In early 2011, the United Nations seemed poised for a renaissance. After playing a marginal role in global conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.N. Security Council was the epicenter for rapid-fire deliberations that yielded a historic resolution calling for "all necessary measures" to protect the Libyan people from President Muammar Qaddafi's onslaught. The decision elevated the nascent global principle of an international "responsibility to protect" innocent civilians, warming the hearts of human rights activists who had for years sought to promote this new international norm. The Security Council's action was decisive, timely, cutting-edge and backed by a wide consensus of world powers, established and emerging.
But the momentum dissipated almost as quickly as it had built. China, Russia and South Africa complained of having been hoodwinked into backing a resolution used to justify military intervention culminating in Qaddafi's ouster. That ire stiffened Moscow's spine for nearly two years of unbending resistance to any Security Council action on Syria. Two successive U.N. mediators for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan and Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, have been mostly ignored by both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Security Council. The result has been to marginalize the U.N. as a force in the Arab transformations, relegating it to the sidelines of the world's most volatile and pivotal region.
The U.N.'s paralysis over Syria is symptomatic of a wider malaise. As with the U.S. Congress, what happens or doesn't at the U.N. is a function not of the institution itself, but of its members. While it's fun to blame the bureaucrats at Turtle Bay, its problems originate not in New York but in capitals around the world. Despite a flurry of activity after September 11, the U.N. membership has for 12 years been unable to even agree on a definition of terrorism, leaving this manifestly global fight mostly to unregulated national efforts. Despite a series of large-scale summit meetings, the U.N. has failed to forge agreement on how to curb climate change. Successive rounds of stiffening U.N. sanctions have not broken the will of either Iran or North Korea to gain nuclear weapons. Although the U.N. is nominally part of the "Quartet" charged with addressing the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it was Egypt and the United States that mediated the latest flare-up in Gaza. In the backseat on so many of the major issues of the day, the U.N. doesn't trend on Twitter or make top news, at least not in the United States. Indeed, of the more than 200 journalists listed as members of the U.N. press association, only about two dozen are affiliated with U.S. media outlets.
The U.N.'s drift comes as a disappointment to those who hoped that after the standoff of the George W. Bush years -- which reached its zenith when Washington went to war on Iraq after trying and failing to win Security Council approval -- the election of Barack Obama would mark a multilateral awakening. But multilateral progress depends largely on bilateral power relations. A surging China, a defiant Russia, and a rising Brazil, South Africa, and India have made for a fractious Security Council. With the exception of Libya, the Obama administration's other significant Security Council achievements, principally sanctions resolutions, have been heavy diplomatic lifts, requiring months of high-level calls and carrots.
This low political and public profile does not necessarily reflect limited activity or impact. On Syria, for example, the U.N. has played a pivotal role despite -- and partly because of -- the political impasse. The U.N.'s World Food Program feeds more than 1.5 million people each month and assists 5,000 new refugees every day. After France's swift intervention to help oust the Islamic militants in Mali, the U.N. looks to be on clean-up duty, gearing up for a potential peacekeeping operation there. The U.N. has also done vital humanitarian, human rights and development work in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has tended to neglected conflicts in Congo and the Sudanese border areas. This all happens alongside a dizzying array of norm development, standard setting, and reporting functions, many of them vital to the smooth flow of things we take for granted -- for example, air traffic - and which the U.N. and its technical agencies carry out daily, almost entirely outside of public view.
But it's undeniable that the U.N.'s importance as a forum for high-stakes geopolitical decision-making has waned, giving way to a focus on humanitarian and technical matters.
What's more, new developments have continued to deny the spotlight to U.N. activities. After the 2008 financial crash, the organization was put in a fiscal straitjacket, and its regular budget has been essentially flat ever since. While the organization operates 15 peacekeeping operations, with the exception of new missions in South Sudan and its border region with the north, the others have been ongoing for at least five years and, in some cases, many decades. Most are low-profile, silently keeping tensions from boiling over in places like Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, and Haiti.
Another factor keeping the U.N.'s profile low is Secretary General Ban Ki-moon himself. He is low-key, still not fully at ease with the English language, and lacks the telegenic charisma of his immediate predecessor Kofi Annan or other memorable secretary generals like Dag Hammarskjold. In an era of 24-hour cable coverage, viral videos, and quotes that boomerang through social media, Ban's flat demeanor almost never breaks through. Moreover, substance has followed his style. When foreign policymakers cannot solve the most difficult regional and country-specific conflicts they face, they revert to focusing on themes -- women's rights, development, health, and many others -- that can be addressed more incrementally, are less susceptible to outright failure, and offer lower risk and lower visibility. A look at Ban's website proves the point. Of nine searchable topics for Ban's speeches, only one -- "African Issues" -- is regional rather than thematic.
The secretary general, however, is just one among several potential personalities that could drive greater attention. The U.N.'s visibility to the U.S. media and public hinges heavily on the the U.S. ambassador. While incumbent Susan Rice is a high-profile foreign policy force, her prominence has not rubbed off on the U.N. itself. During his time as ambassador, Rice's predecessor during the end of the Clinton administration, Richard Holbrooke, focused relentlessly on the U.N. itself. He rammed through reforms, aggressively cultivated his fellow ambassadors, and worked to repair relations between the world body and the U.S. Congress. Holbrooke's U.N. focus was a choice and a necessity: he wanted to notch accomplishments and the U.N. was the only place for him to do it. With Washington foreign policymaking then dominated by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Holbrooke was not a pivotal player. But he drew the spotlight to where he was, which allowed the U.N. to share it with him. During the U.S.-U.N. Cold War years of the Bush administration, U.S. ambassadors ranged from the relatively reserved John Negroponte and John Danforth to the fiery John Bolton, before finally settling on the genial Zalmay Khalilzad. But regardless of who sat behind the U.S. placard, media coverage tended to center on Washington's open disdain for the world body.