Articles - August 2017


The UN's Best Kept Secret

When is a university not a university, at least not what we think of as a traditional university?

ANSWER: When it is a global network of highly specialized research institutes that bring together world-renowned experts and highly-talented graduate students from around the world to develop real solutions to critical global issues. That’s UNU.

The existence of the United Nations University (UNU), based in Tokyo, is one of the world’s better kept secrets. To be sure, UNU lacks many of the accoutrements of major universities around the world. There are no school colors beyond the blue and white of the United Nations itself, no sports teams, mascots, cheerleaders, or pennants to hang on the wall. There are no residence halls, stadiums, student centers, parents and students touring the campus, and no shopping list of logo imprinted items.

In that sense, visitors might be disappointed. But, in a deeper sense, the United Nations University embraces what was historically the essence of all universities: exploring, acquiring, applying and sharing knowledge. Beyond being an institution, a university has always been a community of scholars studying and learning together. And, that is exactly what UN University has become, an international community of researchers working in conjunction with the diplomats of the United Nations to tackle many of the world’s most critical issues, issues that are often shunted aside in a world of sovereign states and amid the press of the UN’s most immediate concerns for the security and stability of the state system.

The United Nations’ third Secretary General (1961-1971) and the first Secretary General from outside Europe, Burma’s U Thant, first put forward his idea for “a United Nations University, truly international in character and devoted to the Charter objectives of peace and progress” in his 1969 Annual Report to the General Assembly.  After three years of discussion and preparatory work the establishment of UNU was approved in 1972, and its Charter was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1973. The Government of Japan provided a critical catalyst to UNU’s formation by offering headquarters facilities in Japan and providing a grant of $100 million to enable the university to start its work in 1975.

Though its administrative headquarters are in Japan, the UNU Charter always anticipated that the university would become “a worldwide system of research and training centers and programs” operating around the globe. Today UN University has become a worldwide network of 15 institutes and programs carrying out dozens of applied research projects of direct relevance to the work of the United Nations.

Research centers focus on a sweeping cross-section of the dilemmas facing our globe in the context of international relations. UNU Institutes engage on issues ranging from global sustainability (Tokyo, Japan) to global health (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia); from natural resource management (Accra, Ghana) to Biotechnology (Caracas, Venezuela); from globalization, culture and mobility (Barcelona, Spain) to water, environment and health (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada); from computing and society (Macao, China) to comparative regional integration studies (Brussels, Belgium); from development economics (Helsinki, Finland) to innovation and technology (Maastricht, The Netherlands); and from management of critical global resources (Dresden, Germany) to environment and human security (Bonn, Germany). Reykjavik, Iceland hosts training centers for geothermal research, fisheries, land restoration and gender equity.

Three things are striking about the focus of the UN University. First, programs draw on the expertise and energies of scholars and graduate researchers from around the world. Second, each of its centers investigates questions of immediate relevance to their geographic region, receives strong support from national governments, and demonstrates the reality that quality research and the intellectual resources to support it have become global. Third, the dozens of research efforts underway have immediate policy implications for the work of the United Nations and for the actions of national governments.

Working to bring direction and focus to this intellectual ferment and shape its interactions with the wider United Nations system is Dr. David Malone, a Canadian diplomat and scholar who serves as UNU’s Rector, as an Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and as a member of the UN’s Chief Executives Board. Dr. Malone has spent his entire career building bridges across the divide between policy studies and on-going diplomacy.

His education is thoroughly ecumenical, beginning with a business degree from l’École des Hautes Études Commerciales in Montreal, continuing with Arabic language studies at the American University of Cairo, completed with a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a doctoral degree in International Relations from Oxford University.

Integrated with these studies was active diplomacy in the Canadian Foreign Service. Dr. Malone has served as Canada’s Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council as well as his country’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Within Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) he has served as Director General of the Policy, International Organizations and Global Issues Bureaus. Following a stint as President of the International Peace Academy, Dr. Malone returned to DFAIT to guide Canada’s economic and multilateral diplomacy and then to serve as High Commissioner to India.
Meeting with Dr. Malone in the UNU Rector’s office during a recent visit to Japan Diplomatic Connections correspondent James Winship was able to explore both the work of the United Nations University as well as the remarkable breadth of Malone’s career as a diplomat-scholar.

