It’s not just Trump and the World Health Organization’s botched response to the coronavirus that have left the global body on life support
Asian discontent over a Security Council based on the ‘victors’ of World War II that ignores Japan and India has left it struggling for relevancy
celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2015, then secretary general Ban Ki-moon sought to emphasise that the organisation’s inadequacies – plentiful as they were – did not outweigh its successes.
Were there no UN for the world’s nations to sit down and discuss issues, “I’m afraid to tell you the world might have been much bloodier, much more tragic”, Ban said in a press conference.
At the time, the response might have placated critics. The UN was by and large achieving its founding objective of “keeping generations from the scourge of war”, and despite its numerous dysfunctions, it remained the engine of multilateralism.
Its major backers, especially top donor the
, were vested in the idea of the UN.
Fast forward five years to the UN’s 75th anniversary – being marked on Saturday as UN Day – and there are more questions than answers about the direction of the world body and its 15 specialised agencies.
Washington’s concerted retreat from the post-war global order under the “America First” leadership of President
, along with the strain on the UN arising from the
, are fuelling the latest crisis of confidence in the body.
In interviews with
, former top UN officials and other commentators cited these factors – along with the
(WHO) botched response to the
– as key reasons for their uncertainty over what lies ahead for global governance.
In Asia, frustrations with the UN also have do with how its current power structure has failed to reflect present-day realities – with permanent membership and veto powers in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held by five countries seen as victors of World War II.
Ten other countries rotate for two-year terms on the council, with allocation given to various regions.
are among the handful of middle powers seeking a permanent presence in the elite grouping that makes decisions on sanctions,
Such a change requires the agreement of not only the five veto-wielding countries – the US,
– but also a green light from two-thirds of the 193 member states.
Takahiro Shinyo, a former Japanese ambassador to the UN and Germany, said while the UN continued to do critical work in areas such as humanitarian assistance and advocacy for
action, it was inevitable that judgments would be made on its failures rather than its successes.
In an interview with Associated Press in June, the present secretary general Antonio Guterres said the world body’s single biggest success in its 75 years of existence was the avoidance of “mega-confrontation” between major powers.
Shinyo concurred, saying the UN’s work was “the same as deterrence [where] you don’t know if it works but you know when it’s gone”.
Nonetheless, the UN’s shortcomings have major implications.
For Indian lawmaker
, who served nearly three decades at the UN and rose to become one of its undersecretary generals, the coronavirus pandemic shows how “our world, increasingly riven by incompatible nationalisms and sovereignties, seems less willing to cooperate and also less able to do so”.
Had global governance been working, Tharoor said, an alarm would have sounded early on in the public health crisis that in turn would have allowed for the identification and publication of best practices to prevent or limit the spread of Covid-19.
“That this did not happen is a damning indictment of our new world disorder,” Tharoor said in response to emailed questions.
And even if the circumstances surrounding the once-in-a-generation public health crisis were to be discounted, the ongoing superpower competition was blunting the UN’s ability to serve as a guarantor and arbiter of international peace and security, commentators said.
The UN’s 15 specialised agencies have emerged in recent years as among the proxy arenas for the US-China rivalry, as both sides seek to bring the institutions under their diplomatic umbrella.
Chinese officials now lead four of the agencies, more than any other country.
With the creeping bifurcation, the UN system of the coming decades could resemble the world body of the Cold War era, rather than the “aggressive multilateralism” that helped expand the world body’s work in security, politics and
during the 1990s, said former UN No 2 Mark Malloch-Brown.
“The contest between the US and China will … likely drive the UN to where its main wins and successes are in the development and humanitarian spaces, not in the political,” said Malloch-Brown, who also served briefly as a junior minister in the British government.
For the most part, the experts who spoke to
acknowledged that whether the UN would be fit for purpose in the decades to come depended heavily on the pace with which countries pursued reform of the UNSC.
The topic is perennially discussed, and while there is widespread acknowledgement that veto powers conferred only on the so-called P5 nations do not reflect 21st century geopolitical dynamics, there is little impetus for change.
A pitch in September by the G4 grouping that comprises India, Japan,
– all vying for permanent membership on the UNSC – for time-bound, text-based negotiations for reform was swiftly rebuffed by China.
