TFF logo TFF logo
T r e a s u r e s 2006
TREASURES Sitemap Areas we work in Resources Columns and art


About TFF

Support our work

Search & services

Contact us


United Nations reform:

Where is Kofi Annan's "fork in the road"?
Over the horizon!



Richard Falk

Comments directly to

December 8, 2006

I. Metaphor and the Politics of Despair

In addressing the General Assembly back in 2003 on the urgent need for UN reform, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, resorted to a frequently quoted metaphorical trope: “Excellencies, we have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded.”

He explains the rhetoric by saying “[n]ow we must decide whether it is possible to continue on the basis agreed upon or whether radical changes are needed.” And further, Annan notes that he had earlier “drew attention to the urgent need for the [Security] Council to regain the confidence of States, and of world public opinion—both by demonstrating its ability to deal effectively with the most difficult issues, and by becoming more broadly representative of the international community as a whole, as well as the geopolitical realities of today.” [The Secretary General Address to the General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2003, pp.1-5, at 3]

To build support for the needed radical changes, that is, to ensure that the right road is chosen at the fork, Annan appointed two panels designed to shape an agenda for the General Assembly’s reform summit scheduled for the Fall of 2005, the 60th anniversary of the UN. Both appointed groups operated according to a realist calculus that tried to take account of what sorts of changes would be acceptable to a majority of the membership. The less significant of the two was the Panel of Eminent Persons on UN-Civil Society Relations, chaired by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former President of Brasil. Its mandate was narrowly framed to encourage proposals that would give civil society organizations somewhat better access and opportunities for participation, but within the existing pattern of the UN System. The 127 (?) recommendations of the Panel were rather technical and managerial in tone, and whether implemented or not, unlikely to alter the basic non-impact of global civil society on important UN undertakings. [See Falk in GS Yearbook; Cardoso Report]

The more important initiative was that High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change that issued a widely discussed report entitled “A more secure world: Our shared responsibility.” [(New York: The United Nations, 2004)] In the transmittal letter to the Secretary-General, prefacing the report, the panel chair, Anand Panyarachun, observes that “[o]ur mandate from you precluded any in-depth examination of individual conflicts and we have respected your guidance. But the members of the Panel believe it would be remiss of them if they failed to point out that no amount of systemic changes to the way the United Nations handles both old and new threats to peace and security will enable it to discharge effectively its role under the Charter if efforts are not redoubled to resolve a number of long-standing disputes which continue to fester and to feed the new threats we now face. Foremost among these are the issues of Palestine, Kashmir and the Korean Peninsula.” [p.xi]

This passages thinly disguises the double bind embedded in the mandate given to the Panel: who address threats to peace in the current global setting, but without treading on toes by discussing specific conflicts. As any inquirer knows, the only way to grasp the general is by attentiveness to the particular, and this is precisely what is precluded. Hidden here in the bureaucratic jargon of the UN is the decisive obstacle to the sort of UN reform that is, indeed, urgently needed if the Organization to realize the goals of its most ardent supporters and to move in the directions encouraged by the UN Charter, especially its visionary Preamble. It is not possible, even in the spirit of advocacy, to take on the most serious existing breaches of peace and security, or even the most serious proximate threats.

Despite these restrictions, the Panel does face the new realities of the twenty-first century in ways worthy of discussion, especially on issues of peace and security. Three aspects of its approach are illustrative of its image of reform. Each is situated within a realist calculus of reformist feasibility, but still lacks serious prospects for implementation because of a failure to take account of the minefield that makes taking the road to reform treacherous. The High-level Panel suggests 1) broadening the idea of security by taking account of the rising support for the concept of ‘human security,’ and treating issues of disease, poverty, environmental degradation, and transnational organized crime as falling within the ambit of security.[21-55] 2) that the new threats to world order associated either with transnational terrorism or crimes against humanity/genocide can be addressed within the existing Charter framework if the right of self-defense as set forth in Article 51 is “properly understood and applied.” [p.3]

The reformist element here is to insist that such an extended view of the use of force in self-defense, including its justifications for preemption and intervention in internal affairs, requires prior UN Security Council authorization. 3) Following the recommendation of the Canadian International Commission, an endorsement of “the emerging norm that there is a collective international responsibility to protect, exercisable by the Security Council authorizing military intervention as a last resort, in the event of genocide or other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing or serious violation of international humanitarian law which sovereign Governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent.” [66]

These proposals walk a series of tightropes.

