Rice is in a very different position from Holbrooke, her most recent predecessor representing an administration interested in a stronger U.N. A member of the president's inner circle of advisers, she may spend as much time in the White House Situation Room as she does in the Security Council. Through her, the U.N. has the benefit of being plugged into the inner circle of U.S. decision-making, a clear plus, but it is rarely the focus of those deliberations. The controversy over her potential nomination as secretary of state was grounded in a critique of the State Department, intelligence agencies, and White House's handling of the Benghazi incident; it had nothing to do with her record at the U.N. Perhaps partly because of the U.N.'s torpor, during her four-year tenure she has continued to be a player in Washington, earning front-runner status for a top foreign policy role. While Rice will continue to command the spotlight, it's not clear the U.N. will shine along with her.
While personalities unquestionably drive coverage, the U.N.'s conflicts are also to blame. The center of gravity has always been the Security Council, where top powers meet, supposedly to tackle the world's most pressing conflicts. But major powers don't want the U.N. meddling in the most sensitive disputes -- India/Pakistan, Afghanistan, or East Asian territorial matters -- relegating it to managing neglected conflicts, most of which are in Africa. The council's divisions have bred a reputation for fecklessness that may be self-reinforcing. This week, the North Korean government brazenly swore it would never "bow" to a U.N. resolution and continues to defy Security Council attempts at coercion. Just this week, Iran again spurned the U.N.'s nuclear inspectors, denying them access to key sites. These governments have come to rely on the fact that its difficult for the council's members to agree on anything, and even more so to back words with actions.
The U.N.'s diminishing profile hurts the organization, much as it would a non-profit organization or a political candidate. It makes it harder to argue for increased financial support, and it lessens the punch of pronouncements by Ban, visits by his envoys, and even negotiated resolutions. People pay attention to what the media covers and what others talk about, and right now the U.N. isn't making the cut. The problem is self-reinforcing; the less the U.N. is mentioned, the less attention is paid, and so on. While Ban is undoubtedly relieved not to be in the news for sex or corruption scandals these days, for an organization trying to summon global influence, no news isn't good news.
In his second inaugural address last month, President Obama pledged to "renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad." The U.N. is chief among these institutions, and if it is to revitalize, it will need to command a profile that helps convince lawmakers and citizens that it deserves more resources and respect. With the Libya moment now a distant blip, it may take a new cast of characters both in Turtle Bay and in global capitals before the U.N. regains a sense of excitement and possibility. But even without tectonic shifts in personalities or geopolitics, there are some concrete steps the U.N. should take now to make sure it doesn't slip further off the radar.
First, the U.N. should take advantage of some of the charismatic leaders in the tier just below Ban and build them into strong media personalities. In the past, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, Human Rights Chief Sergio Vieira de Mello, and nuclear watchdog Mohammed el Baradei showed that dynamic deputies can capture the limelight. The U.N. should do far more to play up the role of the down-to-earth and charming former Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, who now heads U.N. Women. Now the subject of chatter over a possible return to Chilean politics, Bachelet is the organization's point person on women's rights and sexual violence, topics that make headlines daily. Another player with the potential to be a household name is current U.N. Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, the official charged with traveling to all the worst humanitarian hotspots and captaining the U.N.'s work helping hard-hit victims. Both have ample political and media experience and plenty of personality. They and other colleagues can sometimes go places journalists cannot, and bring back stories that show why the U.N. matters. Their increased visibility would help showcase their agencies and missions, while benefitting the wider organization.
The U.N. also needs to overcome its ingrained reluctance to take credit for the rare signature victories achieved in its corridors. Officials there joke that the world body is blamed for everything that fails, but that the successes are chalked up entirely to member states. For good reason, U.N. officials are conscious of not wanting to upstage the organization's members, but few would begrudge the global body for being a bit more keen in pointing out its own contributions. A good opportunity may present itself this spring if, as expected, nations reach consensus on the world's first treaty regulating trade in small arms. If this comes through, U.N. officials should claim victory and explain that this global instrument is the first to tackle what Kofi Annan dubbed the "real weapons of mass destruction," responsible for the deaths of half a million people each year. It will also represent a triumph over the National Rifle Association, which has taken time out from fighting against domestic gun control to oppose the treaty, in effect supporting the free flow of arms to human rights abusers. Properly explained, this is an issue that can win plaudits from the large majority of Americans that realize deadly weapons should not be without basic controls.
A third opportunity is to show leadership on a tough issue. Ban tried to champion climate change during his first term, but has little to show for it. Simply put, without the backing of China and the United States, the U.N. alone lacks the muscle to press a breakthrough that would require the world's leading governments to compromise their economic interests. Conceivably more tractable in the near-term is the issue of gay rights, the subject of a historic speech by Ban in December 2012, in which he decried the criminalization of homosexuality in 76 countries. While highly unpopular among some African governments, Ban's leadership on gay rights is timely and could position the U.N. as a forward-thinking leader. It's a media-friendly issue where Ban could use his bully pulpit -- and one where the coercive powers he lacks would make little difference anyway. Over the years, the U.N. has been at the forefront of developing new human rights norms, beginning with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Extending this lineage to encompass a systematic effort to respect LGBT rights within the U.N.'s own personnel policies and practices and to bolster protections afforded by the U.N.'s human rights watchdogs would get the organization well-deserved positive attention.
President Obama's second term offers an opportunity to revisit unfulfilled promises. During his first speech to the United Nations, in 2009, he said that the U.N.'s weaknesses were "not a reason to walk away from this institution -- they are a calling to redouble our efforts." In the ensuing years, as the common ground reached over Libya proved fleeting, and the impasse over Syria endured, it may have felt as though the doubled effort wasn't worth the returns. That's a loss for America and for the world. In the end, if top officials and ambassadors cannot cajole, coax, and coerce the globe's leading powers to confront serious threats to international peace and security, neither good public relations nor noble humanitarian endeavors will save the organization from fading into irrelevance.