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United nations to the rescue (of itself)

Humanity's ability to speak with one voice is still a recent phenomenon in history. This week, on the UN's 60th anniversary, world leaders met to endorse a new statement of common aims. The main aim? To help humanity still speak with one voice.

Fixing the United Nations itself has been a top agenda item for years. But finding a consensus among 191 members has become vexing as more demands are made on an out-of-date system for global group action. That so much hope is still laid on the UN's doorstep at least means the world still believes it can come together.

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After all, talking about mutual problems and aspirations in UN forums is far better than fighting over them. Set up primarily to prevent war, the UN may have done just that in ways never known. Its power lies in setting norms of behavior and then using a majority voice to persuade or shame norm-breakers to follow suit. Just look at the verbal abuse heaped on the Bush administration for not endorsing the Kyoto Treaty on climate change. (China and India were excused from that norm.)

The 35-page joint statement coming out of this UN summit has been so watered down from early drafts that it only highlights the UN's troubles. Negotiators could not even agree on giving the secretary-general enough power to effectively run the organization. Nor could they agree on a definition of terrorism as a deliberate killing of civilians. Other reform attempts, such as altering the Security Council membership, also failed.

This anniversary event was set up to somehow force change. Instead, the document's weak reforms, coupled with a scathing report last week on UN graft and mismanagement, make a strong case for new groupings of nations to look elsewhere to meld their interests into common action.

Many lesser alternatives to the United Nations, of course, already exist, such as NATO, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, regional political groups, and many global bodies set up for joint action on topics from whaling to technology standards.

In pursuing free trade, the US has found it easier to achieve regional or bilateral trade pacts than a new global one. In 1999, the Clinton administration set up a "Community of Democracies," a regular gathering of free nations frustrated by nondemocracies dominating the UN agenda. The Bush administration has kept the group going, and took the idea a step further by organizing "coalitions of the willing" for various antiterrorism ventures.

This move away from a single global body to shifting networks of permanent and temporary alliances may better reflect the historic globalizing forces in the 21st century, such as the Internet. Power is flowing more from ideas than the physical might represented in the nation-state.

When a $5-a-day worker in India can use fiber-optics to take an order for a drive-through customer at a McDonald's in Minnesota, both governments and their global clubs need to change fast.

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The UN remains ossified in the world of 1945 and the cold war. It still has its uses, and another round of reform is needed. But barring that, the alternatives to the UN are looking better and better. Humanity's aspirations and woes still need a voice, and they will find a place for them.