Zombie Diplomacy

“Are they slow-moving, chief?” a reporter asks the local sheriff early in George Romero’s 1968 cult classic, “Night of the Living Dead.” “Yeah, they’re dead,” the sheriff responds. “They’re all messed up.”

Although both the United Nations and prominent Bush administration officials may be somewhat despoiled and prone to strained lumbering, the two diverge from Romero’s zombies in regards to two key characteristics. They are not literally dead, and, if you are poor and in trouble, they may not be coming for you either.

Two weeks after the disastrously sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, the President again put one in mind of the undead last week as he spoke before an unprecedented gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in New York. Secretary General Kofi Annan convened the Millennial Summit 2005 not only to revive commitment to the millennium development goals, the most prominent of which is halving world poverty by 2015, but also to propel UN reform. A UN report released just prior to the gathering urged world leaders to aggressive action, warning of “a heavily sign-posted and easily avoidable development failure.” Instead, the most powerful man in the world instructed the assembled 153 heads of state in the finer points of non-committal, UN-style rhetoric.

"We are committed to the Millennium Development Goals,” Bush claimed at one point, perhaps forgetting that his hand-picked UN ambassador, John Bolton, had attempted to expunge any explicit mention of these objectives from a revised UN declaration Bolton had submitted just two weeks prior. As an introduction to his Secretariat colleagues the new ambassador made some 750 changes and amendments to the document UN delegates and administrators had been hammering out since 2000.

“As if he had been sleeping for five years,” said University of South Carolina international relations professor Roger Coate, co-author of The United Nations and Changing World Politics, “Mr. Bolton injected a high-level of politicization into the entire consensual process.” A Times editorial extended these sentiments, arguing that the US “bears a disproportionate share” of the failure of the summit meeting .

“There can be no safety in looking away or seeking the quiet life by ignoring the hardship and oppression of others,” the President argued, not in reference to Katrina or to the world’s poor, but to terrorist threats. Yet this is precisely why the UN has pushed so hard for these millennium goals: out of concern for the world’s 2.5 billion still living on $2 day or less, vulnerable not only to biblical floods ala Katrina, but to the ravages of famine, war, and neglect.

Try as it might, however, the listing UN could never single-handedly eradicate poverty in one fell swoop, especially considering its wobbly state. In the last year alone it has suffered through the respectability-draining oil-for-food scandal and failed attempts to streamline its bloated bureaucracy and institute a merit-based approach to hiring and promotion. In recent Times editorials, James Traub and Nader Mousavizadeh both saw the UN as outdated and argued, like Bolton before them, that the Secretariat should be blown up, essentially. Sure, the UN has its faults—from cronyism to corruption to Kafkaesque bureaucracy—but it’s not yet time to put it out of its misery. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: the United Nations is the worst form of international organization, except for all the others.

To wit, the UN assays its central mandate, moving the world towards international peace and security, in two ways. The first is via direct intervention and peace maintenance, which represent after-the-fact band-aid solutions and can often be bumbled (see Rwanda). The other involves hacking at the underlying social and economic roots of extremism and armed conflict via its various stand-alone agencies, which include the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, and the UN Development Program. These are the very agencies that receive and manage the millennial development monies and have consistently been the organization’s most successful post-Cold War appendages.

Last week’s summit, then, represented both a great diplomatic and a great humanitarian opportunity for the Bush administration. With the majority of world leaders gathered to make progress on poverty and reform, the General Assembly should have been an international relations candy store for the US, especially considering its standing as the primary contributor to the UN’s operating budget. Yet Bush employed zombie diplomacy, ignoring the recommendations of what, for better or worse, is the world’s foremost international body, thus enfeebling both.

Yes, the UN is in need of reform, and at this summit meeting it failed on that count. But Kofi Annan and forward-thinking delegates will continue to push for these vital improvements in the months and years to come. More fundamental to the future of both the United Nations and the world’s poor, however, is the simple decision facing the world’s most powerful nation. The Bush administration can either commit itself to achieving the millennium development goals, thus reasserting UN utility, or continue to sleepwalk as humanity smacks into another avoidable catastrophe.

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