Another fact hardly ever mentioned by critics is that the wonderful diversity of the U.N. does not necessarily lend itself to efficiency. The U.N. has 191 member states and six official languages. Civil servants come from an incredible variety of cultures. To avoid misunderstanding, they must show great sensitivity toward each other. Israelis and Egyptians, for example, work together to guard the secretary-general. French and Japanese struggle together to find the proper English wording of a press release. That may slow things up a bit, but it is one of the glories of the U.N.
I am often astounded by how well the U.N. secretariat does work. I have met scores of civil servants during 15 years of covering the U.N. as a Los Angeles Times correspondent and a freelance writer. I have sometimes encountered oafish bureaucrats -- just as I have elsewhere in the world, including Washington. But I also have dealt with brilliant U.N. civil servants such as Undersecretary-General Shashi Tharoor, an Indian novelist; special advisor Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister; and Frederic Eckhard, an American who recently retired as the secretary-general's spokesman. All performed stellar work for countless hours. The U.N. bureaucracy has never struck me as woeful.
The real failure of the U.N., in the eyes of its critics, has nothing to do with reform. Right-wing ideologues despise the U.N. as a threat to American sovereignty. [Kofi Annan] enraged the White House by daring to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Reform is not really on the minds of many reform mongers. No amount of U.N. reform will satisfy them.