Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book Overview: ConUNdrum

Brett Schaefer, ed., ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 371 pages.

First, a disclaimer: I copyedited this book, so I'm slightly invested in its success and probably a little biased.

I have read a lot of papers and books on the United Nations, written from many perspectives. This book is the most balanced, persuasive, and innovative of them all. While it was written primarily to inform policymakers, it should be accessible to the interested reader. A week ago it ranked #1 on in three categories: United Nations, treaties, and international law.

The UN is not "indispensable," but it can be useful and even helpful at times. In the book's ten chapters—each deals with a different policy area—the authors identify what the UN has done right (there actually are some examples), what it could do better, and what it should stop trying to do.

For example, peacekeeping missions under the UN imprimatur tend to be more palatable to all sides of a conflict and are therefore more likely to succeed in keeping the peace. However, the UN needs to be more careful when selecting which peacekeeping missions to authorize.

In international health, the WHO needs to refocus on the areas where it has a "comparative advantage." Like almost every UN organization, it is suffering from "mission creep," which distracts it from doing those things it should do and prevents it from doing them well. Many other international and national organizations have appeared on the international scene in recent decades and proven themselves more effective at addressing primary care needs, among other things. Conversely, WHO is uniquely positioned to coordinate and coalesce efforts internationally.

UN efforts in human rights, arms control, and environmental policy have consistently been unproductive and have often undermined real progress in these areas. The U.S. and other concerned states use other avenues, creating them if necessary, to address these areas. For example, the Proliferation Security Initiative—a voluntary, multilateral effort to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—has proven more effective and flexible than any UN entity could ever hope to be.

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