Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Research Guides United Nations Office at Geneva Library & Archives

Audio Guide: The Next Page - Transcripts

Welcome to the UN Library and Archives Geneva's Audio Research Guide! Here you'll find episodes from our own podcast, The Next Page, as well as podcasts and audio from or on the UN system and multilateralism.

Would the world be better without the UN? A conversation with author Thomas G. Weiss

by Alma Rinaldi on 2022-07-29T15:46:10+02:00 in Member States, International relations, Gender, Health, Development, Peace & Security, Humanitarian Affairs, Security, Politics and International Relations, Human Rights, Disarmament, United Nations, League of Nations | Comments

 

Thomas Weiss 

If those problems require global solutions, the history of responding adequately to challenges suggests that we require strengthen intergovernmental organisations, especially those of the UN system. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

Welcome everyone to this new episode of The Next Page, the podcast of the UN Geneva Library & Archives designed to advance the conversation on multilateralism. I am very happy today because I got to invite Professor Thomas Weiss, whose books have been enlightening, my whole career I've been reading his books. He's one of the keenest observers and one of the most renowned researchers of the UN secretary, and UN system at large, of course. 

And he's also Presidential Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Centre and among the many academic positions you have held Professor, I want to mention that you were the principal investigator for three fascinating research projects. 

The first was The Future of the UN Development System around 2011 and between 2011 and 2017. The second was The Wartime History and The Future UN, and then finally the UN Intellectual History Project from 1999 to 2010. So in the early part of your career, actually you were a colleague because you served with the UN in several parts of the secretariat and also in UN specialised agencies and of course as I was saying before, you have published countless works on international relations, the UN system, humanitarian affairs, humanitarian aid and peacekeeping, so I know for sure that a lot of our listeners know your name and have read some of your works. 

But before we go into today's subject, which is imagining a world without the UN, is that even possible? But before we do that, please introduce yourself to our audience and perhaps tell us how you became so interested in the United Nations. 

  

Thomas Weiss 

Well thanks so much Francesco for the kind words of introduction. 

Interesting question, because over the last several decades I've struggled to persuade students that there is no need to have a linear career development. And so, if you look at my current and chequered past, we would go back to finishing university. 

And I was trying to avoid collecting frequent flyer miles to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and so I took a job at Rikers Island Reformatory, which is a prison in the East River in New York City, which gave me a deferment, I was teaching there, but one of the things I learnt there or, and it's this roundabout way of saying how I got to the UN. I was working in a reformatory with kids, adolescents who lived in the South Bronx, but I had to work with the Department of Corrections and the City of New York, which is partially funded by the state of New York and by the federal government. And so, I quickly began thinking in more systematic terms, systems terms and when I went to Graduate School at Princeton, after that experience, I decided well, as long as I was having so little effect in Rikers Island prison maybe I should try go to the other extreme at the globe and that actually is how I got into studying international relations because I hadn't done that before. 

And during my graduate career, there was an opportunity for an internship, the International Labour Organisation, which at its time was in the building where the WTO is along the lake. And that summer I worked with a guy whose name is Bob Kox who was a Canadian academic who's worked at the Institute for Labour Studies that worked directly with him and actually the research I did ended up eventually in my dissertation. But when I got back to the United States, I began thinking about how I could actually study the United Nations, so I spent a year at the Graduate Institute in Geneva where you're now lecturing on occasion. And that's where I really developed my interest in studying the behaviour and misbehaviour for international organisations. 

I had then ended up leaving a teaching position, a ten-year tenure track position at the time to take, returned to, head up a research organisation looking at peacekeeping and the UN's efforts and security and Geneva had worked on development problems, and I decided that I needed more exposure to security, so I was there. And then after that I had always liked writing. I had written a couple of books while I was in the secretariat actually, when I wasn't supposed to, but I did anyway. 

And I then taught for 10 years at Brown University and then 25 years ago, it hardly seems possible, I moved to New York to the Graduate centre of the City University of New York, which is where the projects that you mentioned, I worked on those projects, and was fortunate enough to raise enough resources to do them from that spot in New York and so, here we are although today in something called phased retirement I am living in Chicago and go to New York because I still have some PhD students. So, there we are today, thank you for giving me that opportunity, which I usually don't have. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

Well, that was great. Listening to how this developed in this, you know deep seeded kind of passion for the study of the UN. 