In a speech delivered subsequently to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Indian Prime Minister
made his frustration clear, saying that “people in India are concerned whether this reform process will ever reach its logical conclusion”.
He asked: “How long would a country have to wait, particularly when the transformational changes happening in that country affect a large part of the world?”
In a display of the UNSC’s dysfunction, the council wrangled for months over a straightforward resolution to back Guterres’ call in March for a “durable humanitarian pause” in all armed conflicts amid the pandemic.
The resolution was finally passed in July after delays brought on by a standoff between China and the US over whether to reference the WHO – which is in the crosshairs of Washington – in the document. The final resolution adopted by the UNSC did not directly mention the world health body.
Shinyo, currently a professor at the Kwansei Gakuin University, said he believed “whether the UN will exist for the next 25 years and reach its 100th anniversary depends on the realisation of UNSC reform”.
And Tharoor, a long-time advocate for that reform, said without the changes there would be “less willingness among the excluded to accept its decisions as legitimate since the body making those decisions would be widely seen as out-of-date and unrepresentative”.
He said: “Since the UNSC makes decisions – like imposing sanctions – that affect a number of member states who are not party to those decisions, its credibility will suffer grievously if states disregard these decisions because they start seeing them as illegitimate.”
Sreeram Sundar Chaulia, dean of India’s Jindal School of International Affairs, meanwhile suggested the change was more urgent than ever given the need for “weaker countries” to protect themselves from the fallout of the US-China rivalry.
Amid the P5 nations’ intransigence over substantial reforms, Shinyo said the likely outcome in years to come was the introduction of “semi-permanent” memberships for aspirants such as Japan and India.
Said the former Japanese diplomat: “The first step is not to seek the best solution, but to find a common denominator and to agree on an intermediate plan that is not a way to punish someone or make someone unilaterally profitable.”
Former UN deputy secretary general Malloch-Brown agreed, saying he believed revolving long-term memberships alongside some shorter memberships would “make the UN a serious political and security force again”.
Other commentators, however, suggested focusing solely on UNSC reform was akin to missing the forest for the trees.
Alanna O’Malley, a scholar of the UN’s 75-year history at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, said it was evident from past developments at the UNGA – where all 193 countries are represented but resolutions are non-binding – that the larger body was more receptive to multilateral cooperation.
The parliament-like body marked September’s session – held via videoconferencing due to the pandemic – with a declaration that said “multilateralism is not an option but a necessity as we build back better for a more equal, more resilient, and more sustainable world”.
“Because there are more members, you are not just left with the same kind of conversation between the P5 that we have had in the last 75 years,” said O’Malley, who is also chair of UN Studies in Peace and Justice at the Netherlands’ Leiden University.
Others pointed out that the malaise over UNSC reforms should not prevent countries from advocating for changes and rationalisation in other parts of the vast organisation.
For instance, Rebecca Brubaker, a senior adviser at the UN University’s Centre for Policy Research, suggested that preventive diplomacy efforts – where political disputes are forestalled from becoming full-blown conflicts – could be stepped up through the establishment of more UN regional political offices. At present there are three such offices, serving central Africa, West Africa and the Sahel region, and Central Asia.
In the past decade, on-the-ground staff from these missions have defused tinderbox situations in the likes of Gambia and Gabon.
Asked what smaller nations with limited resources could do to further their interests at the UN, with the superpowers slugging it out with each other and middle powers also engaged in rivalries, the experts stressed there was strength in numbers.
“I think it’s important to point out that a tense relationship between the superpowers does not disavow other countries of their agency,” said O’Malley, the Netherlands-based UN historian. “It doesn’t stop them achieving what they want to achieve at the UN, because there are 191 member states even when the two superpowers are not having a positive relationship.”
As for the long-term future of the UN, countries’ actions within the organisation’s framework in the aftermath of the pandemic would offer a glimpse of what is to come, Tharoor said.
“If a silver lining is to emerge – it can only be if – when the current pandemic is over, the globe gets together under UN auspices to learn lessons about what happened, and decides collectively how international systems and institutions can be strengthened and radically reformed to forestall its recurrence,” the lawmaker said.