Modernizing the United Nations System: Civil Society's Role in Moving from International Relations to Global Governance by John E. Trent
Reviewer: Marguerite Marlin
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At first glance, John E. Trent's Modernizing the United Nations System: Civil Society's Role in Moving from International Relations to Global Governance appears to be a book about UN reform. In fact, it could more aptly be described as a book about reforming the UN reform process itself. Its chapters' dissects the machinations and power dynamics of the UN and other international organizations. It serves as both an explanation of how civil society is playing an increasingly central role in global governance, and as a cause of the acceleration of this trend. Trent emphasizes the imperative nature of UN reform, documents the impediments to previous attempts at reform from within the organization and argues that future UN reform efforts should be spearheaded by civil society representatives if they are to be effective.
The section on the history of International Organizations is very illuminating and offers an interesting perspective on the development of such institutions: Trent's historical approach contrasts with the conventional view of these organizations having largely been built out of the ashes of the world wars, as he emphasizes the importance of the development of international institutions in the early 19th century. This is relevant to Trent's overall thesis, as it highlights the historical role that civil society has played in shaping existing international institutions - a role he would like to see formalized in the current structures of global governance.
In order to provide the context for the proposed reforms to global governance, Modernizing the United Nations System includes many passages that highlight the need for a multilateral, collective approach to global policy. While these passages occasionally read like a laundry list of impending catastrophes and profound global inequities, the cases Trent describes are well-documented and give a detailed picture of the most pressing concerns in the various sectors of global affairs.
Naturally, the inability of the current UN system to adequately address these pressing concerns is also a featured theme in the literature. Though Trent criticizes those who deride the UN for its "irrelevance," he acknowledges that there are some valid reasons behind the view that the UN is ineffective, which the UN cannot afford to ignore. Here Trent again shows a nuanced understanding of the politics of the UN, going beyond the usual complaints of the organization being overly dominated by one or another group of nations. Some of the most compelling reasons he lists for the necessity of UN reform are the following:
1. The UN is geared toward preventing and halting wars between sovereign states, but its emphasis on state sovereignty makes it ill-prepared to address and work to extinguish civil wars, terrorism and despotism;
2. The new economics of globalization now can bypass the UN, leaving it with a reduced role in global governance planning;
3. Funding for UN agencies is erratic, resulting in a limited ability to plan and budget;
4. Communication and coordination between the UN and its agencies is poor.
As a way to address these problems, many past proposals for UN reform are discussed in the literature; or, at least, they are explained - it should be mentioned that, in this section, Trent displays thorough knowledge of existing proposals and summarizes them adeptly, but he does not offer much in the way of his own analysis of them. Overall, one gets the impression that the proposals themselves are not the point - that it is the inability to bring them into effect that is significant to Trent. This is particularly clear in his discussion of Kofi Annan's attempts at UN reform, as it is the conditions for the limited success of reform (lack of political will from within the UN, an American administration hostile to UN expansion, etc.) that are analyzed far more than the proposed reforms themselves.
Though it should be stressed that the variety of views represented here shows an extremely thorough knowledge of the existing literature on the subject, the sense that Trent is being conservative in expressing his own assertions is felt at some points of the book. For example, one element of Modernizing the United Nations System that seems lacking is the explanation of how an increased role of civil society would remedy the structural and political problems facing the UN. In some cases, this needs no explanation. For example, the fact that the budgets and scope of operations of IGOs often exceeds that of similar UN programmes is, as Trent points out, a compelling reason to believe that they would be better equipped to handle more regional operations. However, at times it seems to be almost taken for granted that NGOs and IGOs could influence the UN to be less fragmented and more representative of world populations; however, there are possible counterpoints to this view that while discussed, are not properly refuted. For example, Trent responds to the criticism that IGOs may not be as accountable to its constituents as state governments are with the statement that "Paul Wapner argues that their mechanisms of accountability are greater than those of states or corporations." This book could use an explanation of this argument, and might be even better served by Trent's own arguments and analysis on the subject.
While this may be regarded as an oversight, Trent has shown a commendable attention to detail in other areas. Perhaps because of his own first-hand experience with international organizations, he avoided making vague statements on the implementation of his ideas, instead provides very specific suggestions for this purpose. Among these; the establishment of a "Consultative Assembly" for the UN is proposed, with membership coming from civil society representatives, business entities and trade unions/professional associations. Trent also promotes the formation of UN-Affiliated "Campaign Coalitions" headed by international civil society associations and would combine "a narrow focal point and high intensity of involvement with long-term collaboration." These proposed changes would result in a more formal advisory role for civil society actors. Trent also promotes the idea that some UN activities should be managed by more regional organizations and issue-based NGOs. The EU is discussed as a possible model for UN reform - as its parliament effectively brings together states and civil society representatives in the same forum - but overt influence from this is seen as problematic, since it is based on a Western model that could be seen as subverting the identities of other political communities. Finally, although it is stated in a less categorical manner, a featured theme for reforming the UN and increasing the role of civil society is the de-emphasizing of the "Westphalian nation-state" in favour of a "world community."
This is a very dynamic contribution to the study of global governance, and while Trent is perhaps not the first to conceive of all of these ideas, he is almost certainly the first to conceptualize them in such a concrete and tangible manner. The result is a fine example of an approach to idealpolitik that is not satisfied with simply theorizing about lofty goals, but seeks to determine the best manner in which they can be implemented.