World Federalist Movement Canada - Vancouver

World Federalist Movement Canada – Vancouver Branch

Modernizing the United Nations System, May 15, 7:30 pm  with JOHN E.TRENT

Modernizing the United Nations System by John E. TrentJohn Trent will be visiting Vancouver and Victoria next week to present talks on the theme of his recently published book Modernization of the United Nations System: Civil Society’s Role in Moving from International Relations to Global Governance, Barbara Budrich Publishers, Opladen, Germany, 2007 (available in USA from and in Canada from He will be available for interviews on Wed. May 14 and Thurs. May 15.

John is a Fellow of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa and was formerly a professor and chair of the University's Department of political science.  He has written numerous publications with a focus on international relations and their reform. A long term Secretary General of the International Political Science Association from 1976 to 1988, Trent was also a member of the International Social Science Council from 1976 to 1991 and chair of its Constitutional Committee. He acted as founding vice-president of the Academic Council on the United Nations System, aimed at spanning the gap between academics and international public servants.

Since his retirement, he has organized two international roundtables on global governance and institutional reform in the post 9-11 period and participated in many more. He is an Executive Committee member of the World Federalists Movement – Canada.

His talk in Vancouver at the Unitarian Church at 49/Oak 7:30 pm Thursday is co-sponsored with United Nations Associations - Vancouver.

Contact John Trent

Vancouver (May 14,  May 15)
(819) 827-1025
(604) 876-6925

Larry Kazdan , Vice-President,
World Federalist Movement Canada – Vancouver Branch
(604) 874-9982

Round Table and Book Launch Invitation!

Available from:
In North America: $29.95
In Canada, $29.95
In Ottawa, Nicholas Hoar, Octopus, and University of Ottawa bookstores.

Book Review

Modernizing the United Nations System: Civil Society’s Role in
Moving from International Relations to Global Governance

By Michel Perron
Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse
Vice-Chair of the Vienna Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Committee on
Narcotic Drugs and Chair of the Steering Committee for “Beyond 2008”, a global NGO
forum providing input on the 1998–2008 review of the United Nations General Assembly
Special Session on illicit drugs (UNGASS)
The West Quebec Post, 7 Nov. 2008

Written as an academic reference but reading more like a New York Times best seller, Modernizing the United Nations System by Professor John E. Trent is a must read for anyone interested in how the world governs itself – or more specifically, how we should do so. While the United Nations (UN) may be one of the most recognized and well known public institutions, its internal modus operandi is largely unknown by those it is meant to serve. As the saying goes, ‘perfection is the enemy of good’ and while many expect the UN to be perfect, it can only strive to be good in the face of tremendous pressures, be they financial, political or diplomatic.

Professor Trent’s work eases readers into this field beginning with the UN’s macro institutional aspirations while furthering exposing the labyrinth of committees, layers and bureaucratic processes meant to ensure equitable and fair representation of all member states no matter how large or small. While he clearly exposes the strengths and weaknesses of ‘the system’ and its governance structure, Trent is good enough to also make specific and realistic recommendations on how best to break through the paralytic inertia gripping the UN.

With the exponential growth of capitalism in emerging markets, mergers and acquisitions of enormous size exist so that global companies can continue to compete in the increasingly ferocious shareholder value arena; people around the globe need to know that the UN is and remains true to its founding principles towards the protection of human kind. Far easier stated than done, the challenges facing the UN are exacerbated by the increasingly a priori domestic perspective of governments around the globe. Few if any, can reasonably be seen to be putting the globe’s benefit ahead of their respective nation state – yet if we continually default to only what’s best for one’s backyard, how will the world evolve?

Trent argues that the very strength of the multi lateral system has become one of its greatest weaknesses where decisions often default to the lowest common denominator to assuage the political and diplomatic need for domestic cover.

Enter civil society. With its explosive global growth, breadth, expertise and long-term commitment to particular issues, Professor Trent posits that civil society can and must step up to the plate to assist in the reform of the UN and its institutions. While the UN’s relationship with civil society has drastically changed over the years, there is still a great deal of resistance to embracing their views, plurality and capacity. This resistance is largely driven by the fact that civil society is not satisfied with the status quo and change means someone, somewhere will have to make concessions, whether financial, power or control. Conversely, it is appropriately worrisome to think that civil society, who often "write cheques they never have to cash” could take a lead role in reforming the global government institution.