I know that you're not only there in Chicago, you do a number of things. I know that we get to see you in Geneva on several occasions. We get to see one another in other places where the future of international relations and international organisations is discussed.  

I wanted just to set the scene for this episode because, as I said before, we try to imagine a world without the UN, not because we're anticipating anything like that, because one of the latest books that you wrote is titled Would The World Be Better Without The UN? And that poses a number of interesting questions in using this counterfactual approach to try to imagine what the world would be if the UN weren't there. 

So, let's start from looking at facts or for over 75 years now, the world has benefited from the work of the United Nations in many ways. And of course, there's peacekeeping, there is monitoring you know weapons of mass destruction, there is negotiating and mediating, there is humanitarian coordination combating epidemics, we've seen this recently with all the goods and the bads and combating poverty as well. 

So, at this stage is it at all possible to imagine the future of international relations in the world without the UN, and this is something that you look into in the book and I would want to really take a deep dive there and hear it from you so that our audience can learn it from you. 

There is also the fact of reforming the UN, the UN is being wanting to reform or is being, you know, told to reform a lot for many, many decades and this still a priority today, but then the question is would that even suffice? What reforms would suffice to effectively tackle global challenges the size of climate change, the rise of the inequalities and the global migration crises when these big challenges weren't that global and some of them weren't even there when the UN was designed. So that is also another question to set the scene for this episode. And so, we saw with COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine that actually the system can be paralysed and distracted and become even dysfunctional just when it is needed the most. 

And this is something that you are approaching your book before these two episodes came to reality and so let's begin the conversation Professor if you wish, by looking at the UN from your own standpoint of all these years of research that you have done and all these years of teaching as a professor. For example, in your book, that is the backbone to this episode, you talk about these three UN at play. 

Can you tell us a little bit about them and how they coexist. 

 

Thomas Weiss 

Well, thanks, yes this is one of the major insights that resulted from the intellectual history projects of the United Nations, and it relates to the fact that the principal conclusion is that if you think about the UN in terms of its two big kinds of operations and field assistance and training, etcetera, etcetera.  

But then there's the other part, which is the one related to ideas, norms, and principles and standards and the proposition after those ten years of research, was that that frankly, is the main legacy of the United Nations because they're picked up by individuals, they are picked up by organisations, they're picked up by corporations, they're picked up by governments, etc. So, we think that's where the main leverage is. 

But in doing that research my colleague Sir Richard Jolly, who was directing the project with the Former Executive Director US deputy at UNICEF, the head of the UN Development Programme. After he retired, we ran this project together. And as we were looking at the sources of ideas the pressure for new norms, women's rights, environmental rights, etc., they frequently, not always, but almost came from outside the formal setup of the United Nations and came from individuals, they came from organisations and Rachel Carson on the environment. 

And I said, Richard, you know this doesn't really fit into the work we're doing on the UN. And he said "oh, they're part of the UN, aren't they?”. And I said right now, Richard, there's something called international relations theory, and there are two United Nations according to the guy who wrote the classic textbook, and it's Claude. 

There's the first UN of Member States who call the shots, so to speak. They are supposed to pay the bills and sometimes they do. There's the second UN of international civil servants who with the top, with the Secretary General down through the P-ones wandering around in the basement, that's the second UN: these other people don't figure, and they said well change the theory, which was in fact a perfectly sensible answer from someone who read and studied international relations. 

So, the article that we wrote at the end of that project, and it's also the topic for a recent book that I did with a former student who worked on the project, Tatiana Carayannis, is called the Third United Nations. How a Knowledge Ecology Helps the UN Think. So, it was everything from individual experts to international commissions, to the media, to corporations who come together with any international negotiations and in deliberations with Member States, with international civil service. It's everybody else on the outside who sometimes are in the conference room or sometimes pushing and shoving international civil servants or governments.  

So, the fact is that this is a principal way that change happens actually, and the pressure is enough and, in every instance, but in many instances, it comes from outside and it's this that what you would call the network space where the tree come together that one finds the most intellectual sparks and policy sparks so that's the third United Nations. So, it's not every NGO, it is not every individual. It's not every commentator, but the ones who work in and around the Palais in Geneva. For example, bring to bear the kind of pressure that we think is necessary to change the norms and standards and procedures. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

Well, thank you, thank you for that. So, these three UN, you know, the Member States component, the secretariat component and everyone else basically, the global citizens coexist and they're there, and we can see how they interact and what you're saying is when they're all together in the same place, talking about the same thing, this is where the interaction happens. And this is where the UN is an opportunity to advance, I would like to take the conversation to the deep dive now. I was impressed reading your book and I hope that our audience will get a chance to read it. 

