No.4 - May 2013

by Kishore Mahbubani

Why We – Especially the West – Need the UN Development System


Western countries have created a UN development system that is underfunded and hamstrung by politics.  As the relative power of the West declines, these countries should invest more in the UN to ensure global stability.

Institutions of global governance are weak by design not default. Few people seem to be aware of a longstanding Western strategy to keep the UN weak. Even during the cold war, when Moscow and Washington disagreed on everything, both actively conspired to keep the UN feeble.

As we move into an era of great convergence, the West must fundamentally rethink the policy that its long-term interests are served by keeping institutions of global governance weak. With only 12% of the population of the global village and a declining share of economic and military power, the West’s long-term geopolitical interests will switch from trying to preserve its “dominance” to safeguards to protect the West’s “minority” position in a new global configuration of power.  No armies of tanks are poised to invade any Western country. Instead, the main threats range from illegal immigrants to dangerous viruses, from new forms of economic competition to cultural isolation.

In this dramatically changed strategic environment, it would be foolish to continue spending more on defense and less on global village councils.  And most of our key global village councils are related to the UN.   Nothing illustrates global irrationality better than the absurd decision to cut the UN budget by 5% in December 2011.

It is time to invest in the UN system.  To revive weakening multilateral institutions, the place to start is reversing the “zero-growth” policy for UN budgets, with trivial costs.  Global defense spending amounted to US$1.63 trillion in 2010.  The UN annual regular budget stood at US$2.58 billion, or 0.16% of global defense spending.  Stronger multilateral processes and institutions serve long-term Western interests and are inexpensive.

Kishore Mahbubani is Dean and Professor in the practice of public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.  A former Ambassador of Singapore to the United Nations, Mahbubani is the author, most recently, of "The Great Convergence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World."
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