World leaders next week will only mark the United Nations’ 75th anniversary virtually, as requested by Secretary-General António Guterres, due to the coronavirus. President Donald Trump may buck this trend and deliver his yearly U.N. General Assembly address in person, renewing his call to reject multilateralism in favor of nationalism. Nevertheless, this annual global confab offers an opportunity to recognize the world organization’s historic milestones over its three-quarters of a century, including preventing great power war, responding to numerous humanitarian emergencies, safeguarding basic human rights, and advancing sustainable development across all countries.
Alongside these qualified achievements are many low points. These include the continuation of large-scale interstate and intrastate conflicts and associated devastation; mixed results in promoting democracy and the rule of law; the ongoing proliferation of nuclear weapons and small arms; and the limited outcomes from nearly three decades of implementation talks under the 1992 the Framework Convention on Climate Change and 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity.
Seeking to learn from these failures but also to build upon the U.N.’s accomplishments, member States, 15 months ago, initiated preparations for a political declaration to be adopted by a leader’s summit, taking place on September 21 at the start of the annual “UNGA Week” in New York. Under difficult negotiating conditions, which were complicated further by the pandemic, a critical mass of diplomats, with support from civil society groups, set out to remake the case for the world body in an era marked by growing nationalism, authoritarianism, and other crosscurrents pointing to an “anti-multilateralist turn” in international affairs.
Among the most contentious diplomatic battles surrounding the text of the declaration were those fought over how to reflect shifts in global political power (Security Council reform), climate action (preserving the Paris Climate Agreement), and whether the U.N. would continue to champion human rights and inclusive governance (including women’s rights, civil society engagement, and the promotion of democracy and the rule of law). These divisive issues were further compounded by intensifying U.S.-China competition, by strains in major power cooperation owing to the pandemic, and by the Security Council’s inability to pass (until July 2020) a resolution endorsing Secretary-General Guterres’s March 23, 2020 call for a global cease-fire.
The president of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, and his two UN75 Declaration co-facilitators, Qatari Ambassador Alya Al-Thani and Swedish Ambassador Anna-Karin Eneström, had planned to conclude negotiations by U.N. Charter Day (June 26). However, consistent to form since 2017, the Trump administration twice nearly upended at the eleventh hour the carefully stitched-together, 193 country-consensus.
First, alongside the United Kingdom and other Western allies, as well as India, the United States “broke silence” (requiring the extension of negotiations) to signal dissent over language in the draft declaration purportedly used by Chinese President Xi Jinping in a speech on multilateralism. And second, and after 192 countries had expressed support by Charter Day, the United States broke silence once again and extended negotiations by another 11 days, until watered-down language was brokered on the Paris Climate Agreement.
Despite these headwinds, the co-facilitators, supported by members of the recently formed Alliance for Multilateralism (co-led by Germany and France) and the efforts of civil society networks (especially UN2020 and Together First), managed to secure consensus on renewing and strengthening the U.N. system, stressing the importance of rebuilding better and greener after the pandemic. Together, they championed the finalized text of the declaration with a positive vision and 12 commitments to action across the global agenda, including prevention of violent conflict in fragile states, protecting biodiversity, upholding arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament agreements, enhancing democratic governance and the rule of law, and urgently addressing issues of digital trust and security. In doing so, this loose coalition of like-minded States and non-governmental organizations had, in effect, begun to remake the case for the U.N.
Still, the recent “anti-multilateralist turn” represented, among others, by the rise of Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in the Americas, by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte in Asia, and by Brexit and the potency of far-right nativist movements across the continent in Europe, is far from dissipating. Rather, when combined with assertive authoritarianism (think Russia, China, and others), exclusionary forms of nationalism will continue to threaten the wider sense of community necessary to effectively manage quintessentially transnational issues, undermining the very structure of international order built during the waning days of the Second World War.
Learning from San Francisco (1945) … and Dumbarton Oaks (1944)
2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco Conference at which the U.N. Charter was signed. The success of this historic conference had critical precursors. In October 1943, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China agreed not just to prosecute the war to victory but also to face the urgent “necessity of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization … for the maintenance of international peace and security” to succeed the League of Nations, which had failed in its mission to prevent an even deadlier conflict than “the Great War” of 1914–1918. To flesh out this pledge, the “Washington Conversations on International Peace and Security Organization,” better known as the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, took place from August to October 1944.
The conference resulted in a set of “Proposals for the Establishment of a General International Organization.” These proposals included revolutionary ideas for their time, above all the establishment of a Security Council, which could decide by majority rather than by unanimity to take measures—including the use of force—to preserve international peace and security (though requiring the concurrence of its five permanent members). They also suggested widening the global agenda by introducing an Economic and Social Council. The “United Nations Conference on International Organization,” meeting at San Francisco from April to June 1945, consolidated international buy-in for these ideas. Although only partially representative of humanity, not least due to the existence of colonial empires at the time, the San Francisco Conference elaborated the details of the U.N. Charter and the novel ideas of Dumbarton Oaks, and it helped amass the political will needed to bring them to life.
The major allied powers were able, in wartime, to chart a bold way forward for world order at Dumbarton Oaks. The UN75 Declaration to be adopted next week by world leaders, prepared in the midst of a global health crisis whose scale and socioeconomic consequences are unprecedented and still growing, could, in the spirit of Dumbarton Oaks, lay the groundwork for a more definitive World Summit on Inclusive Global Governance in 2023 and more participatory and effective management of humanity’s global affairs. The proposed 2023 Summit may consider, for instance, ways to strengthen international justice institutions, upgrade and focus the Peacebuilding Commission on prevention, and enhance G20-U.N. relations to accelerate recovery from the pandemic.
The world’s governance institutions at all levels need to keep pace with growing global economic, social, political, technological, and environmental challenges and opportunities. Just as past crises and conflicts have ushered in new arrangements for global governance, the coronavirus and its knock-on socioeconomic effects, the imminent threat of runaway climate change, and the rise of exclusionary nationalism have created both the imperative and the conditions for a new “San Francisco Moment.” As underscored in our recent report, UN 2.0, seizing this moment will depend, in large part, on enlightened leaders who give equal weight to and pursue, simultaneously, both security and justice goals when considering how humanity can best tackle both emerging and long-standing transnational problems. Balancing the pursuit of security and justice in such a manner “that does not privilege one major concept over the other” but instead builds “a mutually supportive system of accountable, fair, and effective governance and sustainable peace globally” rests at the heart of the notion of “just security,” as emphasized in the 2015 Albright Gambari Commission Report.
In 2021—under the banner of “Recovery and Governance Renewal”—the twin, intertwined issues of COVID-19 socioeconomic recovery and global governance system-overhaul could drive preparations for the proposed 2023 Summit. These preparations should include proposed G20 Summits in Rome and Washington, D.C., and the annual U.N. General Assembly high-level gathering, much like the 2009 G20 heads of State meetings in London and Pittsburgh that joined up with broader U.N.-focused efforts in New York to rebound from the 2008/09 global financial crisis. Through this journey, the case for a reinvigorated U.N. could be remade, the largely unprecedented anti-multilateralist turn of recent years turned on its head, and the long-overdue modernization of the world body shepherded forward, so that it can anticipate and better respond to global risks, challenges, and opportunities—now in decades to come.
Image: The United Nations headquarters in New York is shown in this photo taken 12 August 2003. Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images