So, the book is Would The World Be Better Without The UN? So, I would like to turn that into a question to you. Would the world be better without the UN? Your answer is clear in your book, I won't reveal it, it is for you to do that, but I want to stress that book was written well into the Syrian conflict, for example, and well into the growing swelling climate change crisis and the rise of new tensions across, you know, the geopolitical landscape, but before COVID and before the current war in Ukraine, so the first part let me jump right in. In the first part of the book you describe the four elements of the UN, can you speak about this? 

 

Thomas Weiss 

I’ll be happy to. It's nice to hear that you have the book in front of you, and if others would like to, it's not at all any expensive and the answer is on page 190 and the answer there is no. I had anticipated writing this book for the 20th anniversary. In some ways, it pulled together the strands and things I've been working on for 50 years and my plan was to bring it out for the 20th anniversary. 

And then there was one little problem, namely the election of Donald Trump and his assuming office in the same month in 2017 that Guterres became Secretary General, and I just decided that there was not only no reason to wait, there was every reason to accelerate the writing of the book and one of the realisations was that you know Trump as awful as he was, is not the only populist or nativist on the planet these days. There are plenty of those in the North or plenty of them in the global South, and so I thought it was time to try to ask this question. 

So, the four ailments if you wish, or problems, the major ones that I see and start off with the most cited article in the UN Charter, namely Article 27, which relates to state sovereignty, it's the basis for my country first attitudes that are so prevalent in paralysing, as you mentioned, not just in Syria, currently in Ukraine, but in lots of other political problems.  

So that was the first big ailment, the second, and some of my sidekicks don't like me saying this, but I find the theatre of the clash between the uniformed North, the industrialised countries and the so-called Global South, including Palau and China. Somehow, these two groupings make sense that US and the Nordics are on the same page. This is just frankly a recipe for the kind of paralysis and the excuse for not doing much. One of the criticisms is, I'm not the only person ever said this, is the theatre of the UN, in which the process is more important than the results. And so, I see this as having grown out of an important development in the 1960s and 70s after decolonization, in which one had to talk about confronting the wealthy North and changing the rules, I think that those, that particular change has now long outlived its utility, so that's the second problem.  

The third one, and this is with something that reflects not just my analytics, but it reflects the decade I spent in the secretary's period as the atomization of the UN system. I use the term UN family because like most of our families, that's rather dysfunctional, but it's really about the fact that the so-called system that in 1969 Sir Robert Jackson and Margaret Anstee in writing the The Look At The Development System called “a prehistoric monster where that dinosaur is 53 years older”. Now I don't know what that makes it the dinosaur, but that atomization is continued. And finally, I find that leadership and I don't mean just the tops of organisations and all that too, that let's say the quality of staff and the quality of the dedication leaves a lot to be desired. So those were the four ailments that I tried to spell out and I tried to see what that they mean for the day-to-day operations and the long-term operation, not just at the 75th anniversary and the 50th anniversary or the 25th anniversary and hopefully 100th, but we'll see about that. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

This whole analysis you run is actually the first part of your book. 

Your book has three parts for those who haven't read it and the first looks at these 4 problems that you mentioned. 

In the second part is where the very interesting part for me begins, where you take the reader to this sort of alternative reality in which the UN is simply not there, and you try to describe a situation in which the UN and its ideas and its operations are simply absent from the landscape. Well, let's give it to the audience, how is that world? 

 

Thomas Weiss 

Well, what I tried to do is... some people dismiss counterfactuals as a plaything of academics. I actually think they're quite helpful in trying to focus the mind, so part of what I tried to do there was to tell some stories that are important, not always well known. So, the first half consists of specific illustrations about the how the world would have been far worse off at several crucial junctures over the last 3/4 of a century without critical inputs from bits and pieces from the UN itself and the UN system. 

So, what I was hoping in that part of the book is that the argument would at least give pause to the foes of multilateral cooperation in their declared war on the rules-based international order that we have that's under stress as we know from Ukraine but is under stress for a lot of other reasons. So, denying that proposition would involve, for example, asserting that the world would be better without the campaigns that eradicated smallpox in 1977 and have almost done the same for polio and Guinea worm. 

