The United Nations has no military, cannot raise taxes, is older than many of its member states, and is increasingly seen as of marginal relevance to settling world problems. Its central objective, accepted by all member states, is to promote peace and avoid war. In September, only President Biden from heads of government of the Permanent five members attended the UN General Assembly in New York. On October 8th, the UN Security Council met to discuss the attack by Hamas on Israel and could not even agree on a statement. As the crisis lurches on with thousands dying, no one else wants to assume the UN’s tasks. What it does is indispensable, but fewer and fewer seem to care.
Many who came to the podium at the UN General Assembly did decry the state of world diplomacy or global governance. The UN was declared in 1945 in the name of ‘WE the peoples.’ But most world leaders now see little upside in attending the UN or openly supporting its work. Such groups as the G 20, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Council, African Union, and World Economic Forum Davos offer much more scope for self-promotion. And there is little pressure to make serious commitments for follow-up action.
Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, lambasted the member states at September’s General Assembly.
He reminded states of their obligations under the UN Charter: “If every country fulfilled its obligations under the Charter, the right to peace would be guaranteed. When countries break those pledges, they create a world of insecurity for everyone.” He no doubt had in mind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The UN’s legacy in establishing agencies to cover major international issues and convening meetings on climate, health, sustainable development, humanitarian assistance, and other global issues has been distinguished. But its future depends on states- particularly China, Russia, and the United States – viewing the emergence of a new world of order. Fundamental to the UN’s existence is that no one country can diplomatically solve problems that nations must solve collectively.
Years ago, Winston Churchill saw the dangers of the lack of commitment from the big powers to the United Nations:
“We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can some day be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.”
Major countries are now calling for reforms of the UN but are doing little to follow up. China has called for a just and equitable global governance system and accelerating the expansion of representation of Asian, African, and Latin American countries in the UN Security Council.
Russia sees a new world order being created – a ‘democratization’ movement against colonialism and a fresh alignment in global diplomacy. Russia has also called for new governance institutions to move away from Western domination of the current set.
President Biden in September praised the UN for its many achievements and pledged that the United States’ future is working with all nations. But he also sensed the need to update:
The UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has urged the world not to give up on multilateralism to work together to reform institutions and the global order. There is no guarantee the UN will survive-
If we are to confront future challenges that affect us all, we must use multilateral diplomacy, which sets aside populism and state-centered short-term gains. The obvious current example is Israel and Palestine. In 1947, the UNGA admitted the new state of Israel to the United Nations. In 1974, the UNGA recognized the right of Palestine to exist as a sovereign state. These collective decisions have not been realized, and the current attacks by Hamas now put them in jeopardy. Neighboring states like UAE and Bahrain have recently signed the Abraham Accords with Israel. Saudi Arabia was discussing a similar move. But states still seem to harbor long–held perceptions of their national political interests despite the work of the UN. Former President Trump is now calling again for a ban on Muslim travelers to the US even though he has extensive business interests with Saudi Arabia and his Administration promoted the Abraham Accords.
The United Nations needs a new commitment, a renewal of vows. Do we still want it as a consensus builder? It is we – the people and the countries- that are to blame for its failures. Many states prefer to look the other way when multilateralism is mentioned. The humanitarian leadership assigned to the UN in conflicts is increasingly spurned. The United Nations needs to continue to talk tough to its members and shareholders and could convene states to reaffirm the UN Charter’s key principles. It is only the states and their political leadership that can help the United Nations keep pace with the world. The G20, BRICS, and the World Economic Forum will never rise to those challenges.
Paul Webster Hare was a British diplomat for 30 years and the British ambassador to Cuba from 2001-04. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in international relations at the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.