Home » Blog » Developing world » Mark Malloch-Brown speaks the truth, and sets off a diplomatic bomb

Mark Malloch-Brown speaks the truth, and sets off a diplomatic bomb

Well, this should be interesting. Mark Malloch-Brown, former head of UNDP, current deputy secretary general, made strong statements about anti-UN sentiment in the US. He observed that the US government finds the UN extremely useful in terms of international diplomacy, but doesn’t support the UN against domestic criticism, ceding the debate to right-wing talk show hosts who rail against the UN as ineffectual and corrupt.

John Bolton, ever the soft-spoken diplomat, has responded with rage, demanding that Kofi Annan disociate himself from Malloch-Brown’s remarks and calling the speech “a very, very grave mistake”.

There’s no doubt the UN has a great to deal answer for in the “oil for food” scandal and sexual exploitation of minors by peacekeepers in the DRC. But the UN has an incredible track record in stabilizing failing states at a cost – in terms of dollars and lives lost – much lower than US military intervention. The recent elections in Liberia? A major victory for the 15,000-strong UN force that’s helped stabilize the nation. The pending DRC elections? A product of the force stabilizing the eastern part of the country. The comparative stability of Sierra Leone? Another blue-helmetted force.

A paper from Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, “The Challenge of Reducing the Global Incidence of Civil War”, as reported in the Economist, suggests that sending UN peacekeepers is the most economically effective way to stabilize a failing state. The paper suggests that a $4.8 billion investment in peacekeeping yields nearly $400 billion in benefit, both to the state and to neighboring states affected by instability. The same Economist article points to a RAND study suggesting that the UN is unusually skilled at peacekeeping: seven of eight UN interventions the paper examined have had sustained peace post intervention, while only four of eight US interventions have led to sustained peace.

And peacekeeping is cheap. As of last year, the annual cost of the 11 UN peacekeeping operations per year was less expensive than a month of US military presence in Iraq. Yet the UN gets very little credit for these accomplishments, at least within the US mainstream media.

One understands how Mark Malloch Brown might get a bit upset when Rush Limbaugh accuses UNDP of “raping” the US for $7 trillion, or when Fox News’s reaction to recent statements by Malloch Brown is a rant by columnist John Gibson titled “The UN is the problem, not the US”.

That said, I know Mark Malloch Brown. (Not well, but well enough to have an opinion on the character of the man.) This is not a man who shoots his mouth off. He made this speech because he’s got a valid point he thinks isn’t being heard: the UN does a lot of work that the US can’t and doesn’t want to do, and senior UN people are understandably upset that Washington seems unwilling to defend US/UN cooperation. While the consequences of the speech may be “very, very grave”, it was no mistake.

Bolton evidently told Annan, “I’ve known you since 1989, and I’m telling you, this is the worst mistake by a senior UN official that I have seen in that entire time,” and called on him to repudiate the statement. Annan has refused to do so, saying through his spokesman, “The secretary-general stands by the statements made by his deputy. So there is no question of any action to be taken against the deputy secretary-general.” All of which sets the stage for Washington to cut support – yet again – to the UN at the end of this month. Nations support the UN in proportion to their wealth – the US provides roughly 1/4th of the total support for the UN, and tends to expect more control than it actually exercises over the body.

Ilana Bet-El has an excellent analysis of the situation in the Guardian:

Malloch Brown has now called the US bluff: either pay up or shut up – since it is the UN’s very existence which is at stake. Kofi Annan, by refusing to repudiate his words, has effectively backed him up. Since they are both leaving office at the end of the year, they have nothing to lose. But the US, for all Bolton’s bluster, has everything to lose and the UN has everything to gain: if it hounds the two, the US will appear even more vindictive and bullying than usual; if it does not pay up and the UN grinds to a halt, it will be blamed by most other nations for being a mean and petulant super-power; and if it pays up it has been shamed into the act.

Grinding the UN to a halt would be a supremely stupid thing to do. Our recent attempt to support a proxy in Somalia was a disaster – should the situation fail to stabilize in Mogadishu, do you really think the US military – overstretched in Iraq, Afghanistan and on our own borders – is going to intervene? Think we’ll take over the load in DRC and ensure elections? Ensure that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf gets a chance to transition Liberia to stability?

Listen to the news today and I predict you’ll hear a great deal about respect, funding, efficiency, food for oil… and very little about the UN’s successes in keeping many of the world’s worst places from collapsing entirely.

2 thoughts on “Mark Malloch-Brown speaks the truth, and sets off a diplomatic bomb”

  1. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Warming up for wars of words

  2. Ethan: I agree completely with your take on this ‘put up or shut up’ business between the US + the UN and would only add Darfur to your list of shame.
    The people at the Milken Institute have asked me to frame three panels on Africa for their Global Conference April 23-25 2007…would you have any interest in getting involved?
    Either Geeks + Geezers or Blogging in Africa and it’s effect on sustainability + development or some better idea that might occur to you. Best regards Laurance

Comments are closed.