Or that the efforts to formulate women's rights and gender rights, or the groups that have worked on the effects of climate change, or the delivered emergency assistance to the war in the Congo or Sudan or today in Ukraine, or that kept peace on the Golan Heights or Cyprus or facilitated decolonization, fostered alternative development thinking projects working now, begun to take steps to protect cultural heritage and prosecute war criminals, and the list goes on.  

But the same counterfactual is for a different audience and kindly described them as UN cheerleaders with little pompoms, UN associations worldwide. Because there are substantial debits as well as the assets, there are substantial debits on the organisation’s leisure. So, it really would be a little difficult to maintain that the world would not have also been a far better place and had we improved performances by the first Member States and by the 2nd UN of civil servants.  

For example, what if the permanent and elected members of the Security Council had acted less hypocritically in Rwanda's real time genocide, or currently in Syria or Myanmar, or Yemen or Ukraine? Or if peacekeepers had not let's say raped children in central Africa and spread cholera in Haiti? The world would be a slightly better place. Or frankly, if more dedicated and competent staff had performed better in implementing development projects, conducting independent monitoring, or if there were fewer as a problem it mentioned earlier, the atomization, if there were fewer interorganizational turf battles, and more genuine collaboration among the members of the so-called UN family, and that list also goes on. So, it's juxtaposition of those two counterfactuals where obviously the world would not have been better, but also there are there possibilities for improving and improving substantially the performance of UN organisations. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

And that leads me straight to my third question in this part of our conversation that relates to the third part of the book, and you lead the reader into this part, in which you inspire the reader with the vision of a world in which the UN is back. Now exists, but it's not quite the UN we got used to. It's a UN that is more creative and effective just to quote you, quote from your book. So let the audience hear what it means. How is that world and what it means for the UN to be more creative and effective? 

 

Thomas Weiss 

Well, I'm going to be shameless here and allow Kofi Annan to speak a little of the book. The dear man who wrote the forward and I'm just going to read a couple of sentences and I knew you were going to ask me this, so I thought it was useful for you to pull this out there.  

He says in a bold, original way: “we use counterfactuals to examine the United Nations, what it does, what would happen if it is ceased to exist, and what can be done to improve it. It is not shying away from lamenting the obvious shortcomings and failures of Member States and international civil servants. But he also provides a timely reminder of the crucial normative and operational work undertaken by the world organisations. He points out that we can await new unspeakable disasters to prove the need for better intergovernmental organisations. and undoubtedly be rewarded with unimaginable calamities. Or we can make fit it for purpose, the organisations that we have.”  

So the spirit of what I did in analysing the four ailments, the four problems that we spoke about earlier was that I thought there was something to be done in order to actually make those 193 Member States, and I said if they behave more responsibly and had its 100,000 civilian staff and about the same number of police and soldiers been more creative and competent and courageous. So as I looked at those four problems diminishing the role of state sovereignty is, I guess, not for my lifetime. I mean, in certain ways it's very different from the way it was when I started looking at intergovernmental organisations. I mean there are more treaties tying the hands of Member States, there are norms that have come in, responsibility to protect and try to take the roughest edges offshore state sovereignty, the turning inward of populist worldwide, in that sense, it's aged. Trump is temporarily gone, but we've got Xi and Putin, and Erdogan and also others, and we try to think about the pandemic, 

 and we try think about climate change just to think about two things that are staring us in the face today. I'm a little bit less, shall we say, pessimistic. 

I'm not all that comfortable that we're going to do anything by the UN at 100. I have greater hope and I think something more to say about the other three. And somewhere toward the end of the book, I actually quote Australia's former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd: he said, “if one day the UN disappears or more likely just slides into neglect, it is only then that we would become fully aware of the gaping hole this would leave, and what remained of the post-war order.” 

So, it seems to me that it's not impossible as we detach those other three problems to say that the pitting of the global North versus the global South is something that can break down on occasion. For example, landmines, treaty, and work on the International Criminal Court are times when these silly divisions or the theatre breaks down, and then I see that in fact we can take steps in the right direction.  

