For most people, the very words "United Nations" have something solid about them. Perhaps they conjure up an august phrase, such as "international community", or a solemn symbol, such as the blue UN seal. Americans and Europeans both sometimes talk about the United Nations as if it were an ally or an adversary, or at any rate a sovereign country with whom they can do business. In the first presidential debate, President Bush spoke of "going to the United Nations" as if it were a tiresome relative. ("I didn't need anybody to tell me to go to the United Nations. I decided to go there myself.")
But, as the events of the past few weeks have once again reminded us, the United Nations is not a person or an ally, let alone a sovereign nation. The UN isn't even a collection of well-meaning people who just want peace. It is a group of different agencies with different agendas, some of which - the World Health Organisation or the tsunami aid coordinators - are vital, and some of which - the Libyan-chaired Commission on Human Rights - are ludicrous. Some of its employees are hugely effective, some are apallingly bad. More to the point, none is subject to the kind of oversight that would be taken for granted in a democratic government or a similarly-sized corporation.
That, at any rate, is the clear impression that emerges from the two reports published by the committee set up to examine the operations of the UN's famously corrupt oil-for-food programme in Iraq. The latest report, published this week, examined in great detail the personal behaviour of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and Kojo Annan, his son. Kojo Annan worked for Cotecna Inspection SA, a company with legal and financial problems that nevertheless won a contract to inspect goods coming into Iraq under the oil-for-food programme. The investigators found that Kojo Annan misled his father about the length of his employment - indeed, Kojo told Kofi of Cotecna's UN interests only after they were revealed by a Sunday Telegraph article. From the documents assembled in the report, it is also pretty clear that Kojo, who had a habit of pitching up and hanging around at big UN conferences, intended to profit from his father's position. But the probe did not find any evidence that Cotecna won its UN contract thanks to Kofi Annan's intervention.
Nevertheless, the report does not, as Annan Senior claimed this week, amount to an "exoneration". Despite the fact that it did not find the Secretary General personally guilty of corruption, the portrait of his office that emerges from the report is not exactly savoury. When they began their work, the investigators discovered that Mr Annan's former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, had just destroyed three years' worth of documents - a procedure that began, perhaps not coincidentally, right after the investigation was launched. They also discovered that the head of the United Nations' office of internal oversight, Dileep Nair, had paid the salary of a staff member using money that had been designated for the administration of the oil-for-food programme - which was particularly disturbing, given that Nair was the person responsible for monitoring UN bureaucrats, and that the staff member was employed to design an anti-corruption programme. These new revelations, when added to the dodgy procurement practices and corruption outlined in the previous oil-for-food investigation report - as well as recent revelations of misconduct by UN peacekeepers and sexual harassment scandals among UN bureaucrats - don't exactly make the United Nations look like a model of corporate probity, let alone an organisation that is capable of bringing peace to various war-torn bits of the world.
Not everyone has been surprised by these revelations that the people who work for the UN are no more virtuous than the employees of any other large organisation. In fact, concerns about corruption, as well as the UN's tendency to overreach its mandate, were what lay behind the Bush White House's recent decision to appoint one of the UN's most prominent critics, John Bolton, as UN ambassador. For Bolton is one of the few people in public life who has long been willing to draw the distinction between what the United Nations actually is, and what everybody would like it to be. He is also one of the few to understand that there are limits to what the organisation can achieve, given that it is not beholden to a democratic government or even to a sovereign government. It is precisely because there is no electorate that can toss the Libyans out of the human rights commissioner's chair, and no judicial system that can try corrupt officials, that the UN so often runs into problems.
Mr Bolton may not be the most tactful spokesman for UN reform - he once said that if the top 10 storeys of the New York Secretariat fell off the building, nobody would notice - but many in Washington hope that he can help push the organisation in the right direction.
To their credit, there are signs that the current UN leadership understands the depth of their current problems, and their significance for the UN's reputation as well as its long-term effectiveness. The fact that Mr Annan allowed the oil-for-food probe to be not only conducted by outsiders, but led by an American - Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve - was a good sign. The Secretary General has also recently proposed a series of reforms, not only to big institutions such as the Security Council but to the organisation's personnel policies, which have traditionally relied on political appointees. These are the kinds of changes that could help give the UN the modern management capability it needs to cope with new global threats such as terrorism and mass epidemics.
Yet - as John Bolton has written - there will always be limits on what the UN can achieve, no matter how well the institution is run. Because it is accountable to no one, such an international organisation is never going to be good at managing large, long-term projects involving a lot of money, such as the oil-for-food programme. Because it is not beholden to a democratic government, it will never be the right choice for a major military operation. However comforting, consensual and "international" it may sound, a decision to "send in the United Nations" is never going to be the complete solution to any problem.
• Anne Applebaum is on the editorial board of The Washington Post
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