To begin with, the tightrope that allows the broadening of the idea of security to include threats to human wellbeing while being respectful of the overarching concern with threats to use force against a state mounted by state and non-state actors. Overall, acknowledging geopolitical pressures to engage in preemptive responses based on the rhetoric of the post-9/11 Bush approach to national security, while being sensitive to the wider allegations of unilateralism that have been directed at American foreign policy, especially in the wake of the Iraq War. They also walk a third tightrope that is responsive to the importance of the human rights movement that is a high priority for global civil society while being overtly deferential to the traditional prerogatives of sovereign states, expressed both by the norm of nonintervention and by a recognition that international action is only legitimate if the state fails to address an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Each of these moves seems entirely consistent with the Westphalian concept of world order based on the interplay of sovereign states, as modified by the development of international law, and as adapted to a changing global setting.

And yet this agenda is subject to lines of decisive criticism: the Panel’s proposals go too far given the geopolitical climate; the proposals are far too modest given the claimed intention of the reformers to live up to Charter expectations as to collective security or to safeguard the world against the menace of unilateralism.

Why too far? The United States, in particular, has made it abundantly clear that it will determine on its own whether to rely on force to address international conflicts, and without regard to Charter constraints given its insistence that threats must be dealt with by preventive and preemptive modes of warfare. As long as the veto is available to the five permanent members of the Security Council, any effort to impose international restraints on their behavior depends on their voluntary compliance. And further, it remains the case that the responsibility to protect is an empty norm without either endowing the UN with independent capabilities or generating a political will on the part of leading states to provide needed levels of support either in advance or in response to humanitarian emergencies. There is no evidence that such conditions will be met. The feeble response to the massive genocidal developments in Darfur in the face of the complicity of the Sudanese government is ample evidence that the political will is absent to support the norm associated with a responsibility to prevent. The reformist road advocated by the Panel seems blocked for the foreseeable future by geopolitical resistance that should have entirely predictable.

Why not far enough? The Panel’s proposals purport to change policy without altering the constitutional status of the permanent members within the United Nations and without providing capabilities and institutional procedures to make their recommendations assume a meaningful political character. To be more specific, the only way that the Security Council could be meaningfully empowered to implement the suggested supervision over extended claims of self-defense is to deny the availability of the veto to permanent members, but the issue is left untouched. Similarly, the only way that an interventionary mission to discharge the responsibility to protect could become credible would be through the establishment of a UN Emergency Peace Force that was trained in advance and independently financed and recruited. Again, such an implementing procedure is not even discussed.

Finally, to make the enlargement of the security agenda more than words requires some sort of institutional recognition that these new issues are deserving of inclusion on the agenda of the Security Council to the same degree as war/peace concerns. Because such a recognition would highlight the disparity of economic conditions in the world economy, creating pressures for a more equitable distribution of the benefits of economic globalization that arises from neoliberal policies, there is no present prospect that the call for a comprehensive approach to security will yield behavioral results, except of a kind that would have been produced in any event, for instance, inter-governmental cooperation to control transnational organized crime.

For these reasons, the only responsible conclusion is that the report of the High-level Panel failed from either a realist perspective of politics as the art of the possible or an idealist perspective as politics as the quest for the necessary and desirable. Its main proposals, although carefully formulated and sensitive to the global setting, only reinforced the mood of despair surrounding issues of global reform.

