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20 Minutes with Michael Fowler

by Kevin Hyde, special to UofL Today last modified Nov 12, 2009 09:33 AM

Political science professor Michael Fowler talks about a new book on the United Nations that he co-edited with Sumihiro Kuyama, former UN assistant secretary-general under Kofi Annan.

20 Minutes with Michael Fowler

Michael Fowler

Mike Fowler is a professor in the University of Louisville Department of Political Science, where he specializes in international law and organization as well as negotiation and conflict resolution. The former founding director of the university's Muhammad Ali Institute, Fowler has carried out two Fulbright scholarships to lecture in Japan and has served on repeated occasions as a visiting professor in China, Laos and Vietnam for the Program for International Studies in Asia (PISA), the premier faculty-exchange institution in Asia.
On a 1995 PISA program, Fowler became the first American international lawyer invited to teach diplomats and other officials in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In 2003 he inaugurated a similar PISA program in International Negotiation at the Institute of Foreign Affairs of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, again serving as one of the first American academics since the Vietnam War to engage in scholarly communication with officials in that country. In 2004 the UofL College of Arts and Sciences awarded Fowler the Distinguished International Service Award, and in 2009 he won the President's Award for Exemplary Multicultural Teaching. UofL Today held a short conversation with him about his new book on the United Nations.

Q: What is the title of your new book, and who is publishing it?
A: We titled it "Envisioning Reform: Enhancing UN Accountability in the Twenty-first Century," and it's just come out this fall through the United Nations University Press in Tokyo, New York and Paris.   
Q: The book is about accountability, which is a hot topic these days, isn't it? What does accountability mean in the context of the United Nations?
A: Accountability is certainly a concept being heard more and more frequently in all kinds of circles. Over the summer the public perception in Japan that the Liberal Democratic Party lacked accountability was a key part of the trend that developed into groundbreaking elections and political transition there. A month ago, the provost mentioned accountability in her State of the University address. Then, one day last week, I turned on the television and heard a college football coach demanding accountability from his players!
But, just as people are finding the concept helpful and are increasingly using it in different contexts, its meaning has been stretched. What exactly accountability means can be an elusive matter, and one that differs in different contexts. In public life, I would argue, the related term "responsibility" involves assigning tasks and having some agent accept the job of carrying them out. Then, accountability involves the later need to evaluate just how the tasks were carried out.
In the special case of the United Nations, enhancing accountability is extremely challenging. Here is an immense international organization, an enormous bureaucracy that is at work on scores of projects in the most far-flung parts of the globe. Complicating things further, the organization has a host of power centers-the secretary-general, the Security Council, the secretariat, the General Assembly, the specialized agencies and so on. And yet, the UN Charter has virtually nothing to say about accountability. Only rarely does it lay out a clear hierarchy or chain of command. And the standards to be used in judging whether a task was carried out correctly are imprecise and often a matter of very contentious political debate.
As a consequence, when considering what the UN has done-and also what it has chosen not to do, not to become involved in-people have started to talk of an accountability gap that is afflicting the organization. Exploring how the United Nations might be brought to account, figuring out what accountability might mean in the UN context, and how a more accountable UN might better contribute to world order, these issues are what brought together the contributors to our book.
Q: You co-edited the book with Sumihiro Kuyama, former UN assistant secretary-general under Kofi Annan. How did this collaboration begin, when did you decide to take on the issue of UN accountability together and what did each of you bring to the book project?
A: The collaboration began when I was a Fulbright Scholar to Japan in 2006, and professor Kuyama invited me to participate in a conference in Tokyo on UN accountability that brought together practitioners from places like the UN, the World Bank, the European Union and the Asian Development Bank, as well as scholars from the fields of philosophy, political science, public administration and international law and organization.
At the conclusion of the conference the rector of the United Nations University asked professor Kuyama to spearhead the effort to turn the conference papers into a book. The original idea was that he would work alongside professor Edward Luck, director of the Center on International Organization at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Shortly thereafter, however, incoming Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked professor Luck to join his staff as a special adviser. Professor Kuyama had been particularly interested in the paper I had delivered that disaggregated the term United Nations, that is, that argued that the UN really is five organizations: the United Nations of the Secretariat, the United Nations of the Member States, the executive United Nations, the plenary United Nations and the umbrella United Nations. So, he and the university rector asked me to step in to replace professor Luck on the book project.
For all of the evident difficulties of co-editing a book while located across the Pacific Ocean from one another, professor Kuyama and I got along very well. I am sure it helped that I had lived for three years in Japan, and he had lived for many years in the United States. We quickly developed a comfortable working relationship and we both look forward to cooperating again on future endeavors.
That said, professor Kuyama and I found that we approached issues about the United Nations from very different backgrounds. He is a senior Japanese diplomat, very well respected at the UN, who rose to some of the highest positions in the organization. For some time he chaired the Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly, which has vitally important budgetary responsibilities. He was then named chair of the Joint Inspection Unit, which conducts inspections across the UN system. Eventually, Kofi Annan asked him to become an assistant secretary general, and he is now a professor at the United Nations University in Tokyo.
Professor Kuyama thus brought to the book project extraordinarily broad experience in UN administration and an unparalleled network of contacts, particularly among practitioners and Japanese academics. Since I have taught international organization for years, both at the University of Louisville and in prior posts at Virginia, Georgetown and George Washington universities, as well as abroad in Japan, Panama and Vietnam, I had different, though often complementary, perspectives on various matters, drawn largely from my views of the scholarly literature. Also, since I've published a number of books and articles, I could help professor Kuyama and other contributors, particularly those who were writing in a second language, to prepare their papers for peer review and eventual publication.
Q: The book includes chapters by people very prominent in the international organization field. While no doubt all the chapters have something important to offer, which contributions do you think our readers might be especially interested in?
A: I think readers interested in international relations will especially appreciate the opening thoughts by Ed Luck that really define the contours of the UN accountability issue and then the chapters by Jochen Prantl, acting director of the Centre for International Studies at Oxford University, and by a team of past World Bank officials, led by Edith Brown Weiss, a chaired professor at Georgetown University Law Center and former president of the American Society of International Law.
Professor Prantl wrote an extremely interesting chapter on the way in which informal consultations of the Security Council have been and might be used to enhance that organ's legitimacy. Professor Brown Weiss and her colleagues wrote on the fascinating experiences of the World Bank Inspection Panel, which she chaired for some years and which aims to give a significant voice to people affected by World Bank development projects.
Then, for anyone interested in public administration and the concept of managerial accountability, I recommend the chapter by Japanese scholar Ikuyo Hasuo on what she calls a ladder of accountability at the UN. And, buried in the appendix at the very end of the book are some sparkling observations by Mikoto Usui, professor emeritus at Tsukuba University in Tokyo. 
Q: Nobel Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari endorsed the book. What did it mean to get his support and approval?
A: The former president of the Republic of Finland and chairman of the Crisis Management Initiative, Martti Ahtisaari worked to bring peace to Namibia, Kosovo, Indonesia and Northern Ireland, among other places. Some have said that he is responsible for negotiating more successful peace agreements than any other living person. Professor Kuyama is planning to meet with him in Tokyo shortly, and Ahtisaari has already endorsed our book as a timely and valuable contribution to the effort to help organizations in the UN system to play a pivotal role in global governance. We could not be more pleased to have such an eminent person in the field of international relations recommending our work to others.

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