Tomorrow's United Nations
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Contribution to a Round Table on the occasion of the 45th Anniversary of the
organized by the European Cultural Foyer and the Diplomatic Club of Geneva (November
In the present times it seems decreasingly useful to discuss the future of the United
Nations using the old language in which we have all written so many reports. Despite the
level of expertise, such reports have proven 'eminently forgettable', to employ
the terms of the Economist's review of the South Report. We are being
overtaken by events.
Media communicability has become increasingly important to the life of political
initiatives. It is therefore useful to note the developing role of metaphor in
articulating or opposing social transformation. Boris Yeltsin recently chose to describe
Michael Gorbachev's compromise reforms as a 'marriage between a hedgehog and a
snake'. Such imagery, of which there are many examples, easily undermines the best of
initiatives. It would seem that the struggle has shifted from the world of ideas to the
world of images. Commentators everywhere remark on the sterility of proposals in the eyes
of voters. There is a bankruptcy of imagination.
Can the dilemma of the United Nations be captured by one or more simple metaphors as a
way of setting the stage for a more imaginative exploration of future possibilities ? One
such metaphor suggests that the United Nations, like many restaurants, has a 'menu
problem'. The menu looks good. It has many succulent words that trigger the
imagination and whet the appetite. But, as with many prominent restaurants, this is no
guarantee that the food tastes as advertised, or that it is in fact available or worth the
price, or that the waiters are not arrogant, when (and if) they respond to customers. And
yet much effort continues to go into the design of the menu.
Although the United Nations has an image problem, the question is rather how it
understands its role in articulating the images that give coherence, credibility and life
to the many structural proposals which we are so expert in producing. What are the guiding
images for the future development of the United Nations that are capable of capturing the
imagination of the world ? Might it not be the case that its role is not so much one of
formulating approved images, but of facilitating the emergence and interaction between
images of social change -- from wherever they derive ?
Just as with the temples to the gods of Rome, there are implicit metaphors associated
with each of the Specialized Agencies that evoke an understanding of the ways in which the
UN may act: doctor (WHO), educator (UNESCO), farmer (FAO), stewardship (UNEP), etc. What
is missing is some imaginative understanding of how these roles weave together to make the
global village an exciting place to live in. We are all too familiar with stories of how
the doctor makes life difficult for the educator, etc. We all regret the cut-throat, and
often sordid, politics of the town hall where they meet.
Consider some metaphors through which to imagine the future United Nations. At one
extreme it might become like an imperial court, affirming the status of the new
aristocracy that meet there. At another it might be like the concierge of the world
community -- ensuring that the plumbing works and controlling the entry of undesirables.
These options might be attractive to some.
Richer and more powerful metaphors would however seem to be necessary to capture the
complexity of the policy dilemmas of the times. The challenge of 'sustainable
development' is a prime example. The implicit metaphor currently proposed in this
case is the impractical one of 'having one's cake and eating it too'. Without a
more complex metaphor the proposals presently being articulated will prove
unimplementable. Here the challenge may be more appropriately reformulated as one of
working through metaphor to a 'sustainable ecology of development policies'.
This suggests that, irrespective of the possibilities of tinkering with the United
Nations structure, the key to its future lies in the imaginative way in which essentially
incommensurable policies are interwoven. The point is made by the unpreparedness of the
United Nations (and the community of experts) in response to the desperate need of
ex-socialist countries for some way of blending command and market economies. No
'models' are available because the challenge to the imagination transcends the
world of model building by which the United Nations has been so heavily influenced. This
suggests that exciting opportunities for the United Nations lie beyond the policy
incompatibilities by which it tends to become trapped.
World governance in this sense is a question of 'imagination building'
rather than 'institution building'. The role of the United Nations should be
to focus attention on the emergence and movement of policy-relevant metaphors that are
capable of rendering comprehensible the way forward through complex windows of
opportunity. The challenge lies in marrying new metaphors to models to ensure the
embodiment of new levels of insight in organizational form. In this sense the United
Nations could become the caretaker for the metaphor gene-pool on which the international
community draws in formulating responses to new crises.
This vision of world governance does not call for a radical transformation of
institutions -- which is unlikely before the next major catastrophe. Rather it calls for a
shift in the way of thinking about what is circulated through society's information
systems as the triggering force for any action. At present governance in the international
community is haunted by a form of collective schizophrenia -- a left-brain preoccupation
with 'serious' academic models and administrative programmes, and a right-brain
preoccupation with the proclivities of public opinion avid for 'meaningful'
action (even if 'sensational'). This domestic quarrel between models and
metaphors could be transformed by focusing more effectively on the metaphoric dimensions
already so vital to any sustainable motivation of public opinion.
The power and relevance of metaphor to policy-making may be illustrated by crop
rotation -- a process intimately known to peasant farmers around the world. The farmer
knows that, to ensure the sustainable development of his field, he can grow one crop in
that field for a period but must then replace it by a different crop to remedy the defects
to the soil caused by the first. He may have to grow a third and a fourth species before
finally returning to the first in his crop rotation cycle. It is the cycle that guarantees
sustainability, not any particular crop. Is it not also correct that policies need to be
alternated like crops to correct for each others defects as a guarantee of sustainability
? This is the implicit message of democracy, although no political party would recognize
the need to sacrifice a cherished policy as part of such a process. But the distinct
policies of opposing parties do succeed each other in a kind of chaotic cycle as each
endeavours to respond to the defects of its predecessors. It remains to be seen whether
such chaotic cycles provide the 'sustainability' required through the crises to
In these terms the challenge and opportunity for the United Nations is to step back
from attempting the seemingly impossible task of achieving consensus on particular
solutions as 'right'. This favours tokenism and unimplemented resolutions that
in turn reinforce cynicism, alienation and loss of credibility. In these times all simple
solutions eventually become problems, just as all problems are in effect unpleasant
solutions. The creative opportunity is to cultivate instead an understanding of how incompatible
solutions can be woven together as phases over time in a cycle of policies -- as
suggested by the metaphor of crop rotation cycles, or by other metaphors of similar
richness which the United Nations could play the central role in evoking.
P.S. Returning to Boris Yeltsin's metaphor of 'marrying the hedgehog and the
snake', this may now be seen as either imaginal deficiency or metaphoric
manipulation. As for the United Nations, faced with the similar dilemma of sustainable
development, the way forward in this light might be to reframe the situation. Hedgehogs
and snakes do not need to be forced to 'marry', they have cohabited successfully
for millions of years in suitable ecosystems. The imaginative focus should be shifted to
the nature of that ecosystem of policies.
The above points are argued in greater detail in:
Through metaphor to a sustainable
ecology of development policies. In: The Power of Convening; collaborative forums for
sustainable development. Sacramento, California Institute for Public Affairs, 1990
Encyclopedia of World Problems and
Human Potential. Munich, K G Saur, 1994-5, 3 vols, 4th ed. (which has an extensive
section on the use of metaphor in policy-making -- also available on this site)