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Why is Reforming the United Nations So Hard But So Important? Q+A with Former U.N. Ambassador Joe Torsella

April 24, 2015

The United Nations Office at Geneva (Switzerland) is the second biggest U.N. center, after the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
The United Nations Office at Geneva (Switzerland) is the second biggest U.N. center, after the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

As the United Nations celebrates its 70th anniversary, DrexelNow checked in with Ambassador (Ret.) Joseph M. Torsella, distinguished visiting fellow in the Center for Public Policy in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, about how well the international organization is working – and where it isn’t – and why it's in our national interest to care about the U.N.

Ambassador (Ret.) Joseph M. Torsella

Torsella served as the U.S. Representative to the United Nations for U.N. Management and Reform from 2011-2014, where he was responsible for leading efforts to make the U.N. a more efficient, accountable, respected and effective organization.  

On Wednesday, May 13, Torsella will give a public discussion at Drexel on “The U.S., the U.N. and U.N. Reform: Why its So Hard...and So Important.” The event will take place from 1:30 – 3 p.m. in the Bossone Research Enterprise Center’s Mitchell Auditorium (32nd and Market Streets, Philadelphia).

Why does the United Nations need reform?

At its best, the U.N. can help keep the peace, promote the universal values Americans hold dear, strengthen fragile states and go where no one else will to attend to urgent humanitarian needs. The problem is that the U.N. is not always at its best, and too often we see it at its worst: when peacekeepers fail to defend the vulnerable populations they are charged with protecting, when the U.N. doesn't take action on pressing security situations because narrow interests get in the way, when budgets spiral out of control and hard-earned taxpayer dollars are wasted or when the U.N. by some of its practices discredits itself in public opinion – as when North Korea was elected chair of the Disarmament Conference a few years back, for example, or with the unfair singling out of Israel in many U.N. bodies. We need to close the gap between the ideals the U.N. was founded on and some of its current practices. As President Obama has said, the U.N. is both indispensable…and imperfect.

What are some of the challenges with reforming it?

There's the math: quite a few member states have too little financial incentive to care about efficiency and reform. There's the structure, which can be distorted to reward spoiler states. And most of all, there's the past: the U.N. was founded in a very different time, and in many ways we're asking it to address 21st century problems with 20th century tools and habits. 

What were some of the reform efforts you undertook during your tenure there?

We focused on four areas: economy (doing more with less), accountability (especially more transparency), integrity (fighting against the self-inflicted wounds I described above) and excellence (trying to introduce modern management practices to the U.N.) We had significant accomplishments in all areas, from halting the constant rise in the U.N.'s main budget, to introducing practices like electronic publishing, to getting the U.N. to webcast its committee hearing and publish its audits, to securing the inclusion of Israel into U.N. forums from which it had been excluded.

Why is your upcoming lecture important? Why should people attend?

The U.S. has a special relationship with the U.N.: we were its principal founder, we are its host country and we are the single largest contributor to the U.N. system budget. We should care about improving the U.N. because of that past, but also because of our future. The U.N. can and should be an important part of US policy, especially if we want to avoid having all the weight of the world's problems and crises fall only on our US shoulders. Many of the challenges we face can be better – and less expensively – addressed through multilateral institutions like the U.N., when we can share the burden with others. But only if those institutions work well. So as the U.N. celebrates its 70th anniversary, it's a good time to reflect on how well it's worked, why and where it doesn't work and how we could change that, and why it's in our national interest – not just for idealism's sake, but from the hard-nosed perspective of how we leverage American power – to care about the U.N.

Torsella’s upcoming lecture, “The U.S., the U.N. and U.N. Reform: Why its So Hard...and So Important, ” is free and open to the public. Those interested in attending should RSVP here. A light reception will follow the lecture.

His previous lecture, “Renewing the American “We”: What We Owe James Wilson,” took place on April 1 at the National Constitution Center, where he was founding president and chief executive officer.