In this sense, perhaps imprudently, the Panel accepted an assignment that seems an example of a ‘mission impossible.’

Would you be reading this now,
if it wasn't useful to you?

Get more quality articles in the future

Returning to the fork in the road, there is no fork, only the old geopolitical pathway dominated by geopolitics and statism. Kofi Annan’s use of this metaphor is an expression of false consciousness, especially as related to its animating subject-matter, which was the combination of American unilateralism with respect to war making and a general atmosphere of inaction in response to humanitarian crises. Prior to inserting the metaphor, the Secretary-General calls attention to the dangerous precedent posed by “this argument” that “States are not obliged to wait until there is agreement in the Security Council. Instead, they reserve the right to act unilaterally, or in ad hoc coalitions.” He adds that “[t]his logic represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however, imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last fifty-eight years.”

Annan admits that ‘it is not enough to denounce unilateralism, unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some States feel uniquely vulnerable, since it is those concerns that drive them to take unilateral action.”[p.3]

It is here that there is a failure of comprehension, and an insight into how such a mission impossible is launched. Of course, the whole discourse is beset by the taboo associated with mentioning particulars, that is, which state resorted to war for what apparent purpose. It is obvious from the setting that Annan was talking about the American invasion of Iraq, but to suggest that this invasion was a response to an American post-9/11 sense of ‘vulnerability’ is to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the Iraq War was initiated for reasons of grand strategy, and the anti-terrorist claims of an imminent threat were trumped up and quite irrelevant to the policy.

The point here is suggest that if the true pressures on the UN framework are not properly analyzed there is no way to fashion a relevant response. The High-level Panel was completely responsive to the Secretary-General’s mandate, providing momentary cosmetic relief, but also deflecting a more accurate understanding of the challenge being mounted against the role of the United Nations Charter by prevailing patterns of geopolitical behavior.

Decades before the Iraq War, the issue of Charter obsolescence had been widely discussed. [Perhaps, most notably, by Thomas Franck in “Who Killed Article 2(4)? Or: Changing Norms Governing the Use of Force by States,” 64 AJIL 809(1970).] Many international law specialists have pointed to the practice of states that cannot be reconciled with Charter constraints on recourse to aggressive war as an instrument of policy. [See Weisbrod; Arendt & Beck] More recently, Michael Glennon has been tireless in his critique of what he regards as ‘legalism,’ even Platonism, contending that it interferes with a realization that the UN Charter system for restraining states was never truly implemented as a collective security mechanism, has not been respected by important states, and lacks constraining weight and authority. [Michael J. Glennon, “Platonism, Adaptivism, and Illusion in UN Reform,” Chicago Journal of International Law 6(No. 2):613-640(2006)]

Glennon goes further, lending a provisional vote of confidence to what he calls “ad hoc coalitions of the willing” that “provide an effective substitute” “on specific occasions” for the Security Council, referring to the Kosovo War launched in 1999 under NATO auspices as his justifying example. He argues that it was correct to disregard the absence of Security Council authorization for a non-defensive use of force, and that the NATO authorization, although not based on international law, was sufficient.[639; see the Report of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000) for a different approach, pp. 000]

The Kosovo example is misleading as the coalition of the willing was responding to a credible humanitarian emergency of limited scope, and not embarking on a geopolitical adventure that rested neither on moral or political imperatives. To move in Glennon’s direction is to endorse the geopolitical management of world politics at a historical moment in which the dominant state enjoys diminishing respect as a hegemonic actor and confronts deepening resentment arising from its policies. In this regard to shore up the advocacy of global policy fashioned by coalitions of the willing by historical reference to the relative success of the Concert of Europe in keeping the peace in Europe during the nineteenth century.

