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Leaders Must Effectively Use Various Global Venues

Keith Porter
Des Moines Register
September 2009

In the space of just two days this week, President Barack Obama will be center stage at three of the highest level venues in the world. On Wednesday he addresses the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. On Thursday he chairs a special session of the United Nations Security Council. And then he immediately jets off to Pittsburgh to host the G-20 summit of the world's largest economies.

This whirlwind tour through the global power structure is a good moment to reflect on the role and relevancy of these institutions in the 21st century. These three groups represent three quite different approaches to running global affairs - each with its own advantages as well as challenges.

The U.N, General Assembly was established in the aftermath of World War II to give every nation in the world a voice on the global stage. All of the current 192 member-states have an equal vote. Having the representatives of the whole world, especially at the head-of-state level, gathered in a single room is an impressive sight. But it is also an unwieldy body that rarely manages to reach meaningful agreements.

The U.N. Security Council arose from the same global charter as the General Assembly, but it functions quite differently. There are only 15 members. Ten of them rotate on two-year terms, but the other five (China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are permanent members, each with the power to veto any council action. The council has the right to, among other things, authorize military action against threats to security anywhere in the world.

The council's powers under international law give it formidable legal and political authority, but the permanent members' veto makes it difficult for the group to take action. And even when it does move, serious questions are raised about its legitimacy because the five permanent members no longer represent the power realities of today's world. Decades of repeated reform attempts have been unable to make room for rising powers like Japan, India, Brazil, and others.

In still another vein are the global summits of the G-8 and G-20. Heads of states gather for these sessions once or twice a year (an exhausting three times in 2009) for photo opportunities and brief talks which are supposed to - at their best - shine a top level spotlight on crucial issues. On the plus side, these gatherings include a broader set of powerful nations without being too large to prevent meaningful conversation. But without the backing of something like the U.N. Charter, their decisions carry little standing in international law.

In different ways, the General Assembly, Security Council, and G-summits provide highly useful instruments to take action when the assembled countries really want to do something. Too often, however, world leaders use these bodies to issue well-meaning, high-minded statements of concern or vague pledges of initiative. As a colleague often says, the United Nations works best when nations actually unite. But these organizations cannot on their own force leaders to take action for the global common good.

Just as with domestic politics, political will is quite often a response to public pressure. We can build all the grand meeting halls and summit tables we want - and even rearrange them from time to time. But for world leaders to use these tools, they need to really feel the public's demand for cooperation and effective solutions.

All of us, then, should raise our expectations of these leaders, remind them of their responsibilities, and hold them accountable for the commitments they make.

Keith Porter is director of policy and outreach at The Stanley Foundation.
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