In terms of that dysfunctional view on family, I would hope, over the next quarter century, that we see fewer moving parts. I point out that they actually the only meaningful consolidation has been the creation of UN women, in which instead of four disparate units, there was the creation of a more major one. I think that donors, once we supposedly financed the organisation, speaking out of two sides of their minds, instead of providing all kinds of funding broken down into increasing amounts of soft money that have their name attached to it, perhaps more centralised core funding for the reduced number of UN organisations to mute, shall we say, the competition. The race to the bottom of the UN agencies for fundings: that characterises way too much of what goes on. And finally, it seems to me that there are various ways to open up the appointment of senior positions to think about something besides national quotas and to determine who gets hired. 

And frankly, I would like to see much more turnover in personnel, not lifelong... this is the same thing I say about university professors. It seems to me that there are lots of ways that one could make the organisations function better and more productively. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

As we look at the future, mindful of the fact that there's been a lot of talk preceding the 75th anniversary, but also more recently about the UN we want or the world we want and the UN we need. So, if we now start looking at the future, you mention a number of things that could make the UN more creative and effective. But do you also see other reforms that are both possible and effective enough in the face of global challenges for which the UN wasn't designed after all?  

So, my point Professor is, there's certainly a whole list, a very long list of reforms being, you know, proposed over the years by a number of academics, number of commissions, committees, practitioners, experts' people like me that work for the secretariat, etc. But do you see other reforms that are both possible and effective enough at this point of the development and the destiny of the UN as an organisation? 

  

Thomas Weiss 

Well... one of the things that I tried to do in the book, and I am increasingly persuaded that we have to do is be more aware of the history of what works and what doesn't work, and so this is  atypical for political scientists because I'm paid to extrapolate from yesterday morning and the long run our new book extends much on the next public opinion poll and so in my advancing dotage here, I've made an effort to become a back of the envelope historian, to combat what I see in these reform discussions as well. 

Roy Carlson inversed Alzheimer's disease... that is remember what happens this week, but we forget the context that has crafted that memory over the last 75 years and if you go back to the League of Nations, which I oftentimes do to think about the beginning of the current generation of international institutions. 

Those contexts have slipped away. So, I often, forgive me here, I wanted to get at the beginning because the creation of the United Nations was not in San Francisco in the month of June 1945, or when the Charter was signed or in October of that same year when there were enough ratifications for it to enter into force, but rather in Washington DC in January of 1942, when 26, or what would later be 44 countries signed something called the Declaration by United Nations. Most observers and I keep myself here until the last couple of decades are unaware that the label for the military alliance to defeat fascism, to crush fascism, also entailed a parallel commitment to a standard operating procedure, which is called international cooperation or collaboration, or multilateralism. That same standard operating procedure was supposed to, although it broke down really quickly afterwards, was supposed to guide post-war, the pursuit of post-war peace and prosperity through an institution that bore the same name. 

So, in some ways I hope people will bear with me a minute here because I see that most 1940s in many ways, represented the pinnacle of global governance. 

So, the 75th and the 70th, and the 65th, all these earlier birthdays, and I'm hoping that maybe for the 80th I keep making this argument. Earlier birthdays should have called attention to that ‘42 - ‘45 United Nations Alliance because the end of that war, like the end of World War One and the end of the Napoleonic Wars resulted in an experiment of third generation of international organisations after nationalism and going alone were exposed as empty vessels.  

So, today armed conflicts are no longer the only or perhaps even the main threat to international order and human survival with dignity. Yet until we started this conversation earlier with Ukraine, it seems to me until the crisis, and I believe that crises oftentimes lead to the kind of change that we would like to see. Until this crisis, I would argue that the European Union had lost its way that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was either obsolete or brain dead depending on whether you were Donald Trump or Emmanuel Macron and the United Nations, frankly, was an afterthought. If it was a thought at all.  

So, at this time, we're dealing with this awful war in Ukraine. There's an absolutely fundamental disconnect between a growing number of global challenges, not all challenges, but a growing number of challenges that point to the inadequate structures for problem solving and decision making. I try to argue in the book we have occasional tactical short term local reviews and responses instead of the sustained and strategic and longer run global perspectives and actions that are the only way we can solve these crises.  

So, this is a fairly long-winded discussion at going back to ‘42 to ‘45 because no one questions the effort that was made by the Allies, not even the crew of my country clusters. So, examining the wartime UN contradicts the conventional wisdom that idealism, that liberalism was abandoned to confront the Nazis in Imperial Japan. It shows that in fact those things we call county and ideals of peace were found to be absolutely essential to the Hobbesian project of survival. 

