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Wednesday, 25 May 2022
The UN’s 2022 Vision
James Denselow

Dag Hammarskjöld – the second secretary general of the UN, famously said that; “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven but to save us from hell.” Speaking more recently one former senior diplomat described the UN as a mirror on the state of the world’s geopolitics. As we look ahead to the new year it is worth checking in on the effectiveness of the body that claims to speak for the 193 countries in it. 

The UN celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2020 in the shadow of the pandemic that suddenly meant that its most famous meeting, the annual General Assembly, was held virtually. Whilst there are seemingly few areas or issues that the UN isn’t involved in somehow, its primary mandate concerns peace and security, human rights and issues of development. All three of these areas are under significant pressure in this early part of the 21st Century. 

Whilst defenders of the UN will argue fairly that an organisation born of the ashes of World War Two has successfully averted another, potentially species threatening, global conflict its record when it comes to internal conflicts is a lot sketchier.  Indeed, the protracted uncivil wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, to cite three examples, are characterised by the multitude of actors both local, regional and global and an inability of the UN, either through its Security Council or good offices to find a resolution.  

The Security Council is of course the ultimate arbitrator of global governance but has entered a new phase of disfunction. The Cold War period saw the US and Soviet relationship, rather than global governance, dominate the planet. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union the unipolarity of the US as the world’s only superpower freed the UN up to be more assertive in a period some claimed would be the ‘end of history’. However, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent ‘War on Terror’ haemorrhaged US resources and legitimacy whilst Russia’s recovery and the fast-growing China would rebalance the state of global affairs. 

The rise of China is critically important for what the future UN looks like. Many would argue that the country has been underrepresented considering its size in the past, but it has steadily been upping its resourcing of the UN today being the 2nd biggest funder of the organisation. There are important debates to be had as to China’s view on some of the core UN functions, particularly whether their view of collective, as opposed to individual, human rights will hold sway in future.  

Back in states that are traditional supporters of the UN, like the US and the UK, there is a different debate linked to culture or identity wars that pits ‘globalists’ against ‘nativists’. One side sees the UN trying to set up a world government and the other wants it to do exactly that. This is a sensitive subject that supporters of the UN project will have to navigate to demonstrate added value without the dilution of sovereignty.  

Both Russia and China have traditionally viewed the limits of UN power when it comes to interfering with the internal affairs of states as a fairly red line. The decision to intervene in Libya in 2011 led to the eventual overthrow of the Gaddafi Regime and a significant loss of trust from Moscow in particular as to the limits of intervention. The emergence of a more conventional prospect of conflict between Russia and Ukraine could or should in theory be a moment for the UN to reassert its value, yet it has been largely absent in a space occupied by bilateral diplomacy between Washington and New York.  

Meanwhile the rise and rise of transnational non-state armed groups, cyber, space and hybrid warfare are just some of the challenges that the original UN was never set up to deal with. There are currently fascinating and crucially important discussions going on under UN auspices as to the governance of automated weaponry, for example, that if handled well could show the organisation adapting effectively to challenges of the day.  

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has just been elected for a second term in a role that is often described as more ‘secretary’ than ‘general’. As the world hopefully emerges from the era of the pandemic, he will attempt to reassert the value of the UN as it enters choppy waters like none it has faced in its history. He will do so by arguing that the UN and its ability to chart global solutions to global problems is more, not less, important than ever.


BY: James Denselow