World leaders are gathering once again next week in New York for the seventy-seventh annual session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This unique gathering is an opportunity to mark important milestones in international cooperation—such as the endorsement by heads of state, in September 2015, of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or, though largely online due to COVID-19, the commemoration of the UN’s seventy-fifth anniversary in 2020 (UN75).
On this year’s agenda is nothing less than deciding on convening a Summit of the Future to overhaul and strengthen multilateral cooperation in an age of deepening rifts and increasing competition between the great powers. Secretary-General António Guterres had called for such a Summit in his seminal Our Common Agenda report of 2021, which Member States in the wake of UN75 had mandated him to produce. As further proposed by the Secretary-General, the Summit would culminate in a Pact for the Future, enshrining the most pressing reforms for the coming years. Many of these goals Our Common Agenda already outlines.
Even long before President Zelenskyy lambasted the UN’s dysfunctionality in an address last April to the Security Council, it was plain to see that the UN in its present set-up is incapable of delivering on its far-reaching mandate. However, in the current political climate, the level of ambition—in terms of the Summit of the Future’s preparatory process and outcomes—hangs in the balance. To grasp the importance of the Summit and its success, we need to first put it in the current context of hypercompetitive geopolitics and analyze the present debates about its organization through that lens. As we argue, a failure to convene a meaningful and ambitious Summit would be a lost opportunity, dealing a severe blow to the future of multilateralism.
Reform in an Age of Hypercompetitive Geopolitics
While there is a lot of talk of the “rise” of geopolitics in contemporary international affairs, it would be more appropriate to argue that besides a brief “unipolar moment” following the end of the Cold War, geopolitics and multipolarity were never truly gone. During the Cold War, many countries, the majority of which are today considered to be in the “Global South,” resisted bipolarity in the Non-Aligned Movement. The past three decades witnessed the emergence of China and the EU as increasingly prominent international actors, alongside the rise of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).
Moreover, during the post-Cold War period, the development of international rules and institutions never ceased. At times, effective global governance was hampered by power politics, of which the most prominent example continues to be Security Council gridlock, followed by nuclear non-proliferation. At other times, international agencies, civil servants, peacekeepers, and coalitions of small and medium-sized countries just stubbornly beat on, against the currents of great power competition, to manage global problems ranging from food shortages and refugee surges to diseases and conflicts.
But what is new today is a contemporary style of hypercompetitive geopolitics and overtly hostile relations between different poles of power. Chiefly responsible for present tensions is Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, a brazen violation of the world body’s Charter. Russia’s actions represent an escalation from a pattern of cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, and military aggression against neighboring countries. Not since the Cold War has such threatening language been used, as witnessed starting in February of this year, raising the specter of a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the West.
Additionally, China’s stepped-up pressure on Taiwan, resurgent competition between countries in space, the race to dominate artificial intelligence and other frontier technologies, and continued differences over the transition from fossil-fuels to renewables to halt runaway climate change, have intensified distrust and hampered cooperation between great powers, as well as between major groupings of powerful states such as the BRICS and the G-7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States).
Equally alarming is how, in the UN General Assembly (where no country has a veto), successive votes since early March have revealed the emergence of two divided blocs which view all UN issues, large or small, through the prism of the Russia-Ukraine war. More than simply suggesting that a country is pro-Russia or pro-Ukraine, the votes could portend the further fragmentation of the world along pro-authoritarian and pro-liberal democratic lines.
This all results in what the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell calls “a world shaped by raw power politics, where everything is weaponised and where we face a fierce battle of narratives.” In this battle, the West has repeatedly failed in upholding its narrative based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The Trump administration’s four years onslaught against multilateralism, democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, the oftentimes farcical and self-absorbed negotiations over Brexit, and rich countries’ episodes of hoarding COVID vaccines have left deep dents in the West’s self-professed role as champions of rules-based global governance that others can rally behind.
A Summit to Climb out of the Shadows
Whether global governance can continue to function—let alone be reformed—in the shadow of this unforgiving milieu is the key question for the coming years. The Summit of the Future and the debates surrounding its organization are an important litmus test for this.
There is evidence that the heightened tensions between great powers have already spilled over during the past two months into General Assembly negotiations on a “modalities resolution” on the specifics of the proposed Summit of the Future. Difficult to bridge divisions have emerged between Russia, Brazil, and Pakistan on one hand and the United States, European Union, and Japan on the other. These differences have included whether to hold the Summit in September 2023 or push it back to 2024; whether to endorse its outcome declaration by consensus or a majority vote; whether to provide for meaningful civil society engagement in its preceding negotiations; and whether to welcome the recommendations of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, which are scheduled to be released in early 2023. On Sept. 8, 2022, the modalities resolution was adopted, in which it was decided to push the Summit back to 2024.
Fueling this politically fraught backdrop were earlier vocal misgivings and even distrust expressed toward the Secretary-General by some Member States—including Russia, Brazil, Pakistan, Cuba, and Iran—regarding his Our Common Agenda recommendations to renew the UN system. This disapproval resulted in the watering-down of an otherwise straightforward follow-through procedural resolution approved, in November 2021, by the General Assembly, ultimately calling into question the value of such “consensus-based resolutions.” Indeed, sentiment is growing among Member States to allow dissenting votes on such resolutions without derailing them, including for modalities resolutions and major intergovernmental declarations that have historically operated through consensus.
To build greater trust and confidence, the President of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, convened, in early 2022, a five-part Our Common Agenda dialogue series. While well-intentioned, fundamental disagreements persisted during and following these consultations. Besides expressing sometimes opposing views toward the Secretary-General’s ideas for reworking the international financial system, fighting climate change, and reorganizing the UN budget, several developing countries, such as Brazil, Egypt, and Iran, expressed skepticism and cast doubt on the need for a Summit of the Future, while most advanced industrialized countries expressed broad support for a high-level, multi-stakeholder summit.
Meanwhile, the need to improve global collective action could not be more pressing. In 2022, the growing impacts of climate change have been felt across the globe, from prolonged drought in the Middle East and North Africa, to erratic monsoons in South Asia and record-breaking heat waves in Europe and China. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic—which reached the tragic milestone of one million deaths within the first eight months of this year—and the ongoing war against Ukraine and other violent conflicts have impeded global progress toward implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
These seventeen goals have been further undermined by the growing debt emergency facing many developing countries, which has exacerbated conditions for the now estimated 828 million people globally affected by hunger (a jump of 150 million since before the pandemic). Last month’s failure of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference to reach consensus among the great powers on a substantive outcome also reinforces the narrative of a global governance system in crisis.
As Secretary-General Guterres rightly noted in Our Common Agenda, “the balance between a global breakthrough and a breakdown scenario hinges on the choices we make now.” Therefore, the Summit for the Future could set the stage for a much-needed breakthrough in global governance; without ambition and results, it could equally represent a harbinger for its collapse.
The UN75 Global Conversation conducted in the lead-up to UN75 confirmed that billions worldwide support a system of global governance that values cooperation over discord and promotes an expansive notion of peace, where all peoples and nations have opportunities to live in free, safe, and habitable societies in harmony with nature and their neighbors. But without critically needed institutional and normative changes in the lead-up to the Summit of the Future, an international system that can effectively tackle global challenges—perhaps overcoming some of the most excessive trappings of great power competition—will soon be out of reach.