Edited by James P. Muldoon Jr., Joan Fagot Aviel, Richard Reitano, and Earl Sullivan
2005, Westview Press
Second edition, 342 pages
Printer Friendly and PDF

Review: Petru Dumitriu

Since the ideological East-West confrontation faded away, the United Nations has been working under constant strain. The North-South divide remains the principal vestige of the era that opened in 1961 with the climax of the decolonisation process and ended with the euphoria triggered by the collapse of the communist system. The world organisation is expected to do something about the increasing inequalities among countries and the tragic marginalisation of one sixth of the world population living under the absolute threshold of poverty. With all the tremendous potential that apparently carries with it, globalisation makes the picture even more dramatic. The organization attempts constantly to adapt itself to the new challenges and is forced to assume new responsibilities. Meanwhile, the resources available remain more or less constant and the political support from Member Countries fluctuates, to say the least. The most important pressure comes from its efforts to contain the decline of multilateralism. This is the major issue at stake. The United Nations cannot address and solve all the problems of the Planet although many of them seem to come almost automatically on its agenda. At the same time, it must resist any temptation to concede that benevolent unilateralism, accompanied by a strong dose of self-confidence, might effectively and efficiently replaced multilateral diplomacy.

That is one of the reasons why the reading of Multilateral Diplomacy and the United Nations Today is refreshing. The comprehensive review of the work of various mechanisms of the Organization, its working methods, achievements and tribulations, offers an outline of its particular complexity. The papers compiled in the book usefully complement the narrow angle that influent mass-media use to depict the United Nations. One that focuses excessively on conflicts and disasters. One that easily and hastily leads public opinion to the belief that the world faces a 'crisis of multilateralism' for which there is no cure.

Certainly, maintaining international peace and security remains for the United Nations the most explicit part of its job description. Time has come however to pay equal attention to the issues of development. The chapters on international economic diplomacy are a necessary reminder of the immensity of the work to be done. They may help us understand that globalisation does not make multilateralism less relevant. On the contrary, as economic globalisation is, among others, the very expression of interdependence and awareness of common challenges, multilateralism is the institutional expression of the need to respond collectively and cooperatively to the former’s manifestations. Other articles introduce the emergence of nonstate actors as one distinct feature of the new multilateralism which results in an additional encumbrance for the United Nations. Its adaptability and capacity to integrate the interests and resources of the civil society and of the business sector into its projects is a crucial test for an organization founded on the sacrosanct respect for national sovereignty.

Multilateralism is convincingly reflected in the book by the subtle selection of contributions. The book reflects not only the academic perspective, but also brings in pro domo testimonies from practitioners, be they former diplomats in their national capacity or public servants in the UN Secretariat. Their personal touch and experience from within the system comes as an assurance against either idealization or vilification of the organisation.

I chose three quotations from the book to illustrate three points about the United Nations, which I would like to see developed in future reflections. 

The first one is about a major non-measurable result of multilateralism. JoAnn Fagot Aviel says: 'When a crisis broke out in the Balkans in 1914, there was no permanent conference or machinery to try to settle the dispute, which quickly escalated into World War I.' Now, there is one. We will never be able to really assess the immense work of prevention that the United Nations has performed, but we must learn to respect it. 

The second claims guilty wrong perceptions. Sergey Lavrov notes a reaction from a journalist at the completion of an extremely complex peace-operation in Timor Leste: 'Successful? There’s nothing to write about!' Unfortunately, this is a very common reaction with dramatic consequences on the understanding of the role of the United Nations in house-keeping a world whose order is often fragile. 

The last emphasise the relevance, Henk-Jan Brinkman, flatters in his way, a document written by a handful of people in the UN Secretariat: 'The Millenium Declaration is (…) very readable and more interesting than the usual UN resolutions, partly because the resolution was not negotiated in the way that is common in the economic area. It was based on the Millenium report.' Yes, he is right. The resolutions adopted by negotiations among one hundred or more countries are not, and cannot be best-selling literary essays. They produce, however, something more valuable than a pleasant reading: a statement about what is the minimum for nations to do for themselves and for the common good. 

If the editors will continue the good practice of updating the book every 5-6 years, as they did so far, it would be interesting to see among the authors, diplomats, public servants or non-governmental activists from Geneva and other United Nations centres. The exclusive New York centred approach may not fully reflect the extremely diverse nature of the United Nations institutions and realms of concern. Geneva, for instance, is not the other side of the Moon. As a matter of fact the monumental work done in the field of human rights is to be credited to the diplomacy conducted in Geneva. Same goes for the discreet but fundamental work done in the codification of international law, another fundamental task of the world organisation. Moreover, the advent of globalisation makes Geneva, with its competence in intellectual property, telecommunications, health, trade and development, an essential protagonist in the debates on global governance issues.

By saying this, the reader can conclude in all confidence that Multilateral Diplomacy and the United Nations Today is a useful and interesting resource for both diplomats and international public servants and for students of international relations, journalists and commentators. The book is a rich and frank contribution to a balanced and thoughtful analysis on the role of the United Nations in the contemporary world. That is by itself an expression of support for multilateralism, which is never vain.

Review by 
Petru Dumitriu