A brutal, grinding war in Ukraine. Governments overthrown in Niger and Gabon. Lingering hostility over the Covid-19 pandemic and the unequal distribution of life-saving vaccines.
With dozens of world leaders descending upon New York for the United Nations General Assembly’s annual gathering, global problems are showing up fast and thick at the world body’s door — with no solutions in sight. And many countries are starting to look elsewhere to do something about them.
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The UN, once the central forum for trying to solve geopolitical disputes, is increasingly on the sidelines of the new global politics, unable to keep up with the array of shocks, crises and coups that seem to be fracturing the world. That’s been evidenced by its powerlessness to intervene in places where in years past it would have been front and centre — Niger’s coup this summer, for example, or Haiti’s most recent plunge into chaos.
It’s a plight that even the US — which helped shape the UN at its founding in a push to cement American leadership — has come to acknowledge. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made that clear in a speech last week, describing the upheaval in almost apocalyptic terms.
“What we’re experiencing now is more than a test of the post-Cold War order — it’s the end of it,” Blinken said. “Forging international cooperation has gotten more complex. Not only because of rising geopolitical tensions, but also because of the mammoth scale of global problems.”
Of course, officials have been declaring the UN irrelevant and predicting its demise for so long that it’s practically a cliche. But the sense of malaise feels particularly acute this year. As the Ukraine war grinds on, the Security Council has been paralyzed because of Russia’s place as a permanent member of that body.
If the countries that dominate the UN keep resisting reform, the global south will have no choice but to seek options outside the UN system, including those offered by China, a developing-nation diplomat said, asking not to be identified to speak frankly.
Russia is now weighing weapons deals with North Korea in open violation of UN sanctions it once voted for. The UN brokered a deal to export Ukrainian grain despite the conflict, only to see it collapse when President Vladimir Putin walked away, a decision that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said would “strike a blow to people in need everywhere.”
“The UN is as it has been — the divisions in the world order have prevented its effective functioning for some time now,” said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank.
Other countries that have long sought to shake up the UN now look beyond it. India and Brazil, long advocates for such reforms, are steering more of their energy toward the Brics grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. India’s also focusing on the so-called Quad that consists of the US, India, Japan and Australia.
China, with an eye to displacing the US, has led the global effort to disrupt the existing world order, pushing to expand Brics in August by inviting Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Argentina, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates, the first expansion of the group in over a decade.
“We should help reform global governance,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping told the Brics leaders in a speech deploying thinly veiled criticism of the West. “Ganging up to form exclusive groups and packaging their own rules as international norms” was unacceptable, he said.
It’s a telling sign that this year, President Joe Biden will be the only leader from among the five permanent members of the Security Council to show up in person at the General Assembly debate. The heads of state from China, Russia, France and the UK are all staying home.
Some nations put the blame squarely at the feet of the US. After seeking UN Security Council blessing for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US went ahead anyway when the body declined to do so. Former President Donald Trump shook the organization to its core with his decision to quit the World Health Organisation, a move Biden later reversed.
US officials have repeatedly acknowledged the need to make the United Nations reflect the world as it is, not as it was at the world body’s founding after World War II. But the US voice has also been diminished given the possibility that Trump could return to the US presidency in 2025 and shake it up once again.
“It’s been true for a while that the United Nations is not the only game in town, and that’s increasingly the case,” said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You do have fissures that have emerged, and one problematic aspect is that those fissures run not simply east-west, but also north-south.”
There’s also outright internal animosity. Much of the problem can be traced to the Covid-19 crisis, when poor countries felt abandoned by richer ones that hoarded vaccines. A similar fault line is emerging over the climate crisis, with low-income countries resentful that rich ones responsible for most of the world’s pollution are asking them to limit their own output.
“Many low-income countries now find themselves looking for new partners or wondering if the only viable course of action is to try to solve their problems alone,” Mark Suzman, the chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote in Foreign Affairs.
Even those governments that want the UN’s support find themselves shut out. Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, has long sought access to the UN system or at least its protection — an idea that the leadership in Beijing has refused to countenance.
“It’s very disappointing that the Security Council isn’t able to respond in an effective way to serious breaches of security around the world,” Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US, Hsiao Bi-khim, said in an interview. “We’re all aware of our shared interests and agenda in keeping global peace. That’s why the UN was founded.”
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