The UN is, along with the world, at a moment of crisis. While American tensions with its two fellow Security Council members have grown under the erratic new incumbent of the White House their origins predate him. Indeed, it is not that under President Trump’s predecessor President Obama UN had had an easy ride. There was already a gridlock on the Security Council around many issues, most notably Syria.
There simply is not sufficient trust and agreement at the top of the Council to allow the constructive engagement with regional powers to enable sustained realistic conflict mediation. And so across the world bush fires are going untended and risk becoming forest fires. Some issues may find their own bitter resolution as conflict reaches a point of equilibrium. Syria is possibly an example of this. Essentially, there the fire may be burning itself out.
However, other disputes remain very alive and contain within them the high risk of regional conflagration: the civil war in Yemen, the dispute between Qatar and Gulf neighbours, the continued instability in Iraq, and the still unresolved issue of Palestine reflect one region’s unresolved conflicts. Further, the already cold relationship between Iran and the United States is likely to worsen as Washington buckles down for the review of Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement.
Across the world there are similar strains appearing in the global political order that has broadly prevailed since 1989. In Asia there is evidence of countries rebalancing towards China. This triangulation, where the old US alliance is balanced by a newer economic and political relationship with China, is more insurance against the decline of American power in the region than wholesale reversal. The conflict in the Korean peninsula has to be seen in the light of that changing power balance and it is striking the Security Council has not been able to shift the lead responsibility for managing North Korea’s nuclear missile threats to China, the permanent Security Council member most directly affected. Instead it remains a front for US-Chinese geopolitical competition in the region rather than a genuinely shared security problem.
The Security Council has always been only as good as the willingness of its members, particularly its permanent members, to cooperate. So it had a bleak Cold War period before 1989 followed by a burst of collaborative activity after that. Today it is once more back on the margins of a growing international disorder that its own members’ distrust rob it of the authority to manage. It is that broken trust of international relations that leads to the dysfunctionality of the Council and not vice versa.
Unlike the pre-1989 period there is not a two Superpower order to keep some kind of cynical peace. Instead we seem to be headed into a world of increasing local conflict without any agreement on how to contain its spread.
Is there anything new and very able UN Secretary-General António Guterres can do at his first General Assembly to reverse this decline of the Security Council? He inherited a UN which was despondent and demoralized at the way it has been left on the sidelines of so many issues in recent years. He has focused in his first year on rebuilding its authority particularly second tier crises which do not attract attention or at least the active involvement of major powers. He has been active on a number of very important conflicts such as the Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Venezuela. He has even fruitlessly given of his own time negotiating long running sores of the UN such as Cyprus.
So far he has not scored the early diplomatic victories which might begin to turn around the UN’s fortunes. He is a talented leader and enjoys strong support across a Security Council that can agree on little else. So it is much too early to rule out his ability to begin to turn things around.
However, the omens across the wider UN activities are not good.The outspoken UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid is battling the deterioration of human rights across many countries. The plight of the Rohingya, Muslim population from Myanmar is just his latest prominent cause. Although he is speaking to a fine UN tradition of leadership on this agenda it is notable how lonely his voice seems to be in the current UN. Too many national leaders at the moment deride the liberal international value system of rights and the rule of law that are the core of human rights work.
The UN under the previous Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon hid from its failure on political and security issues by being a leader and convener on climate change and sustainable development. On sustainable development at least there is likely to be plenty of activity this week around the UN General Assembly as there is a broad coalition of both governments, international organisations, non-governmental organizations, and business which are committed to this agenda. It may provide a rare ray of light.
On climate change, however, there will be similar enthusiastic activity but the prospects are more ominous. President Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement has put a hole beneath the waterline of the climate change agenda. On the one hand, a number of corporates, governments, big city mayors and others remain resolved to meet the challenge of slowing the rate of global warming. So there will be plenty to celebrate in New York. On the other hand, for states looking for a way to put off expensive adaptation President Trump has given them the excuse.
Across all its activities, the UN is the sum of its member-states and their priorities and values. These are difficult times at home and abroad for many countries. It is an age of populism and angry nationalism in many quarters. For the UN with a deep culture of international co-operation based on values of its Charter it is therefore an uncomfortable moment. Many will despair at the UN this week and question its continued relevance. They should remember if the UN needs fixing so does the world.
Lord Mark Malloch-Brown is Former UN Deputy Secretary General (2006)