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Tomorrow's United Nations


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Contribution to a Round Table on the occasion of the 45th Anniversary of the United Nations,
organized by the European Cultural Foyer and the Diplomatic Club of Geneva (November 1990)


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 come.

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)

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