The future is in our hands, We have the ability to control our own destiny - and the responsibility to manage it. The time frame in which we must act is very short. The future is ours to make and our children's to inherit. And the Earth is our future.

A Canadian with long experience as a UN official gives a frank assessment of the global institutions prospects and possibilities. (From The Futurist Magazine, published by the World Future Society, September-October 2001, Volume 35, No 5.)

What kind of United Nations does the world need for the twenty-first century? Will it - should it evolve into a world government?

Let me make my own position clear: World government is just not on; it is not necessary, not feasible, and not desirable.

This is not to say that we can aspire to a world without systems of rules. Far from it. A chaotic world would pose equal or even greater danger than world government. The challenge is to strike a balance so that the management of global affairs is responsive to the interests of all people in a secure and sustainable future.

Today a sense of internationalism has become a necessary ingredient of sound national policies. No nation can make progress heedless of insecurity and deprivation elsewhere. We have to share a global neighborhood and strengthen it so that it may offer the promise of a good and secure life to all our neighbors.

Reformers meet in Geneva in 1997: UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan (center), chairs the UN's Administrative Commitee on Coordination. The author, Maurice Strong, sits under the UN flag. The ACC attempts to coordinate the activities of the independent agencies that make up the UN family -- the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, UNESCO, and others.  Others in the photo: Miles Stoby (far left), deputy executive coordinator for UN Reform, Patricio Civilii, the ACC secretary (second from right) and Vladimir Petrovsky, director-general of the UN's Geneva office (far right).

Mistrust of Government

As the need for more of what I call "co-operative governance" increases, paradoxically, there is an increasing mistrust of government in all its forms and a growing reluctance to entrust governments with more power, authority, and control over resources. There has been strong support for right-wing calls to "get governments off the backs of the people" and to reverse the trend toward ever-bigger government that has characterized the post-Second World War period. This has been especially evident in the United States, but there is a similar trend in other Western countries end more recently in some developing countries.

A parallel push is for reduced support for international organizations, also nourished by strongly voiced fears that they're likely to subvert national sovereignty and, indeed, represent a movement toward world government. This fear -n ot to say paranoia - has been greatly exaggerated by extreme right-wing elements in the United States, which in turn have had a disproportionate influence on the U.S. Congress. Such fear has undoubtedly contributed to the American retreat from financial commitments to the United Nations, as well as from support of other international organizations.

The fear that international organizations represent a creeping movement toward world government may be understandable, but it is simply not valid. Indeed, the idea is both dangerous and counter-productive, to the extent that it undermines the principal instruments that governments must use to cooperate for the protection and benefit of their own citizens.

At a time when even the strongest national governments are experiencing difficulties and constraints on their capacity to perform the duties already entrusted to them, establishing a central world government would compound the problem; not solve it. What is needed instead is an improved system of international agreements and international law and more streamlined international organizations to service and support the cooperation among governments and other key actors the twill be required.

The United Nations, the Bretton woods institutions (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), and the many other regional and specialized international organizations that now exist provide the basic elements for such a system. Of course, they need continuing reform, restructuring, rationalization, and reorientation to make them more effective and more efficient and to prepare them for the enlarged functions they will be called on to undertake in the period ahead. But even more than this, they need revitalized mandates and a renewal of the political and financial support that is essential for their effective functioning. This will not be possible without a much broader understanding and more positive appreciation of the role of the United Nations and other multilateral organizations and their relevance to the issues that affect the lives and prospects of individuals.

These basic considerations provided the philosophical underpinnings of the UN reforms undertaken by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in which I was involved. But, as the secretary-general has frequently made clear, reform is not a single event but a continuing process. And it is a process that must be embraced by all international organizations.

There is very limited understanding, and much misunderstanding, about the nature of international organizations. They are not governments, but the servants of governments, and they lack the basic attributes of governments.


In democratic societies, local, state, and national governments are elected directly by the people and are accountable to them. They have taxing and borrowing power to raise the revenues and capital required to act as mandated by their people. National governments have their own military establishments.

The United Nations has none of these features. It was created by national governments, which are its members; they provide and control its finances and determine its functions and activities. It cannot tax or borrow and has no source of revenue independent of governments. Th United Nations has no military support to carry out the out missions mandated by the Security Council or to enforce its decisions. It has no direct relationships with the people of its member countries, despite the fact that the preamble to the UN charter begins with "We the Peoples.. "

The United Nations is therefore totally dependent on its member governments; it can only undertake activities that is members agree to and only and only to the extent that the same governments provide the wherewithal.

