UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon begins a new term in January. Member states will not tackle the glaring gap between efforts to meet the increasing number of threats to human existence (climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation) and the stubborn insistence on narrowly defined national interests as the only basis for decision-making. Can anything be done?
While his first term has been characterized by neither, the secretary-general could and should relentlessly pursue two strategies: speaking out often and energetically, and recruiting truly independent staff members and giving them leeway to succeed or fail.
Neither requires permission of the countries whose dues pay the UN’s bills. Indeed, both were pursued by his predecessors, in particular by Dag Hammarskjöld, the second secretary-general.
The UN’s universality and legitimacy provide leverage to formulate global norms and principles. These matter because people—ordinary citizens as well as politicians and government officials—care what others think about them. Approbation and its opposite, shaming, can modify behavior. In their finest leadership moments, UN secretaries-general are “secular popes.”
They can set the agenda even at the price of irritating powers big and small. Taking a stand and voicing it before major powers and regional organizations have spoken should be in bold-faced print in job descriptions on First Avenue. Visibility is an asset; finessing controversy is not.
A decade of research by the independent UN Intellectual History Project concluded that the UN’s major contribution since its birth in 1945 was framing the world’s intellectual agenda.
We urgently should revive the notion of an autonomous international civil service, another Hammarskjöld passion. Nationality, gender, and cronyism have replaced competence and integrity as the basis for recruitment, retention, and promotion. Ban Ki-moon claims he wants the UN to be a “powerhouse of ideas.” A re-energized staff should formulate and promote the ideas that have characterized the best of the UN’s history.
The UN system should seek to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and political decision-making, which requires an ability to produce and nurture world-class public intellectuals, thinkers, and planners. The secretary-general should facilitate staff exchanges with universities, think tanks, government policy units, and corporate research centers; he should increase collaboration between the UN economic and social entities and the analytical staff of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The UN system’s potential for policy research and analysis has scarcely been tapped. Cross-agency collaboration is rare; analysts seldom venture beyond their silos. Regular mandatory gatherings for sharing research and ideas could reduce parochialism. A new research council could expand collaboration. The model of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could be replicated for other pressing issues.
Harnessing intellectual firepower means that the UN cannot possibly please all UN members all of the time. Instead of trying to satisfy the lowest common intergovernmental denominator, we have learned since 1990 from the annual Human Development Reports that intellectual independence can not only be tolerated but also be healthy.
We need islands or safety zones within which serious and independent analysis can take place, protected from government threats to block publication or cut off funds. Academic freedom should not be an alien concept for UN researchers working on 21st-century policy challenges.