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Decline and fall?

With the peaceful end of the Cold War, the United Nations seemed poised to preside over a new and st

New World Disorder: the United Nations After the Cold War - An Insider's View, David Hannay, I B Tauris & Co, 336pp, £25

The United Nations is in bad shape. The Security Council is divided over many crucial issues - Darfur, Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, and now, of course, Georgia. And this is only a partial list. Stymied in doing anything useful, the council keeps itself busy inventing ever more formats of meeting and forms of expression (it now has three different ways of making a press statement, would you believe). The rancour over the unequal nature of its membership, dominated as the organisation has been since 1945 by the so-called permanent five (P5) countries, poisons discussion across much of the UN system. Efforts at reform are nowhere to be seen. Leadership, from the UN Secretariat or the leading states of the UN, including the UK, is notable only by its utter absence.

You could do worse than to read this book to understand how things came to this pass. David (now Lord) Hannay was Britain's UN ambassador for much of the early 1990s, a period of success and disastrous failure at the UN. He is a measured guide to the institution and its problems. When I was a young diplomat in that period (in my case, in Germany), Hannay was regarded as the king of the Security Council, and his careful, accurate prose helps explain his stellar reputation as one of the leading diplomats of his generation. However, concealed unconsciously within his account is one of the reasons why things are such a mess today.

Hannay's account is an episodic one, relating year by year the travails and challenges of the UN, from Cambodia through Macedonia and Bosnia to Iraq. In a way, this approach hinders a deeper analysis of each of these problems, but that is not Hannay's purpose, which is instead to chart the life and realities of the UN as an in stitution and to try to convey what it is really like to do business there. In this goal, he is successful. Perhaps too successful, because the book is occasionally a little dry for the non-specialist. Hannay's style reminded me of the ambassadorial despatches sent at end of year to London, and, indeed, quotations from his own such despatches sprinkle the text.

It was one hell of a period, literally. Mass murders in Bosnia and Rwanda were the low points. High points are hard to find in contrast - success in avoiding war in Macedonia, containing Iraq, ending civil war in Mozambique. Hannay outlines these events with a diplomat's detachment, describing the manoeuvring in New York as pieces on a chessboard, while, offstage, blood is shed in large quantities. His measured approach - indeed, reserve - applies also to finger-pointing. The UN Secretariat's (abject) failure to inform the Security Council of the genocidal preparations of the Hutu Interahamwe militias in Rwanda is remarked upon in one sentence. The responsible official, Kofi Annan, then head of peacekeeping, is not named.

As for Bosnia, Hannay details the Security Council's failure to agree for more than three bloody years, and perhaps 200,000 deaths, an effective response to Serbian aggression and mass murder. But his discussion of why this happened is superficial. The west was unable to agree a response, he says, and he often blames confused US policy. Others are less circumspect. In Bosnia, many hold British officials, Hannay among them, directly responsible for the failure to deal more robustly with Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and their murderous cohorts.

In his introduction, Hannay describes the role of UN ambassador as that of a mere exponent of his government's wishes. This suggests that he adheres to the "empty vessel" philosophy of diplomacy - that the diplomat is there merely to serve and advise, not to shape. I found the reality, both on the Security Council and in the field with the UN, rather different. And there are many critics of Britain's Bosnia policy who charge that Hannay was a key shaper, not merely an exponent, of Britain's reluctance to take firm action, preferring a depiction, echoed again in this book, of a morass of warring factions, each one in part to blame for the killing. Of this controversy, there is disappointingly little mention in the book.

Hannay is a believer in the UN, and a large part of the book is taken up with discussion, much of it quite technical, on what might be done to sort things out. He was the British member of Kofi Annan's high-level panel on threats, challenges and change, which produced a hundred pages of largely sensible and well-considered recommendations on everything from reform of the Security Council to nuclear proliferation. These proposals lie largely unimplemented. It is sobering to consider why.

In the 1990s, for all the failures related by Hannay, there was a real sense that the west, "we", were winning in promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy. This ascendancy was illustrated particularly by the idea of "humanitarian intervention", whose prime example was Nato's intervention in Kosovo - the idea that the outside world had a right and duty to intervene to stop a government repressing its population. As Darfur, but also Burma and Zimbabwe, tragically show, that idea is now pretty much a dead duck. The recapitulation of the idea into a more universalist framework, the Responsibility to Protect (or R2P), has not resulted in much more enthusiasm for it.

The 2003 Iraq War is perhaps the biggest reason for this failure, seen as it was by most of the world as a deliberate and even mendacious abuse of international law and the Security Council's authority by two of its permanent members, the US and the UK. Also important, however, are the new-found assertiveness of both Russia and China, and the growing economic and strategic self-confidence of other countries (including Sudan) too - a multipolar world, in short. Meanwhile, conflicts dealt with by the UN are increasingly located inside rather than between states, where international law and the right course of action are altogether less clear than in "traditional" war. Things are a lot more complicated today than they were even in the 1990s, and they were complicated enough then.

It is surprising, therefore, that in such circumstances the book pays so little attention to the international architecture with which the world is managed. Gordon Brown's call in a 2007 speech for wholesale reform of the world's multilateral institutions has been followed up by precisely nothing in the way of British efforts to reform, in even the most unambitious fashion, the UN. Hannay, like his contemporary equivalents, just doesn't seem to see how resented is the west, including the UK, for the privileged position it holds at the UN and the way that it handles it. I don't particularly blame him, or them. If you are a British diplomat, other diplomats want to get things out of you, and so tend not to ventilate the bile they may feel. I realised the depth of this resentment only when I left the Foreign Office and was forced at last to hear the unalloyed opinions of those who had been obliged to suck up to me, merely because of my status as a P5 diplomat.

There is scant leadership elsewhere, either. The secretary general seems to have been appointed (by the P5, of course) on the understanding that he is not to offer a firm steer, either on political issues or the UN's necessary reform. Of the US presidential candidates, one - John McCain - is openly flirting with the idea of a community of democracies to replace, it seems, the UN with something he hopes (but few believe) would be more effective. Quite rightly, Hannay says that both the US and the UN need each other.

In its way, unintentionally, this book neatly shows why such political leadership is hard to come by. The UN is now fearsomely complicated. The fixes to its institutional problems, including in the Security Council, are going to be horribly difficult to achieve, requiring as they do consensus among a large group of disparate countries, all with very different interests. And despite its continued centrality in diplomatic life, and in the world's peace and security, its institutional and decision-making structures are woefully detached from the realities they are supposed to be dealing with.

I felt this acutely as a diplomat on the Security Council. The people we were discussing had no voice, and little place, in our deliberations, much to the detriment to them (of course) but also, less obviously, to the quality of our decisions.

This can be solved. The UN can be made more open, accountable and just better. But it will require a very determined and sustained effort to do this, and few countries, including our own, show any willingness to take on this unglamorous burden. Instead, most seem content to let the UN slowly deteriorate into sclerosis. The suffering masses of the world are already paying a price for this neglect.

Carne Ross is a former British diplomat who has also worked for the UN. He now runs Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group: