United Nations. So the question arises: Does the European Union have this view of the United Nations because it is too weak to do anything else, too weak to impose its own views on others? That, of course, is the thesis advanced by the American analyst Robert Kagan, who has argued that Europeans are from Venus, while Americans are from Mars.

Let us try to look at the question from the point of view of American interests and assume two things: first, that foreign policy is only about America's interests and nobody else's; and second, that if the world were more like the United States it would be a better place. What that means is that U.S. values need to be propagated around the world and U.S. interests need to be defended.

So what are U.S. values? Most people would give you the same list: democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy. I will take them in reverse order. A market economy does not mean a totally free market. After the financial scandals of the last couple of years, Americans do not have to be told that markets need to be regulated. It is also obviously true that the interdependent world economy contributes enormously to prosperity in the United States. Just as the U.S. market needs regulations, so does the world economy. And that can only be achieved multilaterally, because economic rules cannot be imposed unilaterally even by a country as strong as the United States.

The weight of the U.S. economy counts, but there is no way around the multilateral system. That is the conclusion that everyone has reached over recent decades and it is why, during the past half century, the United States and the European Union have led in the creation of global multilateral rules for the global market economy. Because the global economy needs multilateral rules and the United States needs the global economy, the United States therefore needs a multilateral system.

Of course, if others are to respect the rules, so must the United States. I think that is a much better reason for complying with WTO rules than any threat from any other trading partner around the world. This brings us to the question of the rule of law. Individual freedom, which is so important for Americans, is in fact constrained by collective rules of behavior, which we call the legal system. U.S. citizens rejected long ago the law of the jungle. They also rejected the taking of justice into one's own hands. Self-defense is acceptable, but vigilante justice has been rejected.

Similarly, international law seems to me to be the collective restraint which countries accept on their freedom of national action, to which we voluntarily subscribe. And that rule of law is not just about economic relations between countries. There has not been much international law regulating the relations between individual citizens with each other. The International Criminal Court is in a sense the first big example of that. But there are a lot of international rules about relations between governments and their citizens. That is basically the Human Rights codex and everything related with it.

I would suggest that the United States should be able to see the international codex of Human Rights as the international expression of the same ideas as the U.S. Bill of Rights. The United States should see the codex as representing the worldwide export of particular U.S. values shaping the rest of the world in the image of the United States. If the rights under the U.S. Constitution are good enough for U.S. citizens, then they should be good for all world citizens, and the promotion of these rights is in the national interest of the United States, as is a multilateral system.

But the legitimacy of these rules is often questioned. We do not have a world government, let alone a world democratic government. So how legitimate are these rules which the world community has set up?

That brings me to the nature of democracy. One can say that there is democracy when a government is elected by the voters. Well, there were elections in the Soviet Union on a regular basis, but that certainly was not democracy. What about the rule of majority? We often think of that as the other element of democracy. Under the U.S. electoral system, however, the President is not necessarily chosen by the majority of all citizens, or the majority of all registered voters, and sometimes not even by the majority of all votes cast.

In my view, you have democracy when it is impossible for a minority to impose its views systematically on the majority. One way of ensuring that is to take decisions by consensus. That is the basis of the UN system, which underlies all the Human Rights Conventions that are worked out by consensus. To refuse to accept them is, therefore, to refuse to accept the views of the vast majority. To try to undermine them is to try to impose a minority view on the world community.

I mention in this context the recently established International Criminal Court. It is one thing not to accept its jurisdiction for U.S. citizens. It is quite another to try to undermine its implementation for everyone else, because that would be to try to impose a minority view on the world community. That is contrary to American principles of democracy, and, in my assumption, also contrary to the American national interest.

I began by talking about propagating U.S. values and defending U.S. interests. Defending interests, of course, is most crucial in the domain of security. It is the difference between laws and law enforcement. We all know that international rules on security are notoriously weakly enforced. The UN Security Council cannot always take decisions. There is no UN army to enforce resolutions, despite the provision for it in the UN Charter.

Where the Security Council can be successful is in the case of UN-mandated peacekeeping operations. I have already mentioned Kosovo and Bosnia, but one could add Afghanistan and the Congo. Keeping those hot spots cool is clearly in everyone's interest, including that of the United States.

The question is what we do in the case of threats to peace and security on which the United Nations is unable or unwilling to act, while the United States is both willing and able. Is there then not a case for unilateral U.S. action in its national interest? No doubt there is. But I would argue that such action would undermine the U.S. national interest if it ran counter to the propagation of U.S. values. So it should always respect both the rules of international law, and it should not attempt to impose a minority U.S. view in the face of the opposition of world public opinion. For that would be to fly in the face of American values, and would therefore be against the national interest.

It was no accident that the United States played a leading role in the development of the multilateral system, even when America was already dominant in 1945. For this system is in fact the international expression of the values upon which the United States is based and therefore is in the U.S. national interest.

Of course there are Americans who contest this view, who wish to preserve the freedom of action of the United States. But, as I have tried to suggest, total freedom and the rule of law are incompatible concepts, and imposing a minority view on the majority of the world is undemocratic. I believe that it would be counter-productive to maintain that U.S. interests would be served by showing in this way that the United States does not believe in its own values.

I do not believe that what you might call this "great power paradigm" will prevail over the paradigm of collective multilateral action, although the issue will be in contention for as long the United States believes itself to be predominant. There are two main reasons for this conclusion. First, as the world continues to grow more interdependent, the argument that collective action is to the benefit of all, even including the "hyperpower," grows stronger too.

Second, U.S. power is not so overwhelming, after all. The ability to project massive force with pinpoint accuracy over the horizon is of little use against terrorism, of little use in policing the streets of Baghdad and of little use in nation building in Afghanistan or Liberia. And the United States is by no means predominant in the assets of "soft power," which can help to do those things. So I believe that the United States will re-embrace multilateralism, if indeed it does not continue to embrace it now. As Winston Churchill said: "the United States can always be relied upon to do the right thing, after trying everything else."

This result will come about more quickly if we in the UN community can succeed in strengthening and revitalizing the UN system. President George Bush was quite right. He challenged the United Nations in September 2002 to find a way to make its decisions respected. That should be the priority for the European Union as a "front runner" in the United Nations, working together with the United States.

John B. Richardson is Head of the Delegation of the European Commission to the United Nations. He served as Minister and Deputy Head of the European Commission's Delegation in Washington from 1996 to 2001. Before that, he spent 23 years at the EU headquarters in Brussels where he held numerous posts, including Head of Division for relations with the United States and later for relations with Japan, and EU negotiator in the Uruguay Round.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number I in the Winter of 2004.

 
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