by Richard Kinley, Georgios Kostakos and Harris Gleckman*
On 21 September 2020 world leaders will observe the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, mainly through the delivery of pre-recorded speeches and not physical presence in New York because of Covid-19. Is the UN going hybrid/virtual and transitioning to the next phase of its existence, or is it dying away, the virus being one of many blows suffered by the world body?
When it was established, at the end of World War II, the UN was the symbol of a new beginning. More than a symbol, it also offered a mechanism to strengthen international cooperation for peace, development and human rights for all. Its centrality was guaranteed by the participation of the undisputed primary war winner, the USA, and had integrated the other key powers in the permanent members of its Security Council.
Seventy-five years later it is remarkable to see the organization still standing and with a rich, if somewhat mixed, record to its credit. This article is meant for looking into the future, but a quick reference to the UN’s successes in the past can help to put things into perspective: no generalized war in 75 years (despite the Cold War confrontation and many regional proxy wars), national self-determination and decolonisation that brought the UN membership from 51 in 1945 to 193 today, the Universal Declaration and other human rights instruments, peacemaking and peacekeeping missions around the world, fighting poverty and disease, technical cooperation in telecommunications, postal services, food and agriculture, labour rights and environmental protection, among many other things.
Multilateral cooperation is based on working together and not blatantly putting this or the other country first, it is about pursuing an enlightened, more long-term national interest rather than one focused on “immediate satisfaction”
On this basis the UN should have a strong claim for a further lease to life, another 25 years at least, to reach the venerable age of 100. Somehow, though, the central political organization, and several of the specialized agencies associated with it, look quite pale and are seen to be struggling to keep up. The emergence of nationalist leaders is not helping. Multilateral cooperation is based on working together and not blatantly putting this or the other country first, it is about pursuing an enlightened, more long-term national interest rather than one focused on “immediate satisfaction”. Moreover, the balance of power has shifted in 75 years and what used to be major powers in the immediate post-World War II period are now middle-range powers holding fast to prior prerogatives. This does not apply to China, of course, which has emerged as a superpower that now sees the UN system as fertile ground for expansion of its soft power, as the US used to do in past decades. Last but not least, challenges have emerged that are very complex and hard to handle, like climate change, pandemics, the internet with its bright and dark sides, mega-corporations and super-rich people who command greater assets than entire countries, sophisticated criminal and terrorist networks.
It is difficult to know where to start from and what to do to respond to all these issues, especially when the countries that compose the UN’s membership are very divided among themselves and some are even aggressively undermining the value of collective decision-making and action. Going it alone may be no solution, but at the time of apparently unsolvable problems and of superficial media politics, blaming others is the easiest way to divert voters’ attention and maintain power while advancing small group interests.
Now then in comes Covid-19! Physical meetings are no longer possible and the UN goes to quarantine, its organs struggling to stay operational through improvised hybrid rules. A cacophony of mutual recriminations fly, among and within countries, about who is responsible for the pandemic’s start, who should be doing what, what the experts advise and who are the experts to be listened to, who will get the vaccine first to save their potential voters, etc. We know well what all this means: global economic downturn, health insecurity, the climate crisis advancing unabated, food insecurity worsening. If this cacophony is the result of 75 years of collective action in a framework of global rules overseen by the UN then either the rules are no longer valid or the overseer has a serious problem, or both.
Despite the many negative signs we choose to remain optimistic. After a series of brainstorming sessions with former UN Secretariat officials, academic experts and representatives of countries and civil society we are proposing two bold measures forward, for the UN75+25 period: a new narrative of hope and a Global Resilience Council. We present them briefly below with the full proposals available on the FOGGS website.
…the current narrative of division, conflict and despair needs to be replaced with a unifying narrative of hope and resilience pointing to a new beginning…
First, the current narrative of division, conflict and despair needs to be replaced with a unifying narrative of hope and resilience pointing to a new beginning after the converging climate, Covid-19, economic and other crises. It should be a story of ethical behaviour and solidarity and of human well-being with investment in universal healthcare, a new economy, and a new respect for the natural world. Among its novel elements should be to declare a resilient and equitable economic system characterized by fair incomes and fair taxation as a global public good. Cyberspace needs to be recognized as a vital resource and common space of all humanity. The UN Secretary-General and other senior UN system officials should come out and courageously articulate such a narrative despite potential clashes with nationalist leaders and economic interests.
Creating a new Global Resilience Council is a global governance necessity for mounting comprehensive responses to risks that cross a certain threshold in threatening the resilience of humanity, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.
The agenda of international issues demanding multilateral cooperation has changed significantly since 1945. They require a new body within the UN that gives equivalent attention to “soft security” issues as the Security Council now does to traditional security matters. Attempts to change the Security Council to make it more representative in composition, abolish or restrain the use of veto and make it responsible for “soft threats” to security have not led to much over the years. Creating a new Global Resilience Council is a global governance necessity for mounting comprehensive responses to risks that cross a certain threshold in threatening the resilience of humanity, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. Like the Security Council the new body should have “teeth”, for example being able to give directions to UN system entities and other bodies and being able to consider sanctions or withdrawal of benefits from institutions/countries aggravating a global crisis. In a major innovation the actual membership of this council would include regional organizations like the European Union and the African Union, and non-state actors.
In conclusion, the world needs a vision, along with international cooperation and multilateral institutions up to today’s challenges. The people of the world want a UN system that reflects, and speaks to, their aspirations and that helps to solve today’s problems in creative and innovative ways. There is hope if we want to see it and ideas that can get us out of the depths we currently find ourselves in. There are coalitions of countries like the Alliance for Multilateralism that can mobilise for these ideas, with the support of civil society and experts. Hopefully the broader public will focus its mind and raise its voice for the leaders of the world to hear: we need to rebuild multilateralism and start collective action afresh if we want the UN, and humanity in general, to have a happy quarter century ahead. It is in everyone’s interest.
*Richard Kinley, Georgios Kostakos and Harris Gleckman are respectively President, Executive Director and Member of the Advisory Board of FOGGS – Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (https://www.foggs.org). All three have significant experience as UN staff members in the past.