Diplomatic Connections: In many ways your career embodies the United Nations University.  You bridge the worlds of academe, public policy and diplomacy. How did you manage to build this unique career path?

Dr. Malone: Soon after starting work in the Canadian Foreign Service, I realized that there were limits to what could be learned on the job as a practicing diplomat. Other kinds of experience were necessary. Periodically, throughout my career, I would take leave in order to work in the business world, to study for advanced degrees, sometimes to teach and always to write.

Diplomatic Connections: Didn’t that take time away from the Foreign Service career advancement difficult?

Dr. Malone: The to-ing and fro-ing between government and academe worked well for me. There had not been a tradition in the Canadian Foreign Ministry of allowing people to take leave in order to work outside the Foreign Service and then return. I was one of the first to do that, and somehow there was always a niche when I returned to the diplomatic corps. My career did not suffer at all from going away. Inevitably, I was told things like: “If you leave you can never come back,” or “If you leave, you’ll never get anywhere in the department.”  Those warnings turned out to be completely wrong.

Diplomatic Connections: Even though you did not follow the classic path of diplomatic career development, you were named as Canada’s Ambassador to India as well as non-resident Ambassador to Bhutan and Nepal (2006-2008). What was that experience like for you?

Dr. Malone: In India, I was very lucky because there was a skilled country team in place led by a superbly capable deputy.  That freed me to travel prodigiously. My understanding of India is very much shaped by my experiences on the road rather than being Delhi-centric.

I wandered through India, and wrote extensively. Today, all foreign ministries say that they don’t want long dispatches.  But, my reports were long, descriptive, great fun to write and reflective. My thoughts found many readers, not because the writing was superlative but because the story of India is astounding. If foreign service officers, as part of their reporting responsibilities, can package perceptive insights in a way that is relevant to policy, then those thoughts will find readers.

Diplomatic Connections: You cut your time as Ambassador to India somewhat short after only two years there. What led to that move?

Dr. Malone: I left India prematurely in order to serve as President of Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The Centre is a unique organization with the ability to leverage other big research funders like the Gates Foundation and Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) such that it was possible to take on very ambitious projects that mattered in the real world of development assistance efforts.

One of the most serious deficits in large parts of the developing world relates to their autonomous, local research capacity. Improving those capabilities was precisely the investment IDRC sought to make. We were determined to avoid the old model of “helicopter development assistance” where outside experts were dropped in to provide one-size-fits-all expertise and then left the locals to their own devices. Instead, we were training and empowering local researchers to explore development options that fit their specific circumstances.

Diplomatic Connections: Was it that experience that led you to the United Nations University?

Dr. Malone: The United Nations University opportunity appeared as an advertisement in The Economist. Actually, the same thing had happened with the President’s position at the International Development Research Centre. I saw a job announcement and thought, “Why not? That could be fun.” Despite some initial uncertainty about applying for the job, the position was tantalizing. And, UNU was exactly the same.

Diplomatic Connections: The idea for UNU originated with Secretary General U Thant, did it not?

Dr. Malone: That’s true. U Thant’s basic insight, which was correct in my view, was that the United Nations was terrible at capturing, managing and evaluating knowledge.

In U Thant’s vision the whole purpose was for the university to be useful to the United Nations and all of its supporting organizational structure.  When I applied for the Rector’s position it was clear that UNU had been doing a number of interesting things, like launching new graduate degree programs. But, it also appeared that the depth of connection to the United Nations system was missing.

Diplomatic Connections: How have you tried to deepen that connection between UNU and the broader United Nations system?

Dr. Malone: Over the last four years UNU’s leadership has focused on several things. An in-house think-tank has been initiated to give UNU greater policy evaluation capability.  Our Center for Policy Research is a small group of rather young policy wonks who know the United Nations very well.  Its staff has worked hard on analytic papers and briefs, but they have also been asked to help cultivate the market for their research product.

