Moving Beyond the Representation Debate: Q&A with Francesco Mancini

Improved representation of the current geopolitical order would not necessarily improve the effectiveness or legitimacy of the United Nations Security Council, according to Francesco Mancini, Non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

Mr. Mancini said it was common to link the failings of the Security Council with its poor representation in this way, but the focus should instead be on the capacity of the UN system to deliver on its promise, no matter who is sitting in which body.

“There is in my mind no reason to think that the Security Council would be more effective or more legitimate if we add a bunch of countries to it. After all, there is the General Assembly, which is the most legitimate of all because 193 countries have one vote, but it is also a very ineffective body,” he said.

Speaking to Global Observatory Editor Marie O’Reilly, Mr. Mancini also said the UN has compartmentalized its different departments and activities too much, creating silos that do not represent the reality of how to handle conflict.

“I think we have to change the way we think about using toolboxes for conflict resolution and look to bring in all these pieces together,” he said.

“We need a new strategy document, a new agenda for peace, and once we have that strategy, the structure, the form of the organization, should be adapted to the function.”

The conversation took place on the sidelines of the inaugural retreat of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM) on February 19-20.

Listen to the interview:

Francesco, you discussed earlier some of the new global challenges and ways to respond to them, and I’d like to ask you what are the key features of the new transnational challenges that we’re facing?

I will try to illustrate those features with an example, and the example I have in mind is polio. In 2013, polio was on the verge of extinction, limited to four countries affected by conflict—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Somalia. Today, polio cases are growing again. Why? Because of war in Syria mainly, which has prevented the vaccination of at least 20,000 children. And even when children can be reached, vaccines might not be usable because they need at least eight hours in a refrigerator per day to remain viable, but of course the war is disrupting the power supply. The new cases of polio today can also be found in Cameroon because refugee families cross borders, undocumented and with no health service access. So in other words, the polio case for me is the perfect exemplification of the features of today’s challenges. They are interconnected, they are transnational, and they evolve very fast.

How is the multilateral system out of step with these kinds of challenges?

If you consider these three levels of hyper-connection, of transnationality, and speed—to me, the multilateral system is particularly out of step for these three reasons. First of all, it is not structured to address interconnection and the knock-on effect because it is fragmented. Second, it is still very state-centric, not only in its decision-making, which is based on state membership, but also in its mandates and programs, which are generally at the country level. And third, the decision-making process is very slow because multilateral bodies tend to be process-and-procedure-oriented and not result-oriented. So these three elements make it very hard for multilateral corporations—in particular for the UN—to address interconnected, transnational, fast-moving challenges.

How can the multilateral system be improved? What changes can it make to improve its response?

In my mind there are at least four gaps that correspond to four areas of reform: a strategic gap, an effectiveness gap, a legitimacy gap, and a financial gap. The strategic gap to me goes to the core of the problem, which is what is the UN for? Today it is fashionable to talk about the UN being “fit for purpose,” but what’s the purpose? It’s the “what” that is not clear, and until we have a strategic definition of the areas in which one should be operating, it’s going to be very hard to actually be effective. The criteria for me should be to think about global public goods and to think about where the regional and national market fails in the provision of this good, and hence is necessary to bring the production of this good at a global level.

So there needs to be a strategic focus on global public goods?

Precisely, and selecting what kind of global public goods need to be delivered. Second is an effectiveness gap. The UN is very much focused on its own coherence, its own coordination, but doesn’t really think about how to be effective in delivering. The UN doesn’t have to be at the center of everything necessarily. There is a multitude of regional organizations, sub-regional organizations, private sector organizations, non-governmental organizations—how the UN can operate with these different bodies and the multiplication of actors that today operates in the international environment, these are all questions that are not deeply addressed, and I think to be really effective in delivering there needs to be more thinking about where the UN can be relevant, not just be coherent.

And third, the legitimacy gap—we generally think that legitimacy is a problem of representation, meaning, for example, in the Security Council, countries not necessarily reflecting the current geopolitical balance. Now of course representation is a big problem, but I think focusing on who’s sitting in what bodies risks missing the point. There is in my mind no reason to think that the Security Council would be more effective or more legitimate if we add a bunch of countries to it. After all, there is the General Assembly, which is the most legitimate of all because 193 countries have one vote, but it is also a very ineffective body. So, legitimacy to me, in this case, should be more linked to capacities, because ultimately if the UN is able to deliver what it promises, the legitimacy will come with it. The “responsibility to protect” (R2P), for example—it’s very hard to have a global vision of a political understanding of the responsibility to protect, but I think it’s more harmful to the UN that when there is a responsibility to protect mandate, the UN is actually not capable of protecting. So for me, R2P should go along with C2P, which is the “capacity to protect”—being effective in delivering goes along with legitimacy. And again, it’s not to discount the importance of representation, but that’s not the only problem.

Finally the financial issue. I think that the UN budget system is too cumbersome—it is too rigid. The secretariat has no flexibility to move resources, both financial and human. We have to do big work in modernizing the financing, but also we have to create incentive to cooperate around funding, rather than compete. Today the different agencies compete for the same pocket of money. Donors should focus more on joint projects and give incentive to focus on the same things that have to be delivered and cooperate together, rather than compete.

What’s your take on the best way to achieve reform of the UN system? Where is innovation really going to come from in your mind?