So, there is a bottom line here. When governments, the Allies at that time, when governments decide to use their governmental organisations, they work. The wartime actions of the founders suggest that our current shrivel imaginations lead to second best surrogates for more robust multilateral cooperations. 

Now, if global problems require global solutions, not every problem is global, but the ones that do, whether it’s climate or pandemics, or WMDs, financial instability, and it goes on. So, if those problems require global solutions, the history of responding adequately to challenges suggests that we require strengthening intergovernmental organisations, especially those in the UN system. So, my priority happens to be actually reinforcing the crumbling, that's what I would say, the crumbling foundations of the UN system that we have. So, you know, we can discuss Security Council reforms so the cows come home in Switzerland or anywhere else. I really think one needs to look at critically, reinforcing those foundations as we think about moving toward the UN. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

And to your point, if we are to reinforce those foundations and if we, you know, build on this concept that that you offer use which is very powerful in the book when Member States, when nations and governments decide to use international organisations in a setting of international cooperation, then those organisations are successful, and they work. So, if we want to go and reinforce those crumbling foundations, what strategies could the international community use to adapt the UN for or to the future context of international relations going forward. And I'm saying this because I'm deliberately not counting the scenario in which a slow onset or rapid conflagration will lead the international community to create a third global organisation, so not talking about that scenario. 

I am talking about the scenario where we keep this one and we know in its adaptation. 

What are the strategies that you see would be possible at this point? 

  

Thomas Weiss 

This week this month. This year I'm really close to despondent because as we look at the agreement on climate, for example, Paris honestly getting off again. But anyway, with the US and others back into that, the first thing that happens with the war in Ukraine and petrol prices and heating prices going through the roof. The first reaction by all of our leaders is to have a drill, baby drill. I mean, we need to look at fossil fuels as a part of the solution. So, I keep trying to figure out whether there is a crisis that would be big enough and fast enough, but not catastrophic enough to force Member States because they are the ones who are going to make these decisions. They're the ones who are going to finance the solutions. It's not going to be Bill Gates. It's going to be Member States and as they say about 10 years ago I thought that maybe climate would do that, but that climate was moving too slowly. In fact, you could ignore the evidence. We may be back now to where it's impossible to ignore the climate evidence and that may be the trigger for a kind of substantial reform that's going to be necessary. 

Otherwise, if you follow conversations as you do in Geneva, I do in New York, or you read publications or listen to media from various parts of the world there is not a groundswell of support for this notion.  

So, we need to speak about the great reawakening of the United Nations, and in fact, at that point about when you know governments decide to use the damn thing and it works. And if you even think about the disaster of Syria and the disaster of the response or lack of response by the Security Council to the humanitarian situation when chemical weapons were discovered, those same inapt elected members and permanent members decided there was only one organisation that could look into and do something about it. So, the UN along with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons was called upon. 

So, this just exists in the end, the necessity that they we can't get around this, there's not going to be a way to find a gimmick to get around Member States or the first UN taking multilateral cooperation seriously. And frankly, the only solution to several problems and the infrastructure is there if they decide to use it, but if they decide not to use it, we're going to have more pandemics, we're going to have more floods, we’re going to have more heat waves or more irrigating and more disasters of every sort.  

So, I hold up the whole some combination of the reawakening of multilateralism, being the only part of the world in reaction to Ukraine combined with the fact that no one is going to be safe until this pandemic is over everywhere, in combination with action that has to be taken on the environment to move us beyond the seemingly paralysis we are at the present. I’m old enough that that you know, I'm not losing a fortune betting on that, but it seems to me that that's really the only hope is that the crises get awful enough, but not catastrophic to push people to make the kinds of decisions that need to be made.  

I mean, it's the same...I'm actually very fond of Charles Dickens description on the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities and what he says. And I think it's quite apt, you know, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.” and so I'm hoping that in our own age there will be slightly more wisdom but slightly less foolishness. Sorry I can't get too much more enthusiastic than that this morning. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

But that is a great place to wrap up this conversation. First of all, I wanted to remind our audience that this episode revolves around the book that you published in 2018 or Would The World Be Better Without The UN? And thank you also for reminding me the foreword was written by Kofi Annan here in Geneva in 2017 and it's actually, there's a lot of wisdom in that very short forward lesson page, but there is a lot of wisdom as he is used to. So, I wonder Professor Weiss, as we wrap up the episode, is there any final thought that you wish our audience to remember if there is one thing that they should take away from this before they go or after they go and read your book, what would that be? 