At the same time, the prohibition in the Charter is a key foundation for challenging the legality and legitimacy of state action by either moderate states or the forces of global civil society. To the extent that a post-Westphalian form of democratic and humane global governance is struggling to become a political project it depends for clarification of its undertaking on the norms associated with the UN Charter and the Nuremberg tradition of imposing criminal accountability on leaders of states. [For fuller exposition see Falk, The Declining World Order (New York: Routledge, 2004); also Falk, Gendzier, and Lifton, eds., Crimes of War Iraq (New York: Nation Books, 2006)]

To summarize, the metaphor as used by the Secretary General to encourage a process of UN reform was influential in guiding those entrusted with shaping an agenda of proposals and recommendations. But it was deeply misleading in the sense that it acted as if there existed an alternative to geopolitics that could be effectively developed by inter-governmental consensus.


The Secretary-General could have resigned

Far more appropriate as a metaphorical gesture of credible substance would have been the resignation of the Secretary-General precisely because there was no fork in that road! “Without a fork in the road I cannot continue to serve this world Organization in good faith!” And elaborating by saying that “due to the recent circumstances highlighted by the Iraq War, the prevailing path has become untenable, a betrayal of the core principle of the Charter prohibiting aggressive war.”

If Kofi Annan, surely a decent person and dedicated international civil servant had so used the metaphorical moment, two positive results could be anticipated: first, a wider appreciation that needed UN reforms of even minimal scope were presently unattainable; and secondly, a pointed recognition that the United Nations could not function as intended due to obstructionist tactics of the main geopolitical actor, the United States.

Such a posture would have given Annan a voice of his own as well as an audience in civil society that might well have regarded the occasion of this resignation as an opportune moment to launch a struggle for the soul of the United Nations.
Whether the path presently being cleared by the more progressive forces in global civil society is more than a utopian gesture will not be known for decades, but it is the only path that makes the abolition of aggressive war, at least potentially, ‘a mission possible.’ Aligning with this struggle is the only emancipatory option available to those seeking a humane form of global governance. [See Alain Badiou, Meta-Politics (London, UK: Verso, 2005)]

The metaphor ‘a fork in the road’ can thus be inverted so as to clarify the historical circumstance, acknowledging both the absence of choice, from within a Westphalian framing of UN reform, and the possibility of choice achieved by way of a rupture with standardized organizational expectations associated with delivering the case for reform by relying on a rhetoric of urgency that is immediately contradicted by patterns of performance that submit to the dual disciplines of bureaucratic inertia and geopolitical discipline.

That the outcome of this dynamic, as evident in the two reports, whose recommendations were further diluted in the Secretary-General’s own later report, In Larger Freedom, has been pathetic from a reformist perspective should not come as a surprise. [In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All, Report of the Secretary General, (New York: United Nations, 2005).] Nor should the bureaucratic cover up by way of a hollow celebration that pretends that the meager and marginal steps taken at the World Summit in 2005 responded adequately, even impressively, to the original urgent call. [“Implementation of decisions from the 2005 World Summit Outcome for action by the Secretary-General,” Report of the Secretary-General, 25 Oct 2005, A/60/430.]

What becomes manifest in the course of this cycle of delusion, is a circular and mutually complicit demonstration of the exact opposite from what is officially explicated: namely, the impossibility of UN reform. Acknowledging this impossibility is the only way to overcome it. To the extent that Kofi Annan, knowingly or unknowingly, both articulates the urgency of reform and the cover up of its failure, he is playing the villain’s role in this geopolitical theater of the absurd.

We are left with Glennon’s overt dismissal of the UN, and avowal of the primacy of geopolitics, as a more trustworthy rendering of the global setting in the early twenty-first century than is the false advertising associated with official UN efforts. [Glennon, note 00]
In the end, better a counsel of despair than an over-dosage of anti-depressants. Better only because it prompts resistance that is rooted in the realities of what exists rather than perpetuating a pattern of escapist delusion.