I think there are two elements to take into consideration. One is the “what” and the other is the “how.” Fortunately, or unfortunately, UN reform is not only about the ideas, but it’s about the process. So I think first of all, it’s necessary to engage member states in the very beginning. I’m personally not a huge fan of high-level panels, of former experts, or former politicians. I think you need to engage with those who are in charge at the time of the reform because they feel a buy-in, they feel an ownership of the process, and that’s extremely important. Some countries don’t embrace some ideas, not necessarily because they completely disagree with the idea, because they just come from another side or because they’ve not been engaged in the process of thinking of the idea. So the “how” is extremely important, and member states have to be in the driver’s seat in the beginning.

The “how”—that’s also a question of the “who”—who should be driving this and buy-in clearly is very important. Do you think that innovative solutions can really come from inside the system, through the same people whose interests are maintained by the status quo?

No, but you can have a sort of hybrid system. There have been examples. Responsibility to protect is one of them, in which you have an idea that is actually developed outside the system—be it a think tank, academia, a group of civil society organizations—but at the end of the day to transform that idea into a UN body, rules, norms, or whatever, it is necessary that the member states buy-in. Innovative ideas I think are more likely to come, particularly now, from the private sector or from non-governmental organizations, but then you need to bring them back into the system and you need the buy-in of the member states. Not all, but key member states and geographical representation is very important.

What is the “what” of reform that you wanted to speak about?

The “what” of reform for me is in the area of peace and security. I think the UN has been doing fairly well in adapting in the area of development, and I would also say in the area of human rights, but the pillar of peace and security has been stuck pretty much since 1992. In 1992, due to the end of the Cold War, there was a window of opportunity to finally develop some kind of strategy and that was done by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, at the time the secretary general, who drafted the agenda for peace, and it is today still the only sort of strategic document that is guiding UN intervention in peace and security.

Now the problem at that time, of course, was to kind of compartmentalize the different departments or activities. Peacekeeping did not even have a department at that time. Today, this approach has compartmentalized too much, has created silos that do not represent the reality of how you have to handle conflict. Conflict does not evolve along a curve that goes up and down. You don’t do peacemaking and peacekeeping and peacebuilding in sequence. All these activities overlap, and I think we have to change the way we think about using toolboxes for conflict resolution and look to bring in all these pieces together. So I think we need a new strategy document, a new agenda for peace, and once we have that strategy, the structure, the form of the organization should be adapted to the function.

The International Commission on Multilateralism is hoping to make a significant contribution to this discussion, and if you could pick just one key issue that you think the ICM should really focus on, what would that be?

It’s a difficult question, there are many areas. I would go back again to peace and security, and I think we need to find a way to organize the Secretariat in a way that reflects today’s challenges. What I mean by that is I think ultimately it is necessary to merge the Department of Political Affairs with the Department of Peacekeeping, and if that’s not politically doable, at least to merge the different countries’ desks that are in the UN so that those who work in other countries are working together—not at cross-purpose, as it still happens today.

In our discussions here we’ve been covering a lot different topics about different threats that we’re currently facing, how the UN can respond. Is there anything you feel has not been discussed and that needs to be raised? Is there an elephant in the room?

Well, the real elephant in the room is the member states’ willingness to have a more effective multilateral system. My impression is that the current status of the multilateral system is not by accident—it’s by design. Member states do not want a multilateral system that is too strong, too financed. Just think about the idea of having stand-by forces—these things don’t fly. There is an ad-hocism, which again is not by accident but by design. The multilateral system ultimately is a reflection of multiple interests of different countries. Countries have their own pet projects, pet agencies.

So the big question is if these member states are at a point in which they see that this system doesn’t serve necessarily their interests anymore? And I think that there are some countries that honestly think the reform is needed, but I don’t think that is an overarching feeling. So to me the big challenge is really how you get member states on board to actually move it toward a system that’s more robust, how you convince them that it is in their interest to have a more robust multilateral system.

Would it take some sort of major crisis, perhaps the outbreak of a significant conflict that affects a significant number of member states in order to have that kind of rethinking? Or could it come without a large-scale dramatic shift?

I think a major crisis in some way is needed. Does it need to be necessarily war? I don’t know. It is true that historically all big changes in the architecture of the global level have followed major wars. So it’s very hard to think of ways to convince member states to do that without some sort of major crisis. Again, it doesn’t have to necessarily be a war—it could be something like a major pandemic, for example, which is today maybe more likely in some parts of the world than wars. But I do think that it is necessary, a crisis is necessary. It is also necessary to actually move domestic constituencies—it’s not just an international problem—toward accepting some changes.

Do you think that mobilizing a large global constituency and getting people—citizens—to feel connected to the UN could provide enough push rather than a crisis?

Yes but you just shift the problem to a different level. Yes you need to mobilize the public, but to mobilize the public you need something, and the public tends to mobilize around particular crisis. You can take Darfur as an example, which at that time was a crisis that really mobilized public opinion, but you still need a Darfur, and it will still circumscribe to Darfur. To mobilize constituencies at the domestic level, which can then become more global, you still need some kind of crisis there. It’s not coming just out of the blue. So unfortunately, I think that you can trick the system here and there, but for more important reform and overhaul as some people might want, such as the reform of the Security Council, et cetera, I think a major crisis would be necessary.

Francesco Mancini, thank you for speaking with me.

Thank you.