Trent isn’t arguing for anarchy – quite the contrary. He calls for civil society to be the external stimulus to creating a “global reform movement aimed at reinforcing the effectiveness and legitimacy of international organizations”. He calls on this reform to speak of membership, rights and obligations of being world citizens; roles and functions of decision making; social, economic and environmental stewardship of the world; rules for humanitarian interventions in sovereign states amongst other critical governance elements.

Finally, Professor Trent calls on a highly inclusive reform system, which can be sparked by NGO’s such as was the recent case with Beyond 2008- A Global NGO review of the 1998/2008 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Illicit Drugs, which saw a widely diverse yet representative array of Non-Governmental Organizations come together, debate and adopt by consensus, a series of forward looking, practical recommendations to reform global drug policy. This historic achievement has raised the bar and expectations on governments to fundamentally address this highly geo-political and sensitive area.

All said, as the reader moves through this fascinating account of the UN and its inner workings, they are left with a clear call to action for themselves as a member of the global community. Rather than simply articulating a series of problems and limitations, Trent clearly outlines the exceptional strengths and opportunities of the UN being the ‘best game in town’. He does so by compellingly making the case for significant, thoughtful and serious engagement of all actors and in particular civil society, if the United Nations is to prosper and flourish for the benefit of all.

Michel Perron
7 Nov. 2008

Executive Summary

Modernizing the United Nations System
John E. Trent

The Urgency of Reform

Global public opinion surveys indicate there is a desire for a renewed and strengthened United Nations. Recent changes in transnational politics indicate that modernization of the UN is both urgent and possible. The question of 'how' is the subject of this book.

The world is crying out for global leadership. World problems go beyond the capacity of any state or group of states to resolve by themselves. Today's challenges are global yet authority systems are based on national sovereignty. Whether it is global warming, environmental degradation, international crime, terrorism, human rights, wars or the wealth gap, governments must cooperate to find solutions to our global challenges. If not, anthropological philosophers have demonstrated that in historical civilizations, humans have tended to over-exploit their natural and social environments until they collapse.

States are meant to cooperate through international institutions like the United Nations. But neither the organizations nor their member states seem to be up to the task. Whether it is Rwanda or Darfur, pollution or harm to women and children, terrorism or poverty, our international institutions stand accused of incompetence or inaction. They must be reformed, brought up-to-date – 'modernized'...

Surmounting Past Failures

This is not the first time the United Nations has faced the call for reform. Even if the UN often adapted to changing circumstances, constant criticism led to sporadic attempts to tighten up management in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1980s, a campaign by the Reagan administration led to limited administrative and budgetary reforms (resulting in the UN having the same regular budget for 20 years, despite inflation and increased operations).

The end of the Cold War and the relative decline in the sovereign power of nation states unleashed new possibilities for the UN. A new round of reform studies by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), experts, and foundations in the late 1980s and early 1990s had the broader aim of improving the UN's capacities. They were never acted upon by governments. The tendency of states to protect the status quo suggests that the UN would be unlikely to reform itself. It will require outside impetus. Past efforts failed because of lack of consensus, political leadership and public support and the constraints of a limiting context. Frustrated by the immobilism of the Great Powers, NGOs in partnership with small and medium-sized states developed a "new-diplomacy" to restructure debt (Jubilee 2000), ban landmines (Ottawa Treaty) and create the International Criminal Court, a really profound institutional reform.

From 1995 to 2005, Kofi Annan took the initiative for administrative and structural reform in the UN. He too failed to mobilize political and public support. Nevertheless, the overall effect produced a "cumulative package of ideas and a consensus for change" in the United Nations, but no road map for bringing it about.

In fact, there are grave road blocks. The UN's members are more preoccupied by national interests than by the collective good. Historically it has been found that the protection of institutional values conflicts with the satisfaction of human needs because there is a divergence between the structures and norms supported by powerful elites and the desires of citizens to make societies more efficient and harmonious. There is little political will to reform international institutions. In the absence of UN efficacy, other proposals have been offered for managing global governance. Analysis shows they will not work. Iraq has demonstrated the flaws in out-dated attempts at hegemony. As regards a suggested coalition of great powers or "democracies", it would lack the legitimacy of the UN's universal membership to intervene in the world's trouble spots.

