John Bolton, President Trump's choice to succeed H.R. McMaster as his National Security Adviser, is known for not mincing words. The one-time ambassador to the United Nations once said about its headquarters: "The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." Actually, it might make a lot of difference: It might be a significant improvement.
Although best-known for its peacekeeping in areas of conflict — where it enjoys a mixed record, at best — the U.N.'s agencies, commissions and panels have a dismal record of accomplishment, especially while acting as the world's regulator-wannabe for all manner of products, processes and activities. The U.N. regularly panders to activists and, not coincidentally, adopts policies that expand its own scope and responsibilities. Science and free markets routinely get short shrift; in U.N. programs and projects, everything becomes an exercise in PR, politics and international horse-trading.
In an article published last December, two respected commentators called for the United States to cut funding for the U.N.'s World Health Organization and its International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is plagued by incompetence and poor science on its good days, and is currently mired in a major scandal marked by corruption and conflicts of interest. I suspect they will find a kindred spirit in Bolton.
The United States has long been a hugely disproportionate funder of U.N. activities – our mandatory assessment and voluntary contributions total some $8 billion — but the era of America as the U.N.'s sugar-daddy is waning. A year ago, State Department staffers were instructed to find significant cuts in U.S. funding for U.N. programs (above the mandatory assessment).
Why are incompetence and profligacy rife within the sprawling organization? In several respects, it's in the U.N.'s DNA.
First, the United Nations is essentially a monopoly. Inefficiency and incompetence are not punished by "consumers" of their products or services spurning the U.N. and patronizing a competitor. On the contrary, it is not uncommon in these kinds of bureaucracies for failure to be rewarded with additional resources. Unlike in business, if a program isn't working, government bureaucrats clamor to make it bigger.
Second, U.N. officials are rewarded for making the bureaucratic machinery run — that is, for producing reports, guidelines, white papers and agreements, and for holding meetings — whether or not they are of high quality or make any sense at all. And they often don't; the bureaucrats often sacrifice veracity for consensus — sort of like letting eight-year olds vote on whether a whale is a fish or a mammal.
Third, there's no accountability — no U.S. Government Accountability Office, House of Lords Select Committee or parliamentary oversight, and no electorate to kick the U.N. reprobates out when they act contrary to the public interest. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that we see egregious examples of arrogance and corruption, let alone day to day featherbedding, laziness and incompetence in the thousands of individual U.N. programs and projects.
Fourth, in the absence of accountability, U.N. officials feel little need for transparency of policymaking; and the PR offices simply spin, spin, spin the anti-technology, anti-capitalist party line, which often fails to take into consideration that scientific progress and modernity give rise to greater prosperity and longevity.
Fifth, the pool of possible candidates for UN leadership positions is not a promising one. The organization is no meritocracy: The country or region of origin of a candidate seems to be more important than his credentials and qualifications. Also, if you were a head of state or government minister, would you choose to lose your best people to the U.N., or would you prefer to keep them close, to make you look good and to benefit your country? It's hardly surprising that the U.N. ends up with the least competent and most disaffected and dysfunctional officials.
Ambassador Bolton, who understands well the U.N.'s manifest deficiencies, should advise the president that U.S. discretionary contributions should go only to U.N. programs that are consistent with the interests and values of the United States, and that we should withhold funding and participation from U.N. agencies and programs that are found to be corrupt or incompetent. Maybe we'll be able to get rid of more than 10 floors of the U.N.'s headquarters.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.