NEW YORK (IDN) – “Adlai Stevenson, President Kennedy’s Ambassador to the United Nations, rebutted UN critics by recounting Adam’s marriage proposal to Eve. When she hesitated, Adam asked ‘is there somebody else?’ Stevenson concluded that much good had been done, also some harm, but there was nothing else. That was then,” recalls Dr Franz Baumann, and adds: “What about now?”
The following is the first of two rounds of Dr Baumann’s stimulating exchange with Dr Chris Ankersen posted on PAIRAGRAPH – A Hub of discourse between pairs of notable individuals. The second round will be launched in the next days also on the link: https://pairagraph.com/dialogue/f47ba870e06d4df2b0cccef483592d82.
While the former UN Assistant Secretary-General is generally optimistic about the future of the world body despite all agonizing complications, Dr Ankersen argues: “The fate of the patient is sealed. The United Nations, born from the ashes of the Second World War, celebrates its 75th birthday this October. It will not live to see its 100th.”
Below the views of Dr Baumann in the conversation:
Barring a cataclysmic event, such as a nuclear war, I have no doubt that the UN will survive the next 25 years. Survival, though, is a minimalist concept (the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon survived eight years in a coma). More than survival, the question is effectiveness. Will the compelling concept of multilateralism become relevant again? Or will the counter-narrative prevail: America first, Russia first, China first, Turkey first, Brazil first or whoever first.
Today’s challenges are complex, integrated and global. Yet, forces are gaining around the world, whose responses are simplistic, reckless and parochial. And whose protagonists are intolerant, authoritarian and nationalistic. Their precursors of the first half of the twentieth century were the challenge, and the establishment of the UN the response.
The UN emerged as a utopian project out of the catastrophe of World War II, the second global inferno within the space of a generation. In the 1920s and 1930s, the opportunity was missed to organize peace: Japan invaded Manchuria, Italy Abyssinia and Germany Czechoslovakia. Germany then ignited a global conflagration and carried out the genocide against the Jews. A new chapter in world history was to begin.
The idealistic vision was stunning, namely that states would cooperate, regardless how big, powerful, rich – or the opposite – they were. President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized that the creation of the United Nations heralded the end of a world order of unilateralism, military alliances, spheres of influence and other instruments, that had existed for centuries. His successor, Harry Truman, stressed that the rights of all people on Earth would be protected by the United Nations and that it was the responsibility of powerful countries to serve the world, instead of dominating it.
In 1945, the UN Charter was ratified by the US Senate by an overwhelming vote (89 to 2). It would not be today, and it would also be virtually impossible to convince the nearly 200 countries of the world (up from 51 in 1945) again to draft a Charter for world security and human progress. The sheer number of countries, their differing capacities, economies, interests and politics would not allow it.
I note thus with a sense of awe and nostalgia that the post-World War II peace was based on cooperation, not only among friends, but also among rivals and former enemies. Unlike ever before in human history (excepting perhaps the treatment of France at the Congress of Vienna in 1815), the victors did not seek revenge and thus did not plant the seeds for the next war.
One cannot emphasize too strongly the extraordinary idea behind the establishment of the United Nations: Cooperation. The UN was conceived as the institutionalized, ongoing cooperation of all the world’s states that would be confidence-building and reduce the anarchy in the international system.
But, 75 years on, that vision has faded. Legal norms are waning, and power politics are ascending. “The jungle is growing back,” as Robert Kagan observes.
Dr Ankersen argues:
Franz Baumann has correctly identified the symptoms, but his diagnosis is too optimistic: the fate of the patient is sealed. The United Nations, born from the ashes of the Second World War, celebrates its 75th birthday this October. It will not live to see its 100th.
As the patchwork effort at responding to Covid19 has demonstrated amply, ‘going it alone’ is a recipe for disjointedness, recrimination, and—ultimately—ineffectiveness. The United Nations is needed more than ever. And yet selfish ‘me first’ approaches have dominated the global response. These flaws, depicted so vividly in the context of a sudden onset, relatively short-term global pandemic, portend even more disastrous results in face of a slower moving, longer-duration crisis, such as that represented by global heating and climate change.
It is unclear whether the need for the UN will translate into action. Instead we can detect the harbingers of the demise of universal multilateralism. The UN relies upon two conditions for its survival, both of which are in dangerously short supply. The first, as Thomas Weiss has said, is that “[t]he political will…of the great powers, is always necessary for the UN to be effective.” The second condition is that the other states must view the UN as something more than a plaything of the Great Powers: it needs to offer a modicum of legitimacy and benefit for everyone.
In short, the UN must be regarded as more valuable than what it costs to maintain it. As it becomes less effective (as Franz has illustrated well) it enters into a death spiral. When it functions poorly, states—great and small alike—ask why they should continue to support it. A deficit of energetic leadership and a reduction in resourcing from the Member States will further hamper the Organization’s ability to deliver.
While the most acute threat to the UN seems to emanate from the Trump administration, the damage done to the Organization (in the shape of state concerns over its continued viability) cannot be erased by the outcome of a single election. Will a UN-friendly administration remain in the White House until 2045? Or will the American appetite for the UN wax and wane in rhythm with the fortunes of its political parties, contesting in a deeply, and increasingly bitterly, divided populace?
Some suggest that what the US has abandoned, China can take up. However, its support is equally self-regarding. Chinese officials will occupy positions and use them for the furtherance of narrow Chinese national interests. A Chinese judge on The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, for instance, is unlikely to rule against Beijing’s claims in the SCS.
This kind of instrumentalization is not wholly novel; but, regardless of who attempts it, it runs up against the need for the support, or at least acquiescence, of the other member states. Will the world find a ‘China First’ UN any more acceptable than an American one?
The UN is already on life support; it will not last another quarter-century. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 September 2020]
Photo: The name “United Nations”, coined by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt was first used in the Declaration by United Nations of 1 January 1942, during the Second World War, when representatives of 26 nations pledged their Governments to continue fighting together against the Axis Powers. Source: UN
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