II. Horizons and Metaphors of Hope

From its inception the United Nations represented an uneasy Faustian bargain between an idealist search for peace through law and the realist quest for stability through power. On the idealist side, is the unconditional prohibition of force except in instances of self-defense strictly defined to require a prior armed attack, reinforced by collective security mechanisms that were intended to protect states that were victims of aggression.

On the realist side, is the grant of veto power to the five permanent members of the Security Council, further accentuated by the short-term dependence of the Organization on financial contributions from member states, especially the leading ones, and by an overall relationship to the Charter that is premised on voluntary adherence, respectful of sovereign rights.

Such normative incoherence is bound to generate disappointment, with idealists expecting too much and realists not expecting anything at all beyond discussion. The operative impact of this Faustian bargain has been evident in relation to the Iraq War, with idealists delighted that the Security Council refused to authorize the invasion in 2003, while realists bemoaned the irrelevance of the Organization. Subsequent to the invasion, despite its flagrant violation of the most basis principle of the Charter, the UN acquiesced in the outcome, lent its support to normalizing the illegal occupation of the country, and refrained from criticizing the invasion and occupation.

Through the years, off camera, the UN achieved many positive results, often beyond most reasonable expectations, and far beyond what its predecessor, the League of Nations achieved, especially in such areas as human rights, environmental consciousness, health, care of children, education, and even in relation to peace and security whenever geopolitical actors happened to be united in approach. A testimony to this net contribution to human wellbeing is that no state has withdrawn from membership in the United Nations over the entire course of its history. [The one partial exception is Indonesia that withdrew for a year in 1965 to form a counter-organization of ‘new states,’ but returned after discovering an absence of receptivity to its efforts.]

Given this circumstance, it is not surprising that the UN reform process is so clogged. There are three sources of resistance to substantial reform, each quite formidable:

• the amendment process is constitutionally difficult, and is subject to the veto;

• the entrenched advantages of some states, and the diverse priorities of different regions, makes it difficult to achieve a consensus on specific steps (unless innocuous);

• the leading states, especially the United States, are unwilling to cede control over vital dimension of global policy or to allow initiatives within the Organization that express criticism of its global role or specific policies.
With these considerations in mind it is hardly surprising that the UN has not been able to solve the most pressing demands for the kind of reform that would provide it with enhanced twenty-first century legitimacy:

• changing the membership of the Security Council to take account of shifts in influence since 1945;

• adapting the concept of self-defense to the current realities of international conflict without giving states the authority to wage discretionary wars;

• acknowledging the impact of the global human rights movement to the extent of creating capabilities and willingness to intervene in internal affairs in reaction to the threat or actuality of genocide or crimes against humanity;

• taking advantage of the end of the Cold War to embark upon a path of negotiated nuclear disarmament, to establish an emergency peace force to deal with humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters, to establish a global tax that will provide an independent revenue base, and to create a global parliament in recognition of the rise of civil society.

It is with this understanding of an agenda for UN reform that makes it suggestive to rely on the metaphor of ‘horizons’ as clarifying, acknowledging formidable difficulties without being demoralizing. [Falk, TWQ article on Westphalian pessimists and optimists] A basic distinction needs to be drawn between horizons of feasibility and horizons of desire.

Horizons of feasibility refer to those adaptations needed to make the Organization effective and legitimate within its existing framework, that is, with an acceptance of the normative incoherence associated with the tension between the Charter as law and geopolitics as practice.

In contrast, horizons of desire, are based on overcoming this incoherence by minimizing the impact of geopolitics. This presupposes solving the challenge of global governance by transforming the United Nations in manner that achieves primacy for the Charter’s goals and principles.

Such a possibility, currently an impossibility, would depend on a much more widely shared perception as to the dysfunctionality of war as an instrument useful for resolving conflict and creating security. A transformed UN in these directions would provide an institutional foundation for moral globalization, that is, for the realization of human rights comprehensively conceived to include economic, social, and cultural rights, as reinforced by a regime of global law that treated equals equally and was not beset by claims of exception and by an ethos of nonviolence.