Also, our presence in New York, which had been a representational office, became a much more substantive effort. The institutes and centers of UNU are designed to help the United Nations and its related agencies problem solve, and that requires constant collaboration with UN offices in New York, Geneva and around the world.

UNU has added new institutes that point us in cutting edge directions. For example, in Barcelona a very small pod of highly motivated women created an institute focused on mobility and migration. When they began their work, mobility and migration was beginning to be a hot issue in the Mediterranean but not yet a critical global issue. This became UNU’s Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility.  In somewhat similar fashion, a fascinating network of centers and institutes dealing with focused issues, yet all under the UNU umbrella, has emerged across the globe.

A new synergy has emerged that encourages what was once somewhat disdainfully referred to in universities as “applied” research.  Turns out that these sorts of centers are exactly what is needed to realize the vision of a United Nations University grappling with real problems and offering the sorts of deep insights that diplomatic negotiation cannot nurture but by which more effective policy can emerge.
Diplomatic Connections: Often academic research is subjected to scathing criticism by practicing diplomats and political policy makers who see it as overly abstract and detached from the real world. How have you tried to encourage the uptake of UNU’s work by a variety of UN institutions?

Dr. Malone: Two questions persist at the core of UNU’s investigative and evaluative efforts. How will the information and the ideas generated by UNU’s institutes be of use to the United Nations? How are scholars going to frame their research results and their policy recommendations in a way that the UN will actually be interested and make use of the insights that have been developed?

The United Nations is simply not good at picking up even outstanding research work that isn’t in formats and in vocabulary compatible with UN practice.  Researchers are not accustomed to thinking about how they package their product to be consumed and applied outside the boundaries of their own professional disciplines. I have tried to demonstrate that it is critical to think in advance about how to package the research product in ways that will resonate or “dock” with UN end-users of that work.

Diplomatic Connections: Could you offer some specific examples of how UNU has tried to encourage “uptake” of its research product?

Dr. Malone: First, personal relationships between UNU scholars and UN diplomats and staff matter a great deal because they build access and eventually bring buy-in to the insights and suggestions that research has developed. Given that realization, we have been encouraging our teams in far-flung places to spend more time in Geneva and New York getting to know people and telling them what the research centers can do.

Second, our think tank here in Tokyo puts out a monthly compilation of its policy briefs. Because these summaries are succinct and sharply focused, they have found a substantial market at UN headquarters and with the UN’s specialized agencies.

Diplomatic Connections: You have devoted a great deal of study to the institutional United Nations and particularly to the central structures of the organization, notably the Security Council. Where do you think the Security Council, itself an artifact of the United Nations original formation in the aftermath of World War II, will or should go in a 21st century world?

Dr. Malone: Under the United Nations Charter, fundamental restructuring of core institutions is extremely difficult to accomplish. First, the mathematics of Charter reform is daunting.  Second, very few countries are frank about their views on the subject of reconfiguring the Security Council.

Formal reform may not be the most promising avenue to follow. The Security Council is effective when the major powers want to work with each other, and when there are middle powers and small states among the non-permanent members who can put forward ideas that might expand the big powers horizons. Nobody expects Canada to do the heavy lifting on Syria, but Canada might have creative ideas if it were sitting on the Security Council, as it hopes to be in three years.

Diplomatic Connections: Should the Security Council be enlarged to reflect changing global realities?

 Dr. Malone: The five permanent members are the heart of the Security Council, and to think anything else is a mistake. Currently, we are in a period where the three major military powers of our era – the United States, China and Russia – are sizing each other up. Until those three have found their respective comfort zones with each other, they will probably experiment behind the scenes and float diplomatic trial balloons at the UN to see what they can do together without taking a lot of risks in terms of their own interests.

Diplomatic Connections: Does that mean that you think the Security Council in its present form remains a key institution of the United Nations? Does it retain a useful role?