Because member governments frequently fail to supply the funding and military support to carry out the decisions, the United Nations becomes a scapegoat for delinquent governments.

There is another important difference between the United Nations and governments. In nation-states, the various departments (finance, foreign affairs, and so on) are an integral part of government, subject to its overall control and direction. Not so in the United Nations. The specialized agencies of the UN, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNESCO, are the International counterparts of the related departments of national governments, but they are not integrated into the central body of the United Notions. Each has been established through a separate international agreement among the governments that become members of the organization, and these generally, but not entirely, parallel the membership of the United Nations. They are therefore autonomous organizations within the extended UN family, or "system," but each reports separately to its own governing body, consisting of the governments of its member countries, and is financed separately by them.

Two Principle to Guide Reform

I. Apply the principle of subsidiarity.

I am a great believer in the principle of subsidiarity that government is most effective when it is carried out at the level closest to the people its decisions affect. Many of the powers and functions that national governments have taken on in recent years could be more logically and effectively performed at the state, local, or in some cases regional levels. In most Western countries there has already been a significant movement in this direction. By the same token, more and more of the responsibilities and functions of national governments require international co-operation for treaties, conventions, and agreements.

There are a number of activities performed by UN organizations and agencies that in today's context could be better or more appropriately handled by other regional and special-purpose organizations, including those of a non-governmental nature. In other cases it makes more sense for the United Nations, as the only world organization with a global membership and mandate, to provide the framework for actions by national governments and others.

It's not easy, though, to devolve issues away from the agenda of the UN General Assembly, since each agenda item is the special interest of one or more member governments.

2. Define the "boundry conditions" that should prescribe global priorities.

What should remain on the UN agenda? I believe the issues that should be accorded highest priority at the international level are those that can have a major effect on the security, survival, and well-being of the entire human community or major portions of it. These center on what I call the "boundary conditions," by which I mean the outer limits that humankind as a whole must respect to protect us all from major risks to our common future and, of course, to realize major opportunities that cannot otherwise be achieved. It is these "boundaries" that the world community needs to accept and to find ways of managing cooperatively.

Initially, agreement on such boundary conditions should be limited to a small number of areas-those with the highest degree of potential risk, which call for early action. This would be my "starter list":

1. Strictly controlling the manufacture and use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

2. Limiting the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human sources that can be allowed to build up in the atmosphere.

3. Limiting the destruction or compromise of the earth's biological resources.

4. Limiting the discharge or transport by any country of hazardous and noxious substances that can inflict damage beyond its borders.

5. Limiting a country's intrusion into or undermining of the security or economy of other countries.

6. Defining the extent to which a government can suppress human rights or commit violence against Its own people without justifying regressive action on the part of the international community.

7. Protecting the global commons-the oceans, the atmosphere, the Antarctic, and outer space.

Need to focus on Security

The central bodies of the United Nations - the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and a refurbished Trusteeship Council - need to function as the principal political forums of the world community at the global level. They should therefore concentrate on those issues that are global In nature or importance, or require a global context for national, regional, or sectoral action. The United Nations should be prepared to divest other issues to the regional or special - purpose organization best suited to deal with them.

Security will remain a major preoccupation of nations and of the international community, but in today's complex, interdependent technological civilization, traditional concepts of security of one nation vis-a-vis other nations need to be expanded to include human and environmental security. Even in respect of military security it is not realistic to expect the security of all nations to be achieved through a single global security pact. More plausibly, we should build on the existing patchwork of multilateral and bilateral security arrangements. That way, we could realistically achieve a global system based on a series of regional security agreements guaranteed bv the international community through the United Nations.

Growing threats to the earth's life-support systems present more danger to the future of life than the threats we face from conflicts with each other. I contend, therefore, that the basic concept of security must be enlarged to accommodate this new reality.

In the armed conflicts that are proliferating within states, particularly in the developing world, the magnitude of civilian casualties in recent times has been on the order of 75%. Human security - the security of individuals - and civic security - the security of communities - have now moved onto the international agenda. These are the main priorities of the University for Peace, established by international agreement and approved by the UN General Assembly in 1980 to serve and support the peace and security goals of the United Nations through education, training, and research. The University for Peace is allied with the Earth' Council, headquartered in Costa Rica, which was established as a result of the Earth Summit to support community and grassroots action for sustainable development. The two organizations cooperate in programs designed to foster environmental security, particularly through anticipation, prevention, and resolution of conflicts arising from competition and disputes over water, natural resources, and cross-boundary environmental impacts.

