Four distinguished panelists discussed the future of the United Nations at a February 5, 2004 Director's Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The panelists were Louise Fréchette (Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations), Jean David Levitte (Ambassador of France to the United States), John Ruggie (Kirkpatrick Professor of International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard), and Richard S. Williamson, (partner, Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw and former Special Ambassador to the United Nations for Political Affairs). David Birenbaum, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, chaired and moderated the panel.

Louise Fréchette said the UN faces some critical challenges that, if not properly addressed, could "relegate it to a secondary role in the handling of peace and security around the world." Specifically, she said the new challenges posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction require the UN to reevaluate its framework of principles and practices. The UN must also figure out ways to address issues regarding self-defense as defined in the charter. "Should it be redefined to allow for preemptive use of force? And if so, in what circumstances? According to whose authority? Is there a responsibility to intervene, an obligation to intervene in the face of massive human rights violations? If so, who should trigger it?" Fréchette said full charter reform, which requires two-thirds of member states and all five permanent members of the Security Council to affirm, is often problematic, but the UN has been reforming successfully for decades without much charter reform. "If the United States really wants to sit down and tackle [these issues], I think they will find receptivity from countries around the world."

Richard Williamson said the UN is hampered by structural and procedural problems that contributed to the "gridlock in the Cold War and that contributed to some of the gridlock now with respect to the anachronistic structure of the Security Council." Williamson said he thought the UN was particularly effective at helping to establish international norms and in post-conflict resolutions. However, he argued that there was a fundamental problem that kept the UN from being effective in other areas: "The real issue today is that there's significant divergence in the real world and that's played out in the real world. The UN did not create these divergences but in some cases they're magnified in the UN." Williamson said the world is less stable, now that it is no longer a bipolar world, and both the United States and countries around the world are learning to come to grips with the new shape of world politics.

Jean David Levitte said that "never before has the UN been more important and I am convinced that there is no more important debate today than the debate on the relations between the United States and the UN." He said the new globalized world requires new rules and that if those rules do not become enshrined in the charter of the UN, then "the rules will be the rules of the strongest power, and that is, in a nutshell, the law of a jungle because slowly the whole international order will unravel and, following the example of the strongest, the others will do the same." He said the UN should be praised for helping to build world consensus and for contributing to the betterment of daily life through specialized agencies like the World Health Organization. He concluded by praising the United States as the world's leading democracy with the best human rights record, but encouraged the United States to engage the world community. "Everyone in the world is looking and trying to hear the message of the United States. So when you decide to participate in the international institutions, you lead, and you lead us to a better world, and all the others are ready to participate fully. So please, participate fully."

John Ruggie pointed out that the end of the Cold War marked an end to a "rivalry [that] had imposed a certain disciplining effect on the United States. We were in an ideological battle with an adversary and we didn't want to look bad as we were competing for allies. This drove us to support and engage multilateral institutions and forums if only for political cover. I think one of the basic facts of life is that now Prometheus is unbound." He said that fact applies no matter who is in the White House or which party controls Congress. "No administration can afford to, nor should it, concede truly vital interests for the sake of international harmony. The international community is not a suicide pact." He said that this means the United States will "go it alone" from time to time, which will naturally create friction with other countries and international institutions. How much friction and how serious it will be depends on three factors, Ruggie says: First, on how quickly the American policymakers and American people reach a consensus, "not simply about the fact that we have unrivaled power, but also about the new rules governing its scope and utility." Second, on who is in power. Bill Clinton, Ruggie pointed out, was more sensitive to multilateral concerns than George Bush is. Third, on how others respond to American power. Ruggie argued that other countries would be wise to "offer viable alternatives and leave enough room for domestic US groups to engage in and support international efforts to resist bad policies." He concluded by insisting that there needs to be a "reasoned dialogue" on preventive wars. He argued that the Iraq war was not preemptive, as the Bush administration claimed it to be, but rather was preventive. Until there is a legal foundation that governs the appropriate circumstances for preventive military action, there can be no international consensus.