In a startlingly blunt manner, French President Nicolas Sarkozy today demanded that the United Nations be reformed and argued that key international issues could not be resolved by negotiations among 192 U.N. member countries. According to the AFP account, Sarkozy announced that “The UN is absolutely indispensable and yet at the same time, it’s not working … I am certain that we need to reform the United Nations, otherwise the United Nations will end up in an impasse.”

He went on to criticize the practice of negotiating agreements among all member states simultaneously – the default process at the U.N. – wondering “who can believe that this can work?” He concluded that a better strategy would be for a “representative” group of countries to do the essential haggling. This makes eminent sense if the “representative” group of countries is composed of those that are going to be expected to bear the burden of whatever is being negotiated. The fundamental flaw of including all countries in U.N. negotiations is the tendency of a majority of countries to seek agreements that garner benefits to themselves and shift the lion’s share of costs to a relative few countries. All too often the U.S. is among the few.

As Sarkozy observes, this dynamic crippled the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen this past fall. But it also applies to a broad range of activities and responsibilities on the U.N. docket. As stated in the conclusion of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives :

No compelling reason dictates that multilateral action to advance human rights should be the exclusive purview of the United Nations… Moreover, some purportedly global problems are clearly not global or may in practice be better addressed through selective participation. Including nations with little at stake or minimal ability to effect a solution to a problem—which is the default process in the U.N.—can impede international action. Such was clearly the case with the Kyoto Protocol. Why should land-locked nations be considered essential parties to the Law of the Sea Treaty? Or nations with no outer space capabilities strongly influence deliberations of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space by constituting an overwhelming majority of its sixty-nine members?

…. The United States must be flexible in its approaches to international cooperation. If the United States and other nations operate only through the U.N., they hand the spoilers the means to frustrate their efforts. Multilateralism is a tool, not an end in itself. The United States should be open to working through the U.N. and other international organizations to address joint concerns, but the United States must not allow solutions to be held hostage by an irrational adherence to past practice or theoretical jurisdictions.

Although it must be said that Sarkozy’s proposed solutions (like expanding the U.N. Security Council) are not well thought out and would probably make the problem even worse, it is edifying that even France recognizes the fatuousness of the U.N. obsession of seeking a “consensus” solution to all problems and the need to explore alternatives.

Contrast this to the strange reluctance of the Obama Administration to press for reform of the U.N. Instead of demanding increased transparency, accountability, and oversight at the U.N. and calling for budgetary restraint, the U.S. has gone along with U.N. budget increases and allowed the U.N. member states to charge U.S. taxpayers even more to support the organization. Even other U.N. member states and U.N. officials have quietly expressed puzzlement over U.S. silence on U.N. reform issues that have characterized U.S. policy for decades.

America’s experience over the years shows how hard it is for any one nation to impose reform on the U.N. It would seem that another country may finally be fed up with the status quo at the U.N. It’s a shame that just as France is stepping up; the Obama Administration and Congress are stepping down.