Challenges of today’s world require a reformed UN
As world leaders meet in New York this week for the 76th UN General Assembly’s high-level debate, many questions are being asked of an organization that has clearly become a sideshow, trying to pick up the pieces of an increasingly dysfunctional world. Short of major reforms to try and reclaim the reins of international diplomacy and multilateralism as the only vehicle to keep the peace in the world, the UN is in danger of withering into history. It is failing as a tool for nations to talk, rebuild confidence and find remedies, or at least manage the fallout caused by geopolitical divisions that have hindered the formation of a common approach to fighting a lethal pandemic and the imminent danger of climate change.
Though this week’s meeting is the first in-person gathering of leaders or their senior representatives since the pandemic began, I am yet to see any state calling for the UN to stay in session for longer as a means to reaffirm its member states’ seriousness in finding solutions to issues they can collectively tackle. If it was down to me, I would lock all the attendees in until they agreed to draw up a new mechanism that protects peace and prosperity all over the world.
The UN needs a more inclusive and functional mechanism that takes into consideration the changes that have hit the world politically, economically, socially and technologically. In 1945, the world tried to put the era of global wars behind it, so 51 countries devised a vision and mission for an organization that would work to protect peace and prosperity between nation states. Maybe there is now a need to go back to the drawing board to design an institution that not only deals with peace between nation states, but also between states and non-state actors, and between states and the tech giants. It also would not be an exaggeration to propose departments to deal with potential space and deep-sea conflicts.
I really don’t know how much pressure is building on world leaders or their agendas at the UNGA to ratchet up efforts to fight climate change or the pandemic as two examples connected to the survival of the whole planet, which ignore the pressing priorities of each individual nation and its domestic, regional and international challenges. In the Global North, the main priority of leaders is to mitigate re-election challenges. In the Global South, many so-called leaders oversee bankrupt countries or play a role in bankrupting them; hence, they are unable to save the planet or stop COVID-19’s spread.
In the Middle East, it is a mixture of the above that is curtailing efforts to fight global warming and the pandemic. In some Arab and Muslim states, neighbors or foreign powers are meddling in their affairs and distracting their efforts to provide people with 24/7 power, while in others the fight against imperialism hampers attempts to provide infrastructure that could supply clean water to the population, let alone guarantee basic freedoms or the rule of law.
If it was down to me, I would lock all the attendees in until they agreed to draw up a new mechanism that protects peace and prosperity all over the world.
Since the inception of the UN, alarm bells have sounded daily, weekly, monthly and annually to warn against the erosion of trust and the spread of conflict. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ warning of a new cold war between China and the US — and, I would say, between China and Russia on one side and the US and some of its allies on the other — is leading to “political fissures,” “confrontation” and contentiousness across the planet.
Guterres has been alluding to general trends challenging world peace and security, while specifically referring to three pressing issues leaders must address: The climate crisis, the pandemic, and Afghanistan’s future under the Taliban. Guterres called it a “fantasy” to expect the UN to succeed where a major alliance led by the US failed, reminding us of the limited capacity and leverage of the organization in the absence of an alignment of interests and goals among key world powers such as Russia, China and the US. The US-UK-Australia nuclear submarines pact, which was announced last week, is another source of friction to add to a very long list.
What is reassuring, however, is that Guterres, like many sincere advocates of peace and prosperity in this world, still believes the UN to be the vehicle that could cement a sense of stability for all around the world. Like him, I want to be an optimist against all the odds, but the tasks ahead will not be remedied by the alignment of the US, China and Russia, or even all five permanent members of the Security Council. Issues such as the erosion of the nation state, liberal democracy, freedoms and the rule of law have been exacerbated in many places by non-state actors, religious extremism and authoritarianism. And all of this is confounded by unruly big tech corporations whose tools work above and beyond any regulations, world order old or new, or ideology.
Two years ago, Guterres warned global leaders of the risk of the world splitting in two, with the US and China creating rival internets, currency markets, and trade and financial rules, while overseeing their zero-sum geopolitical and military strategies. In a more interconnected, interdependent and fluid world than ever before, old tricks are not working today and any Cold War 2.0 might be even more dangerous than the previous edition that emerged from the incomplete settlement struck after the Second World War. Today, the world must not wait for another arms race or virtual conflicts on Earth or in space to discover the need to go back to the drawing board to manage global cooperation, competition and conflicts for the generations to come. Turning the page on the pandemic is a test, while saving the planet from climate change could also be a new beginning.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.