Changes and Opportunities in the International System

In recent times, the structure of international politics has changed, making new demands and offering new potential for system transformation. The need and the possibility of transforming the United Nations have been demonstrated by recent research. It has been estimated that increased pressures on international institutions may incapacitate many by 2020 if they are not radically adapted to accommodate new actors and priorities. Transformation means going beyond mere adaptation and to debate principles and membership norms and, if necessary, to modify fundamental objectives, structures, functions and rights of intervention. The motivation is that many of the world's problems can now destroy humanity. Interdependence makes us all mutually vulnerable to global catastrophes. Expanding technological and economic change in a world of 'turbulent complexity' forces us into a new period of political-institutional innovation, just as happened a century ago. These realities can only be handled by multilateral institutions that are based on mutual tolerance, complex learning and universal legitimacy.

In addition, recent studies show we do not have to wait for the leadership of great powers or the shock of a world crisis. Over the past two centuries, leadership in the evolution of international institutions has been taken as much by creative individuals, associations (NGOs) and movements as by governments. Now there is a new opening for civil society entrepreneurship. There is a new kid on the block in the shape of 50,000 international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) with increased organizational and networking skills and international expertise. This is not pie in the sky. Annan has said NGOs can do things the UN can't. They are already partners in policy formation. Moreover, globalization experts claim the international context is now more open like the old Western frontier with a new, pluralist balance of financial, commercial and social forces. The sovereign power and identity of national governments is increasingly contested by transnational Diasporas, multiculturalism, fundamentalism, consumerism, and global markets. Divisions and coalitions inside and outside the UN have multiplied in a multipolar, polycentric world. This complex and conflictual world offers a broad range of actors unprecedented opportunities to reshape global politics. The knowledge, information, experience and numbers of skilled civil society leaders are the best hope for the pursuit of the common good.

'How' not 'What'

We start from the proposition that dealing with global problems requires effective multilateral institutions. Their capacities must be augmented to handle the challenges of the global system. There is a surfeit of propositions about what to do. The book presents a survey of criticisms of the UN and of reform proposals, but solutions are left to the reader's judgment, because the author's principal objective is to deal with the 'how' rather than the 'what' of institutional reform. Finding a 'road map' for transforming international organizations has become just as important as knowing what modifications have to be made.

Experts on international organizations estimate that their transformation will require:

  • a convergence of power and interests with a vision of the future;
  • a political center to mobilize broad support and build trust in a core group;
  • a network of professionals with credible expertise and competence;
  • transnational activism that is rooted in local networks to act at the national level;
  • the ability to take a critical stance from outside existing structures;
  • appeals to political values to overcome road-blocks created by state interests;
  • creation of short-term victories to provide encouragement in a protracted process.

A Strategy for Modernizing the UN

The logic of these considerations suggests the shape of the reform process that is required to modernize the United Nations. INGOs are able to mobilize people and governments for institutional transformation and are already lobbying for global reform. But they do so individually and lack broad impact. A new coalition of international associations working with cooperative governments can use second-track diplomacy to take the lead in a triple agenda of political pressure, public opinion formation, and institutional reform.

A continuing, autonomous campaign coalition formed of institutional reform units of advocacy groups will lead the protracted struggle required to build a new consensus and action on global governance. It will take concerted efforts by creative visionaries and public opinion leaders integrated with the impetus of NGOs. They must operate at both the national and international levels to bring to bear their specialized local knowledge, technical expertise, and ability to mobilize public participation in networks, activities and telecommunications. Campaign coalitions are the likely wave of the future for transnational action because they focus on specific issues, are institutionally light, and can respond to changing opportunities and threats via short-term tactical alliances

Experience with institutional reform proves it to be long, arduous and highly influenced by the political context. At the present, international organizations hover between the contradictory pressures of national interests and the demands of global problems. It is not enough just to have good ideas about what reforms are needed. Political clout is also necessary. That is why it is imperative to have a dedicated organization that can learn how to perceive opportunities and be prepared to strike when there is a sense of immediacy and a convergence of interests that can be used to mobilize political will.

