The UN at Seventy-Five

James Denseiow

The UN marked its seventy-fifth birthday this month with a General Assembly like no other. Instead of the world’s annual diplomatic expo where leaders from all corners of the planet convene on New York, causing gridlock and transport chaos, the event is taking place virtually for the first time. Yet whilst this is due to the COVID-19 pandemic the growing trend in nationalisms is forcing the organisation, the pinnacle of multilateral governance into a period of self-reflection.

Famously the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold explained that “the UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” Indeed, World War III has not happened yet and on that single issue the UN can claim success. However, under its watch conflict has instead mutated and evolved from state to state wars to conflicts defined by internal struggles and the rise and rise of non-state armed groups. The UN has singularly failed via its array of mechanisms and resolutions to put an end to the wars in Syria and Yemen for example.

Contrary to global governance are countries adopting a them ‘first’ approach. Narrow nationalisms are largely blinkered to concepts such as enlightened self-interest and often struggle to express themselves beyond withdrawing from and undermining the rules-based order as it is. Observers have warned that whilst traditional General Assembly meetings force leaders to craft speeches to an audience of their peers, this year the virtual format could encourage endless speechifying designed for domestic audiences.

Populist leaders untethered by the physical presence of the United Nations headquarters are likely to speak directly to their own audiences rather than engage in any form of genuine debate. Indeed, those who work around the fringes of the organisation speak to a concern as to what relevance it has in a world where the larger powers prefer to act unshackled by global consensus or through their own more bespoke coalitions of allies.

The absence of America from its traditional role on the world stage is a challenge for the UN. Trump’s obvious distain for the organisation is reflected in his actions and his words, or lack of them – choosing to send someone else to the UN this year. Interestingly whilst US influence diminishes within the body others are looking to fill the vacuum, particularly the Chinese who are investing more and more in the UN and will surely take it in a new direction of travel if a second term Trump Administration continues to haemorrhage interest in it.

China’s President Xi Jinping set down a marker for his country’s greater role in a more multipolar and less multilateral world on Monday, explaining that “no country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others, or keep advantages in development all to itself. Even less should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world. Unilateralism is a dead end.”

China is keen for the UN to avoid being overly focused on the internal affairs of its member nations, something that has arguably prevented the organisation from being more effective in addressing the civil wars of the modern day. If the notion of a ‘responsibility to protect’ was the high-watermark of a multilateral world in which states agreed, in instances like Libya, that they would intervene to prevent the loss of civilian life, then this years General Assembly feels a world away.

Trump remains desperate to withdraw US troops from conflicts or stations overseas and when asked to justify why some still remain uses narrow economic self-interest, such as in the case of Syria when he explained that; “we’re out of Syria, other than we kept the oil. I kept the oil. And we have troops guarding the oil. Other than that, we’re out of Syria. So we’re out of Syria, except we kept the oil”.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is walking a tight and difficult line in ensuring that the UN can effectively ensure continued relevance and purpose in this choppy period of global affairs. As he put it; “no one wants a world government – but we must work together to improve world governance.” Nowhere could the continued need for the UN be more demonstratable than if it were able to bring together an effective global response to the global challenge of the COVID pandemic. That surely is the moment for the UN at 75 to remind us as to why it should make it to 100.

by : jamse danselow