OPINION: The UN Was Designed To Fail — And It Does

Henry Miller Senior Fellow, Pacific Research Institute.
Font Size:

Today, Oct. 24, is 2018 United Nations Day, which commemorates the entry into force of the U.N. Charter in 1945.

Secretary-General António Guterres released a video in which he decried growing inequality but said, “We don’t give up because we know by reducing inequality we increase hope and opportunity and peace around the world.”

That statement exemplifies not a noble commitment, but U.N. officials’ self-congratulatory cluelessness about its abilities and role in the world.  The sad truth is that the U.N. was designed to fail — and it does, consistently, to the detriment of the poorest and most vulnerable.

Although best known for its peace-keeping in areas of conflict — where it enjoys a mixed record, at best — the U.N.’s agencies, commissions and panels have a dismal record of accomplishment.

In June, for example, announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council, Ambassador Nikki Haley excoriated the organization, calling it a “hypocritical and self-serving” organization that actually protects rights abusers and a “cesspool of political bias.”

Some of the U.N.’s greatest damage occurs while it posing as the world’s regulator-wannabe for all manner of products, processes and activities.

Many parts of the U.N., including the Environment Program, World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, have been particularly incompetent at regulating the newest techniques of genetic engineering (aka “genetic modification”) applied to agriculture.

For example, during the early 2000s, delegates to the U.N.-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity, a creature of the U.N. Environment Program, negotiated the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to regulate the international movement of organisms that had been genetically modified with the newest, most precise techniques, which they dubbed “living modified organisms,” or “LMOs” — a synonym for genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs.”

The protocol is based on the bogus “precautionary principle,” which dictates that every new product or technology — including, in this case, an improvement over less-precise technologies — must be proven completely safe before it can be used.

Rather than creating a uniform, predictable and scientifically sound framework for effectively managing legitimate risks, the U.N.’s Cartagena Protocol established an amorphous and unscientific global regulatory process that encourages overly risk-averse, incompetent or corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or denying approvals.

The result has been the unavailability of critical advances in agriculture to farmers in developing countries.

The U.N. routinely panders to activists and, not coincidentally, adopts policies that expand its own scope and responsibilities. Science and free markets routinely get short shrift; in U.N. programs and projects, everything becomes an exercise in public relations, politics and international horse-trading.

In an article published last December, two respected commentators called for the United States to cut funding for the U.N.’s World Health Organization and its International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is plagued by incompetence and poor science on its good days, and failed to address a major scandal marked by corruption and conflicts of interest.

The United States has long been a hugely disproportionate funder of U.N. activities — our mandatory assessment and voluntary contributions total some $8 billion annually — but the era of America as the U.N.’s sugar daddy is waning.

Last year, State Department staffers were instructed to find significant cuts in U.S. funding for U.N. programs (above the mandatory assessment) — the first signal of long-overdue belt-tightening.

Why are incompetence and profligacy rife within the sprawling organization?  In several respects, it’s in the U.N.’s DNA.

First, the U.N. is essentially a monopoly. Inefficiency and incompetence are not punished by “consumers” of their products or services spurning the U.N. and patronizing a competitor. On the contrary, it is not uncommon in these kinds of bureaucracies for failure to be rewarded with additional resources. Unlike in business, if a program isn’t working, government bureaucrats clamor to make it bigger.

Second, U.N. officials are rewarded for making the bureaucratic machinery run — that is, for producing reports, guidelines, white papers and agreements, and for holding meetings — whether or not they are of high quality or make any sense at all.

And they are often worthless; the bureaucrats commonly sacrifice veracity for consensus – sort of like letting third-graders vote on whether a whale is a fish or a mammal.

Third, there’s no accountability — no U.S. Government Accountability Office, House of Lords Select Committee or parliamentary oversight, and no electorate to kick the U.N. reprobates out when they act contrary to the public interest.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that we see egregious examples of arrogance and corruption, let alone day-to-day featherbedding, laziness and incompetence in the thousands of individual U.N. programs and projects.

Fourth, in the absence of accountability, U.N. officials feel little need for transparency of policymaking; and the PR offices simply spin, spin, spin the anti-technology, anti-capitalist party line, which often fails to take into consideration that scientific progress and modernity give rise to greater prosperity and longevity.

Fifth, the pool of possible candidates for U.N. leadership positions is not a promising one. The organization is no meritocracy: The country or region of origin of a candidate seems to be more important than his credentials and qualifications.

Also, if you were a head of state or government minister, would you choose to lose your best people to the U.N.’s permanent staff?  Wouldn’t you prefer to keep them close, to make you look good and to benefit your country?

It’s hardly surprising that the U.N. ends up with the least competent and most disaffected, dysfunctional and dishonest officials.

John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. once said about its headquarters: “The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories.  If it lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

Actually, it might make a lot of difference: It might be a significant improvement.

The president and Ambassadors Bolton and Haley clearly apprehend the U.N.’s manifest deficiencies, so future U.S. discretionary contributions to the U.N. should go only to programs that align with the interests and values of the United States. And we should withhold funding and participation from U.N. agencies and programs that are found to be corrupt or incompetent.

Maybe we’ll be able to lop off more than 10 floors of the U.N.’s headquarters.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.