For information: John Trent, Chelsea, Quebec, Canada,

An Appreciation of John E. Trent's

Modernizing the United Nations System:
Civil Society's Role in Moving from International Relations to Global Governance
Barbara Budrich Publishers, Opladen, Germany, 2007
By Charles Svoboda,
Former Director of the Bureau of International Organizations
And Deputy Director of Mission at the United Nations for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs
Submitted for the ACUNS (Academic Council on the United Nations System) Best Book of the Year Award

By all standards, John E. Trent's Modernizing The United Nations System (i.e. bringing the UN up-to-date) must be considered an outstanding and even audacious book. It is not only an overall analysis of the evolution of international organizations and particularly the UN through time and space but it goes beyond run-of-the-mill studies to add prescription to analysis and description. In other words, Trent manages to provide both a snapshot analysis of the development of international organizations since the 18th century and also a strategy for civil society to mobilize support for the UN's reform in the era of global governance.

This book deals with an absolutely crucial topic both in theory and practice. Once again, technological and economic changes have outstripped the political capacity to deal with them. Global public opinion surveys indicate there is a desire for a renewed and strengthened United Nations to deal with the multitude of global challenges. There is much analysis to support the belief that only a competent, multilateral, universal organization has the legitimacy to deal with the world's problems. Hence, the immediacy and pertinence of this study which brings back from several years of oblivion the topic of UN reform. To boot, this is likely the first full-length treatment of the topic of how to go about reforming the world organization.

Many diverse audiences will find satisfaction in this novel study. It is not just for specialists. The general reader will discover the context of international theory and politics that delineates the field of international organizations, presented in a dense but readable style. Students and professors will find a fundamental analysis of the structures and functioning of international organizations along with an in-depth yet eclectic bibliography. UN specialists and reform advocates will be intrigued by the originality of the proposed approach to enhancing the competence of the organization.

Among many merits, three in particular deserve special attention. Trent manages to cover in considerable depth all the ancillary issues surrounding the subject of reform. One by one, he analyses the current theoretical and political context; the problems of globalization and other changes in the international milieu since 1945 that require institutional revisions; the new challenges to global security; the growing consensus on critiques of the UN and proposed modifications; and the practical problems with institutional reform faced by Kofi Annan and other reformers.

Second, after analyzing possible players and their limits in the past and present, the book presents a creative synthesis of the pertinent literature on civil society and its international advocacy and the role it might play in providing the momentum for the creation of a third generation of international organizations. The structure of international politics has changed, making new demands and offering new opportunities for system transformation. In particular, a turbulent multi-polar, poly-centric world opens opportunities for new, entrepreneurial actors such as INGOs to reshape global politics. Trent lays out in considerable detail how international advocates might band together in a campaign coalition to promote the issue of UN reform.

Trent persuasively argues that this is not idle speculation. Recent research demonstrates how individuals, groups and budding international associations played a creative role in the development of international organizations in their first century of growth. Only since the crisis of the two world wars have international organizations been left in the hands of governments. Now even the Secretary-General Kofi Annan admitted that NGOs can do things the UN can't. In the specific field of international reform, civil society has proven its leading role in the campaigns for the abolition of land-mines and the creation of the International Criminal Court.

Third, the author is not dogmatic in his approach. Instead of claiming there is just one model for UN reform he lays out a gamma of critiques of the current UN and proposals for its reform. He is one of a new generation of global analysts to refuse the conceit that anyone has a magic potion for UN renewal. Trent affirms the need for a world constitutional debate among interested parties to work through the priorities of institutional reform. He takes a similarly wise approach to the ideal of democratic transformations in the global community.

Perhaps the last word can be left to Walther Lichem in his profound introduction to Modernizing the United Nations System. "The publication of this book by Prof. John E. Trent has to be celebrated as a most valuable contribution to our knowledge and to our understanding of the options and the decisions to be taken with regard to our global governance system. Its wisdom will be available to all the partners of the global governance process, to civil society but also to the governments and their diplomats, to the political parties evermore seized by the local effects of global change, to the business community, to academia and to the media. It will be the basis and a source for the long-needed discourse on the evolving constitutional framework for humanity."

Finally, it may be of significance that both Lichem and I who are singing the praises of this book come from the world of practicing "UN hands". This suggests that John Trent has succeeded in bridging the divide between academics and practitioners – not a minor achievement.

Charles Svoboda
24 Feb. 2008