As suggested in the discussion of ‘the fork in the road’ it would be futile to consider such a transformative horizoning as relevant to the present or likely discourse on UN reform within the conventional arenas of statecraft, including the United Nations itself. Even the horizons of feasibility, other than moves to achieve managerial efficiencies and marginal adaptations, seem unpromising, although it is possible to imagine shifts in the political climate that could lead to adjustments in the makeup of the UN Security Council to make it more representative or a successful initiative to establish some kind of emergency force that would give the UN more credibility with respect to interventions for humanitarian purposes.

If we take account of the recent past, the most successful reform developments have resulted from ‘coalitions of the dedicated’ (compare the geopolitical inversion - coalitions of the willing, as in Kosovo, Iraq) that have been composed of likeminded governments and a movement of civil society actors. Both the anti-personnel landmines treaty and the International Criminal Court (ICC) came about despite the geopolitical resistance led by the United States, and illustrated the potential reformist capacity of a ‘new internationalism’ that is neither a project of statist nor of global civil society, but a collaboration that draws strength from this hybrid agency.

Of course, it would be a mistake to attribute transformative potential to this new internationalism as it is unclear whether it can move beyond formal successes. The anti-personnel landmines treaty, while symbolically important, addressed a question of only trivial relevance to geopolitical goals and the ICC has yet to demonstrate that it can be a robust contribution to the effort to make individuals who act for states criminally accountable.

The argument being made is based on an acknowledgement of the need for UN reform, while trying to rid the quest of false expectations and empty rhetoric. The metaphor of horizons establishes goals without regard to political obstacles, and then distinguishes between those goals that might be achieved by existing mechanisms of influence, horizons of feasibility, and those goals whose implementation is necessary (and desirable) but for which there cannot be currently envisioned a successful scenario.

These latter goals of a transformative depth are thus situated over the horizon. Their pursuit can be understood either as a new political imaginary for world order in the manner depicted by Charles Taylor in Modern Social Imaginaries or as a waiting game for the inevitable breakdown of the Westphalian world order that might convert a transformation of the United Nations into a political project. [Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004)]

In this regard, it might be recalled that the League of Nations became a plausible, if flawed, project only after the devastation of World War I, and the United Nations was only conceivable in the wake of World War II. Each project was intended to ‘fix’ fundamental deficiencies of world order by shifting the horizons of world order politics, and each effort moved beyond what seem previously attainable, yet each fell far short of horizons of desire and longer term necessity.


III. A Concluding Note

Returning to the metaphorical motif, this essay contends that there is no fork in either road, and that the metaphor of choice is profoundly misleading and distorting. Within the United Nations System, as now constituted, there is no reform choice, and no alternative to the persistence of a geopolitically dominated reality. Outside the UN, the commitment to UN reform by civil society actors is the only worthwhile path, although the realization of its vision cannot even be imagined at this point, but again, there is no choice to be made.

Choosing the geopolitical road to the future is to close one’s eyes to the near certainty of disaster. The only road that promises a sustainable and benevolent future now appears utopian, but given certain unforeseeable developments, could become politically viable.

Given this assessment, it follows that the fork in the road metaphor should be rejected. Instead, the reliance on the metaphor of horizons can be substituted in a dual mode: horizons of feasibility for reforms within existing structures, and horizons of desire for transformation that require radically modified structures.

It is the further claim being made here that both horizons are part of an encompassing social imaginary that can be named as horizons of necessity.

The perspective is guided by ancient wisdom: “at the started, they laughed; later on, they began to listen, and a bit later, they cheered.”

Copyright © TFF & the author 1997 till today. All rights reserved.


Tell a friend about this TFF article

Send to:


Message and your name

Get free TFF articles & updates

TREASURES Sitemap Areas we work in Resources Columns and art
Publications About TFF Support our work Search & services Contact us

The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997 till today. All righs reserved.