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The UN’s Half-Full Glass

NAIROBI – Families trapped by the fighting in Syria are reportedly eating “salads’’ made of leaves and grass to stave off hunger. According to the United Nations refugee agency, more than two million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. Back home, many more face a brutal winter without adequate food, medicine, or shelter. And, as if conditions could not be worse, the country is facing a polio outbreak.

The international response to Syria’s crisis has been nothing short of disastrous. Indeed, Syria seems to be the embodiment of failure on the part of the UN. The Security Council is deadlocked. In Damascus, would-be peacemakers come and go, talking diplomacy but achieving nothing. Relief agencies are blocked from operating where they are needed most.

Yet it is clear that without the UN, the situation would be even worse. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey would be under even more pressure from the refugees flooding across their borders. And while efforts to achieve a ceasefire have failed, diplomacy has not – at least not entirely. In October, UN inspectors took initial steps to destroy Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles and facilities, with the government’s full cooperation.

In Syria – as in so many other conflict-affected areas, where the UN is fighting to promote peace and stability – there is no such thing as a clear victory. As an experienced statesman once told me, “At the UN, we do not settle for failure, nor do we expect success.” In diplomatic negotiations, you take what you can get. In humanitarian crises, you do what is possible – usually too little, and often too late. “We drink from a cup that is eternally half full,” he concluded.

This conflicted view aligns with public perceptions of the UN. In the United States, for example, a recent poll by Better World Campaign suggested that 57% of Americans view the UN favorably; but, according to a more recent Gallup survey, only 35% of Americans believe the UN is doing a good job.

When the UN was founded in 1945, polls showed similarly conflicted views. While slightly more than 60% of Americans embraced the importance of the UN and its global mission, only 39% believed that its lofty goals for peace and human development were achievable. This discrepancy reflects a deep divide – in the US and elsewhere – between people’s hopes for the UN and their expectations of its ability to deliver.

In fact, the UN’s contribution to peace and development should not be understated, though its successes clearly do not receive the publicity they deserve. For example, UN peacekeepers were recently deployed successfully in Mali. Last month, they defeated the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ending a major threat to regional peace and security.

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But most of the UN’s achievements have had shortcomings. In 2011, after Côte d’Ivoire’s President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power following his electoral defeat the previous year, the UN, backed by French forces, arrested him and transferred him to the International Criminal Court, cutting short a potentially devastating civil war. Nonetheless, their intervention came too late for the hundreds of civilians who were killed in the city of Duékoué.

When Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi threatened to kill his rebellious detractors like “rats,” a UN coalition intervened under an emerging global doctrine: the responsibility to protect. But three years after Qaddafi’s ouster, Libya remains hobbled by weak national institutions and roiled by factional fighting.

During the early days of the Arab Spring protests, the UN, led by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, spoke out forcefully for human rights and democracy. But the UN’s capacity to ensure desirable outcomes is limited; while the hope that drove the Arab Spring may not be depleted, it has clearly diminished significantly.

In just a few years, the UN has managed to push climate change – which, until recently, was barely understood by world leaders – toward the top of the global agenda. But a comprehensive agreement on climate change remains a distant hope. And while the Millennium Development Goals have produced remarkable progress in key areas – including education, infant mortality, and diseases like malaria and tuberculosis – there is still a long way to go.

In pursuing a political solution in Syria, it is important to set realistic expectations. The country has descended into warlordism – a take-no-prisoners fight among armed groups, some allied with the government, others with Al Qaeda, and all preying on innocent civilians.

In such an environment, the prospects for diplomacy are dim. The UN must settle for what it can get and do the most it can to help those in need. After all, a half-full glass is better than an empty one.

Michael Meyer, a former communications director for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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