All the talk at the United Nations for the past year has been about reform at September’s World Summit. The campaign was ardently pushed by Secretary General Kofi Annan after the UN was ignored by the United States in its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Annan’s ambitious reform agenda, designed to make the UN more indispensable, centered on the Security Council’s role, genocide, nuclear threats, terrorism, pre-emptive war, human rights abuses, economic needs and UN management problems. Unfortunately, Annan’s crusade came to a jolting halt at the recent gathering in New York.

The unexpressed hope had been that the leading liberal democracies of the world, drawing on Annan’s proposals, would exchange their help in alleviating Third World poverty for the developing world’s acceptance of the security, human rights and UN management changes they wanted. This would mean passing some or all of the following reforms: authorizing more direct UN intervention to stop genocide, nuclear proliferation and terrorism; restructuring the UN’s lame Human Rights Commission; reorganizing the UN’s faulty internal management system; and expanding aid abroad. But all these ran up against barriers of one sort or another.

First, the UN got waylaid by a fracas over the issue of expanding the Security Council. For most of the past six months, the controversy converged on a subject peripheral to the North-South deal but far more glamorous to the media. One group of nations–Japan, Germany, India and Brazil–made a joint effort to get onto the Council. However, the African Union rejected the initiative, and China, one of the Council’s five veto-bearing countries, also objected to the quartet, especially to Japan. The United States, another permanent member, had reservations about Germany. If Japan and Germany couldn’t make it, it seemed unlikely that any other states could gain permanent membership. And even if any did, would they also get the veto? And would expansion impede the effectiveness of the Council? Because of these nagging questions, Annan eventually decided to put off the issue until December. It is now unlikely that Security Council reform will happen at all.

In the meantime, UN diplomats were patiently stitching together a forty-page reform package. As they made progress, though, George W. Bush suddenly appointed UN antagonist John Bolton as UN ambassador in August. The notoriously combative Bolton, despite being a late entrant into the fray, demanded more than 700 changes to the document, including elimination of all mention of the Millennium Development Goals the United States backed in 2000 to eradicate global poverty–the very reason for this summit–as well as all references to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, global warming and enhancement of the General Assembly’s powers.

Bolton’s deletions, reflecting the Bush Administration’s continuing hostility to multilateralism, reopened the debate over reforms. The smaller nations, resentful of Bolton’s intrusion, now jumped in with their own alterations. The unhappiness of those countries was especially acute over security, human rights and management proposals. The call for the UN to intervene in cases where a government may be committing massive human rights violations against its own people–the “responsibility to protect” provision–upset many weaker countries, who feared it might give the UN the right to meddle in their domestic affairs. Some smaller states were also troubled by a recommendation to replace the oversized and flawed Human Rights Commission with a reduced Human Rights Council. Systemic violators treasured the old setup, and poorer states were irritated by the fact that there would be fewer spots for them on the new council. There was also concern about a proposal to give the Secretary General more power over UN management, taking such authority away from the General Assembly. This could amplify the influence of big donors and diminish that of impoverished states. And some Arab nations opposed a redefinition of terrorism that would outlaw targeting civilians to intimidate governments, believing it would hamper legitimate Palestinian self-defense.

In the end, some reforms did survive–enough to give the patina of transfiguration without its substance. Limited new powers were given to Annan to make personnel changes; the definition of terrorism was partially expanded; some form of UN intervention, with “ifs” attached, was permitted against genocide; a Peacebuilding Commission and a Democracy Fund, two noncontroversial favorites of the Bush Administration, were adopted; and rich Western lands now went on record promising to aspire, on a voluntary basis, to give 0.7 percent of their annual GNP to poorer nations. But most ideas were watered down, as in the Human Rights Council, or dropped entirely, including several nonproliferation ventures.

The most interesting sideline at the UN was Bolton’s role. After his dramatic appearance on the scene, bestriding the organization like a giant mustachioed tormentor, in the end Bolton compromised. The ordeal of negotiations temporarily defanged him. He was not able to issue threats or fire anybody or walk out. And the fact that he agreed to the modest deal thwarted the ambitions of his right-wing constituency in Washington; his settlement undermined arguments for legislation put forward by the reactionaries in Congress, primarily Representative Henry Hyde, that would have cut US dues in half if the UN did not pass thirty-two specific reforms by 2007.

What was overlooked during this struggle is that the UN Charter has actually changed a lot over the years without formal votes. This is most evident at the Security Council, which has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Under that rubric the Council has adopted all sorts of measures that were never mentioned in the original charter: peacekeeping, peace enforcement, cease-fires, election monitoring, constitution writing, nation-building, preventive diplomacy, arms inspections, military training and so on.

Nonetheless, there will now be a second stage for formal reform. Many UN members hope that an infusion of political energy generated in recent months will carry into the new General Assembly session. Some of the crucial alterations that remain include: fleshing out a Human Rights Council with specifics on how many members there will be and how they are chosen; enacting various nuclear nonproliferation measures; making obligatory the largesse of richer nations to poorer ones; upgrading Annan’s hiring and firing authority; widening the definition of terrorism; and reconfiguring the Security Council.

Pro-UN activists must be prepared to argue that virtual nonsuccess at the September summit does not make for a crippled or defunct body. After all, the UN now maintains sixteen peacekeeping missions; it has led the efforts to recover from the Asian tsunami; it has overseen elections in Iraq; and it is hunting down the assassins of a Lebanese leader who opposed Syria. It also handles transnational issues like environmental degradation, sexual trafficking, drug smuggling, nuclear proliferation and AIDS. It continues to serve as a round-the-clock diplomatic forum to stave off conflicts. But even if all the reforms are enacted, this would not make the UN act differently on catastrophes like Darfur. In such crises the organization’s effectiveness is dependent on the political will of the member states to mobilize, equip and fund it.

For those attempting to improve the UN, the key word should now be caution. In the past, UN reform has always been incremental. At a minimum, Americans should feel some satisfaction that after sixty years there still exists a collective security body that on so many occasions has fulfilled the mission of its founders to eliminate conflict.