Both the great promise and the enduring problems of the United Nations were on vivid display this week in New York, where the Millennium Summit of 147 national leaders ended yesterday.
The visitors closed their rare top-level meeting with fine vows to make the UN more effective across the full range of its many activities, from eliminating global poverty to doing better on the peacekeeping front. But even as they promised new determination and new resources for the organisation, they also showed one more time why it is all too possible that not a great deal of lasting value will emerge.
Consider the troubled issue of peacekeeping. At present, some 37,000 troops from various nations are on duty with 14 separate peacekeeping forces, from East Timor to Cyprus to Sierra Leone, at an annual cost of US$2.2 billion. Another 1,000 civilian UN staffers are at work with 14 other nation-building missions in other countries. Many dedicated personnel with noble intentions are among them.
But the record of accomplishment is mixed at best. Just this week, a mob in West Timor got out of control and murdered three UN workers; earlier, two peacekeepers were killed in East Timor. Rebels in Sierra Leone seized 500 peacekeepers not long ago while UN protection could not save thousands of Bosnian Muslims from a Serbian massacre in 1995.
The leaders assembled in New York promised to halt such things. They vowed to give UN forces clearer mandates, better training, improved arms and better planning. In brief, the means and authority to use force robustly when facing opposition.
However, China and Russia also made clear they will veto any efforts to send UN troops to areas where interests of their official friends might be infringed - meaning a basic political divide won't end because of these new pledges.
Likewise, the UN members set goals for subjects like fighting disease, spreading education and improving water supplies. But there was little sign they will provide much new funding. The US, for all its support of this new concept, remains by far the leading delinquent when it comes to paying the bills. Thus, what the Millennium Summit actually will do for this new era remains as uncertain as ever.