May 7, 2023 ☼ The Intersection ☼ geopolitics ☼ United Nations
Unless political balance within the United Nations reflects current reality, the organisation will only get more marginalised.
This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
A civil war has broken out in Sudan. It will rage on, forgotten by the world once foreign governments have pulled most of their nationals out. It will remain ignored until the level of atrocities surges beyond the ‘normal’ that we’ve already become accustomed to. Like Syria, Myanmar, Yemen and half a dozen other spots, the conflict carries relatively little importance for countries not directly affected. Some countries and non-state actors benefit from the conflict economy. They launder money, sell arms, supply fuel and exploit natural resources. Sometimes neighbouring countries try to gain advantage by backing one side. Sometimes the belligerent seek the patronage of a major power. But mostly the conflicts are of peripheral interest to the major powers, which have bigger fish to fry. Without external dousing, the fire ends only when it burns itself out.
One entity is conspicuous by its irrelevance, if not silence. I’m referring to the United Nations, which has ended up what teenage gamers call a non-playing character (NPC) in international politics.
It was not always this way. When we got satellite television in the 90s, the UN was a major part of BBC and CNN news bulletins. It played an important role in international diplomacy over the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Middle East. Whatever the outcome, the United Nations Security Council was the big table. So much so that the unchallenged superpower of the day still found it necessary to make its case in New York and Geneva. Even if US diplomacy after 9/11 and its decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan were driven by a need to acquire legitimacy for things it was going to do anyway, the fact that it did so reveals the UN’s importance. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine shows how much that has plunged in the past two decades.
Aware of its fading relevance, the UN system is attempting endogenous change. In a recent briefing paper published by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Richard Gowan shows how the Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board of Multilateralism has been setting an agenda for change over the past two years. Another report is expected in June, ahead of a ‘Summit for the Future’ in September. These initiatives contain some fine ideas on conflict prevention, peacekeeping, nuclear risk reduction, arms control, artificial intelligence and autonomous weapon systems, climate change and gender equity.
Unfortunately, it is highly likely that the UN will fail in these areas even if world leaders approve of the agenda. That’s because none of them addresses the underlying reason for the UN’s growing irrelevance: its political structure. It resolutely reflects the balance of power of the Industrial Age of 1945, even as that power has not only massively shifted in the past three decades, but human civilization itself has entered the Information Age. Power, interest, authority, responsibility and accountability are extremely mismatched, and until this is fixed, the UN cannot reverse its course of increasing ineffectiveness.
But, as Gowan notes, “Many UN-based diplomats have, however, already concluded that (Security Council reform)… is infeasible.” This is not surprising. Large complex organizations seldom show an appetite for the bold changes necessary even when their survival is at stake. They tend to add more bureaucracy, more complexity, and look for flashy new things to do so that they appear trendy. They keep doing this until they are completely upstaged by competitors with new business models and organizational structures. Indeed, the UN Secretary General would do well to ask his high-level advisors to bite the bullet and come up with proposals on how the gargantuan UN system can be restructured to reflect today’s reality.
That’s the UN’s lookout. Since the late-2000s, when it became clear that the five permanent members of the Security Council were unlikely accept its expansion, I have argued that India must invest in creating alternative platforms for global governance. The formation of the G20 in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis offered us an option. We underinvested in it until this year, when it was India’s turn to head it. New Delhi must sustain the momentum even after the baton is passed on to other countries. If the G20 can become the nucleus of a new global high table over the next decade, we might not have to be overly concerned over the UN’s fate.
Some of the UN’s specialized agencies like Unicef and UNHCR do an admirable job under exacting circumstances when no one else will do it. They need to be strengthened and we might already be at a point where their work is impaired because of the UN’s political dysfunction. Just like how several pre-existing multilateral institutions came under the UN umbrella in 1945, could the UN’s components be spun off or attached to more effective international bodies? If this is heretical thinking, it is called for in the face of a failing orthodoxy. The tragedy is that the reform the UN really needs is also the type that none of its stakeholders will champion.
The odds that world leaders will give the UN a clear mandate for the future in September are slim. Even if they do, conflicts like the one in Sudan will go unchecked until major powers achieve some kind of stable balance. That is unlikely to happen at the UN.
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