It is said that nothing quite matches the impact of unintended dark humour for a reality check. This was validated by the line-up of speakers addressing the UN General Assembly on September 22. At around 10 am, US President Donald Trump addressed the UNGA. In his opening salvo, he blamed the pandemic on the ‘China virus’ and bluntly stated, “The United Nations must hold China accountable.” And then as he lauded the peace deal between Israel and the UAE, he claimed, “There is no blood in the sand.”
Trump was followed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey. He lamented the ineffectiveness of global mechanisms, argued for “effective multilateral institutions” and then went on to urge that the “Syrian-owned and led political process” under the Assad regime be allowed to succeed.
At around 10.30 am, it was the turn of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Predictably, Xi Jinping asserted that “any attempt of politicising the issue or stigmatisation must be rejected”. And then in a string of words which left irony gasping for breath, the Chinese President claimed China, “will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence.”
In the run-up to the 75th anniversary, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hoped for a revival of multilateralism through a grand consultation. What the commemoration witnessed instead is a near perfect metaphor, a view of the United Nations @ 75 in a divided world order.
It is true that there has been no world war since 1945. It is equally true that the UN has been less than able in resolving conflicts within the UN to halt those outside. The consequences of unilateral invasion of Iraq by the US and allies in 2003 are yet unravelling. The crisis in Syria is now nine years and six months old. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea — the very Crimea where the contours of the UN were defined amidst World War II. The war in Yemen, which has wrecked the country, is on since 2015. The list is long.
The US has frequently complained bitterly about ‘Gulliverification’ of the UN but the charge cuts both ways. The P5 — as the US, the UK, France, Russia and China are known — have used the veto to defeat multilateralism.
The UN has been effete when it matters most – best illustrated by its – and the World Health Organisation’s negligence – to the pandemic. The opportunistic use of powers by the Veto Club — for instance, by China against India on issues of terror funding in Pakistan, or Russia on use of chemical weapons in Syria, or by China and Russia on atrocities in Myanmar and Zimbabwe — is the primary cause of unattended tragedies.
The failings of the UN are located in its architecture. Appointments to specialised agencies are subject to gaming and post facto influence — the role of the WHO in the pandemic is a case in point. Power is vested in the composition of the UN Security Council which hasn’t changed since five decades. For 15 years, Japan, Germany, Brazil and India have argued for the expansion of the Security Council and a permanent seat in keeping with their stature. But this has been derailed by the P5 to maintain the interests of client states. Indeed, India with a populace of 1.4 billion and a $2.8 trillion economy has the same vote as the Republic of Nauru which has a population of 10,670 and a GDP of $160 million.
Meanwhile, China is using its chequebook and expanding its sphere of influence and hegemony, all tailored to derail rule of law and install its own order across geographies. The creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the promotion of BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation were aimed at luring subscription. Since then, pretence has given way to brazen defiance. The Belt and Road Initiative, potentially an environmental disaster in the making, the expansionism in the Himalayas and the South China Sea can only be characterised as imperialism with Chinese characteristics.
The fact is the world needs multilateralism like never before. The need to curb nuclear proliferation, to urgency combat climate change, resilience from pandemics and the imperative of trade and investment demand collaboration and collective intelligence. There are success stories within the UN. The UN Peacekeeping force has rendered yeomen service even in regions where there is no peace settlement. Its institutions — World Bank, International Monetary Fund, International Development Association, IFC, UNESCO — have enabled human and economic development.
The need for the UN or indeed a new UN is indisputable. So is the need for a new order. Dag Hammarskjold, the legendary UN Secretary-General, speaking to students at the University of California Berkley in May 1954, said, “It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven but in order to save us from hell.” That is true. It is also useful to remember the history of the 1815 Congress of Vienna and the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Frequently the road to hell is paved with lofty intentions.
The sustainability of multilateralism calls for fair and equitable terms of engagement. Recognition and roles must follow rise of nations and attainment. The institution campaigning for a rule-based world order must prima facie be based on rules and order not archaic notions.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit
Revolution, and Accidental India email@example.com