Dr. Malone: The Security Council is always available to be useful. Even administrations and governments that were not very interested in the Security Council discover that it can be more useful than they had first thought, and many states work to get themselves elected to the non-permanent seats. China, initially, wasn’t very interested in the Security Council and took a passive role, but today China sees its interests very much served by playing a more active and positive role. For Russia, permanent membership on the Security Council is critical to its identity as a great power. Russia can’t simply be a wrecker or a spoiler. Indeed, there are times when Russia has played a very skillful and constructive role in UN negotiations.

The United States doesn’t need to use the Security Council, but often what it does need to do is to attract company around the policies it wants to pursue. And, the United Nations is a great place to attract company.

Diplomatic Connections: What do you mean by “attracting company?”

Dr. Malone: Even the most powerful actors want company. That was the brilliant insight of the first President Bush and Jim Baker when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait (1990). They understood that it would be useful to the United States to see how much company could be gathered to deal with Saddam. In that way, the actions taken by the United States were not only not controversial but remarkably popular internationally.

The lesson of that experience was: company matters no matter how powerful you are. But that point has been insufficiently internalized, not just in the U.S. but also in other countries. Russia needs more company in its ventures. So, too, does China. So, too, does the Trump administration.

Diplomatic Connections: You have worked both sides of the international diplomatic coin, meaning bilateral relationships and multilateral institutions. How is working in each one different from the other? What have you learned from those experiences?

Dr. Malone: Oddly enough, I prefer bilateral diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections: That seems contrary to many of the commitments to which your life has been devoted.

Dr. Malone: It does, except that it doesn’t. I have had only three bilateral postings – Egypt, the Palestinian movement, and India. Societies are intrinsically fascinating. Bilateral diplomacy is a huge luxury because you have time and opportunity to explore your host country deeply and to experience life there first-hand.

Diplomatic Connections: What are the inherent challenges facing multilateral diplomacy?

Dr. Malone: Because of the many voices involved and the leveling effect of the plethora of national interests at work, there are times when the process becomes burdensome and self-sustaining. The biggest problem is the misallocation of time. Too much effort is expended on crafting high minded resolutions that produce few results.

More helpful are major efforts that have a degree of intellectual integrity and into which substantial thought has been invested. The Sustainable Development Goals engendered a great deal of debate and constructive discussion, which produced guidelines that are at once general and quite meaningful. That’s a good example of a sustained and productive process.

Diplomatic Connections: Looking back on your career, if you were designing the training module for the next generation of diplomats, what are the most important lessons that you would like to pass on?

Dr. Malone: Be curious. Curiosity is at the root of nearly all good research, but it is also at the root of nearly all productive diplomatic efforts. Relationships are critical in statecraft, and they are vital in every aspect of United Nations work. I would stress that there is no country that is inherently uninteresting, and inquisitiveness is how you gain insight and understand nuance.

Classic diplomacy and foreign ministries are built around expertise, but the foreign ministry clearance process is inherently bureaucratic and seems inordinately slow from the outside looking in. Parliaments and politicians are increasingly impatient. That is a reality. So, how can the interaction between the foreign affairs agencies and the policymaking apparatus be strengthened? How can the interactions of multiple foreign affairs agencies be improved in order to funnel better information and creative policy options to decision makers?  Exploring these questions and working them from both ends, diplomatic and political, could be a way for young diplomats to become particularly useful to their foreign ministries.

Think of a diplomatic career as modular. Engaging in assignments outside the Foreign Ministry early in the professional development process is a productive idea. The notion of a straight-line cradle to grave path of advancement is no longer true. Such a vision was once reassuring and useful, but those paths were often narrow and ultimately self-limiting. Today the horizons of diplomacy are ever expanding, incredibly challenging and excitingly creative.  And that is true even when diplomacy is met with hard push back and sometimes scathing criticism.

Diplomatic Connections: Dr. Malone, thank you for introducing the United Nations University to our readers. It has been a fascinating and multi-faceted conversation.  And, like your career, it has been wide-ranging, energizing and thought-provoking.  

For further information on the work of the United Nations University, go to:

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