Hope for a new ‘UN moment’

Flag of the United Nations flying in a cloudy blue sky
Editor's note:

This op-ed was originally published by Project Syndicate.

On September 21, 2020, the United Nations will mark its 75th anniversary with a negotiated declaration to be endorsed at a high-level meeting the same month. The U.N.’s member countries should turn the event into a rechristening.

The U.N. was founded after World War II, after the Allied powers defeated a regime motivated by an ideology of pure evil that had inspired and even claimed to justify unspeakable, industrial-scale atrocities. The U.N.’s creation was a watershed moment, inaugurating a new era of cooperation and multilateralism intended to prevent such a catastrophe from ever recurring.

But even before the U.N. was born, the other deep fault line that would determine the course of the 20th century was emerging. The onset of the Cold War, which divided the world between an American-led “West” and a Soviet-led “East,” dashed the high hopes that had been placed in the “U.N. moment” of 1945.

Today, the world is experiencing a different kind of catastrophe, with no end in sight. More worrying than COVID-19 are epidemiologists’ predictions that an even worse pandemic could hit us in the future. And even if we are spared from that scenario, climate scientists warn that global warming will inflict massive damage on human civilization unless we can achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050—a target that requires drastic action over the next decade.

Moreover, global regulation of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and human gene editing is urgently needed. These innovations hold great promise for improving human well-being, but would pose an even greater danger if misused.

The question, then, is whether this 75th anniversary could serve as another U.N. moment, an occasion for the world to come together behind a renewed multilateralism in response to the pandemic. While the current crisis is very different from a world war, it is arguably comparable in scale. As a truly global problem, the pandemic could be an impetus for much stronger internationalism under the U.N.’s auspices, at least in principle.

The UN75 Declaration is drafted in the anodyne language that has come to be unavoidable in such joint statements. To its credit, it refers to “applicable State commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement,” and mentions the “need to immediately curb greenhouse gas emissions […] in line with the 2030 Agenda” for sustainable development. It also calls for “reinvigorated multilateralism” as the only way to meet global challenges.

The text provides a useful broad vision, but does not break new ground. Coming in the middle of the pandemic, it is destined to disappoint those hoping that the magnitude of the current catastrophe will bring about a new U.N. moment this September. With the U.S. being governed by a transactional president who has no interest in global rules, and with the Sino-American rivalry steadily escalating, internationalists simply cannot expect more at this stage.

But there is hope yet. The declaration stipulates that the U.N. secretary-general should “report back before the end of the 75th session of the General Assembly with recommendations to respond to current and future challenges.” That means the report would arrive in the first half of 2021, at which point the United States might well have a new president, one who is far more willing to support a post-pandemic multilateral recovery effort. In other words, a new U.N. moment could arrive a half-year late for the 75th anniversary.

In any case, the U.N. should remain the central venue for pursuing multilateral efforts. It offers universal membership, which is an essential source of legitimacy in a world where many people still identify strongly with nation-states. While the G-20 accounts for over 80 percent of the world’s population and GDP, it nonetheless excludes the vast majority of the world’s countries.

The U.N. also has broad appeal, owing to its multi-level, multi-channel approach to global governance. It regularly convenes representatives of local governments, cities, civil society, and the private sector, so that all voices are heard. And in preparation for the 75th anniversary, it organized the largest-ever open global debate, through the “UN75 Dialogues” initiative.

Finally, it is important to remember that the U.N. is not just one organization. It is a system boasting a wide range of specialized agencies whose expertise can be deployed around the world (resources and legal hurdles permitting). It is even host to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, though they operate autonomously.

For all of these reasons, a renewed global multilateralism without the U.N. isn’t even conceivable. The COVID-19 crisis and the mounting warnings of crises to come should be sufficient to prompt a new U.N. moment in the first half of 2021.

Secretary-General António Guterres can help by submitting a report with recommendations that are comprehensive, daring, and ambitious. Now is not the time simply to accept existing constraints. The report should include, for example, creative proposals for reforming the anachronistic Security Council, which has long been incompatible with global fairness and realities. One idea would be to introduce gradual changes with weighted voting and/or a double-majority formula that accounts for population size, in addition to the number of countries in a group.

Even if only parts of the forthcoming report are endorsed, it could establish a future vision for democratic internationalism, as well as a blueprint for reforms over time. That vision should resemble the one that launched the U.N. in 1945, which embodied the triumph over an ideology of permanent conflict. Ideological victories are never complete. As the historian Robert Kagan puts it, the jungle can always grow back.

A truly ambitious vision will always be more aspirational than imminently achievable. Still, 2021 could mark a new beginning. Even a partial success would help to build a world where competition takes place within agreed rules, and where cooperation trumps conflict.