 

Thomas Weiss 

But we've already abused your listeners, and in this business one has to be an inveterate optimist. There's no other solution, and we've seen in the reason I wanted to end with that Dickens quote is that you know, this is also a period in which we've seen longevity going up, in which we've seen women's rights improving, lots of problems with improving, we've seen literacy going up, and we see no nuclear weapons have been in wars since 1945, we've seen as mentioned earlier, smallpox limited. I mean, this is a kind of a model of sorts, and it was also a time go back to that for a minute, because smallpox, the cost of eliminating that disease. 

Wait, let's not even think about the numbers of human lives that were saved and improved, but let's just think about the administrative costs that were saved by health and government authorities worldwide over the last 45 years. And all of that was brought to you by an expenditure, an international expenditure of some $300 million. Obviously, we have to inflate that for current costs, but at the time that was the cost of a single fighter jet. 

So, if your run is trying to say, well, is there a cost benefit analysis that can be done about the value of cooperation, that's the kind of model I think so. And for Americans who were thinking, well, why do we pay so much the bill? I mean, the fact is the portion, the US portion of that bill over the period leading up to 1977 was about 1/3 of that $100 million. 

I mean, this is just terrific, and the results are there. So, it seems to me that others trying to make that calculation need to think about the illustrations of what works what doesn't work and in the face of the existentialist word, existential crises facing us now, previous generations waffled on answers to those questions. 

We're getting very close to the point that we can no longer try to pretend these questions are not pertinent, but one can't say well until the US does something, China and India are going to do something or until India will try to do something, Mauritius is not going to sign. This is just mad. It's postponing the catastrophe that you don't have to look very far to see. 

So, I still believe I would have been in this business for this long without thinking that change is significant. Change is possible, even though I'd like to think transformation is what's necessary the evidence for that is very modest, but I think that substantial change can take place, and that's why I continue trying to crank up my word processor occasionally as a right, which is my modest contribution to this effort. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

And I for one, and I guess many others are grateful to you for continuing to explore that way. Let me ask you Professor where to find more about your work and any advice on web resources and other knowledge sources that our audience may find useful as they go into understanding better multilateralism and the future. 

 

Thomas Weiss 

Well, you know I was going to say that one of the advantages of being or having been around as long as I am that and thinking about the library in Geneva, I'm old enough to actually have a book or two in the catalogue. But I think one of the advantages these days for students anywhere I teach a course in Korea, etc., is that all kinds of resources are available electronically. 

You don't have to steal things from people’s offices anymore to do research, so those who are interested in doing research can certainly find a wealth of those, as I say, you're interested in what I've written, you go to Wikipedia, you can find that out, and there are lots of other people in this business. In fact, one of the interesting developments just over the course of my career then it's sort of related to that slight note of optimism. We tried to have earlier is that I helped get started an organisation in the mid to late 1980s when the UN was at the native state of its existence. It's called the Academic Council on the UN system. They're organising meetings with practitioners and academics, and at that time the sort of market, if you wish, for analysis about multilateralism, but UN system about the World Bank, and other institutions, there was almost no market. There was all. There were almost no jobs for academics. There was also no future, or a student interested in these issues, and now that certainly it's not the case. 

There are opportunities not only in the Academy, but in a host of nongovernmental organisations and in a host of actually private corporations which are increasingly making room for people to do work on these issues so this change is substantial and I would certainly encourage any of the younger listeners do to think seriously about work in the international arena, and the UN is certainly not the only place track this one are places to enter, but there are lots of organisations doing UN related work that are looking for talented and dedicated younger folks. And there are lots of ways to learn about the issues and contribute to them and find the position. So, I'd like to end on that positive note in the best and worst of times. 

 

Francesco Pisano 

And that's great. So, Professor Thomas Weiss thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Next Page with us, all the best to you. Best wishes and continue to write books as useful as engaging as this one. Thank you so much. 

 

Thomas Weiss 

Thank you. 


 Add a Comment

0 Comments.

  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.