The Future of the Nation-State

Will the nation-state just fade away? Will the idea of "national sovereignty" be tossed at last into the dustbin of history?

Well, no ... and yes.

The way we govern our own societies and the world community as a whole will, I am sure, be the central issue of the twenty-first century.

Only by an effective system of governance will we be able to manage successfully the host of other issues that human survival and well-being depend on. I have already affirmed my own belief in the principle of subsidiarity -- the idea that every function of government should be carried out at the closest possible level to the people affected. Rigorous application of this principle would undoubtedly affect national government most of all, They will need to yield jurisdiction over many issues to regional, state, and local governments that are better able to deal with them, and they will also need to delegate more authority to international organizations, as cooperation with other governments becomes more and more necessary.

It is entirely possible that we will see a re-emergence of a modern version of the classical city-state of medieval and Renaissance Europe. We will also see ad-hoc alliances groupings of states into blocs (whether for trade, defence, or simply mutual self-interest). None of this means that the nation-state will just disappear. It will almost certainly continue to be the single strongest and most important level of governance and the indispensable link between various levels and sectors of national society with the institutions and activities of the international community.

So nation-states will, and should, survive. But they will likely become smaller and almost certainly more numerous.

One of the apparent paradoxes of our time is that, while nations are coalescing in trade, economics, and, in the case of the European Union, political blocs, there is a counter-trend toward the fragmentation of existing nations. Important and distinctive (even if only in their own eyes) ethnic groups or regions are asserting their demands for autonomy or independence. But this is no paradox, really. In fact, these trends represent opposite sides of the same coin. It is becoming more and more feasible for smaller units to achieve the same level of security and economic advantages that they currently obtain from being pert of the larger nation, through membership in regional and global organizations.

The European Union is an innovative governance structure that seems likely to provide a model that will influence others in the period ahead. It is neither a multilateral organization nor national government. But it is a government in the sense that its members, all of them national governments, have vested in it responsibilities formally and normally exercised by the governments of its member countries, together with the constitutional powers to carry out these responsibilities.

The United Nations now has 188 members, some of them micro-states like Andorra, Monaco, and Liechtenstein. The fact that they have full status in the community of nations is not lost on other groups, which can see that, if they were separate nations, they would be much more visible and possibly more viable. Quebec, for example, would be the 32nd-largest nation in terms of its economy if it were to separate-a useful reminder to Canadians that both Quebec and the rest of Canada could be viable separately by the standards of today's international community.

The running of our planet, as the Commission on Global Governance has said, "now involves not only governments and intergovernmental institutions but also non-governmental organizations, citizens' movements, transnational corporations, academia, and the mass media. The emergence of a global civil society, with many movements reinforcing a sense of human solidarity, reflects a large increase In the capacity and will of people to take control of their own lives."

The rise of civil society in the twentieth century can be compared to the rise of the nation-state in the nineteenth, according to Johns Hopkins political scientist Lester Salamon. This exaggerates the realities some hat but it does underscore the importance of civil society movements. I attach special importance to the need to "support and empower people in building a more secure, equitable, and sustainable future," which is the stated goal of the Earth Council.

Of course. not all the organizations and activities of non-governmental sectors of society are "civil." While crime has always been with us, technology and the processes of globalization have vastly multiplied the capacities of criminal elements to undermine and exploit our societies. T am convinced that international crime is emerging as one of the principal challenges of the twenty-first century, confronting nations and the international community with the need to mobilize their resources for an entirely new kind of war, in which the enemy is powerful, versatile, and largely invisible. It is a war that no nation can wage alone, as organized crime is clearly highly adept at using the instruments of globalization to move people and resources across national boundaries.

The future is in our hands, We have the ability to control our own destiny - and the responsibility to manage it. The time frame in which we must act is very short. It is not that the demise of our civilization could occur rapidly, but that the decisions and actions that would determine its ultimate fate are likely to emerge within the first part of the new century and particularly within the next two decades. Disaster is not inevitable. It is still avoidable if we effect the kind of "change of course" called for at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The future is ours to make and our children's to inherit. And the Earth is our future.

About the Author

Maurice Strong is currently chairman and chief executive officer of the Earth Council, United Nations. New York, as well as president of the Council, the University of Peace, San Juan, Costa Rica.

Also please see: Making the UN more businesslike http://www.mauricestrong.net/20090612102/articles/articles/un-reform.html