AT THIS TIME of year New York City is normally gridlocked. World leaders and their delegations, as well as hordes of consultants and folk from non-governmental organisations, flood into town for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This year’s gathering was meant to be special, marking the 75th anniversary of the UN’s founding in 1945. But the constraints of covid-19 have ensured that the UNGA of 2020 will stand out in a different way: as a general non-assembly.
World leaders are not travelling to New York. Instead, they will deliver pre-recorded video messages to the session’s general debate that starts on September 22nd. Until recently it seemed that President Donald Trump might at least be an exception, coming to the UN to speak in person. But last week his chief of staff confirmed that he would stay away after all.
The formal commemoration on September 21st of the UN’s 75th anniversary will thus be a subdued affair. Even before covid-19 disrupted arrangements, it was planned to be low-key. The mood is strikingly different from the euphoria that greeted the organisation’s birth at the end of the second world war.
At the closing session of the conference in San Francisco that hammered out the UN’s charter, President Harry Truman praised the 50 founding countries for setting aside their differences “in one unshakable unity of determination—to find a way to end wars.” Since then the UN has expanded to 193 members, sprouted numerous specialised agencies and a big bureaucracy, championed efforts to save the planet from climate change (brokering the Paris Agreement) and to save humanity from poverty (producing Sustainable Development Goals), and moved into peacekeeping in a big way. Over the years more than 1m people have taken part in more than 70 UN peacekeeping missions.
Yet, given the troubled state of the world, this was not deemed to be a time for a boastful birthday bash. “We are not here to celebrate,” says the UN’s anniversary declaration, due to be approved by the General Assembly on September 21st. “We are here to take action.” The declaration, which amounts to a renewal of vows and a commitment to “reinvigorated multilateralism”, was hammered out this summer after hiccups over the wording on human rights and the Paris Agreement. It includes repeated pledges to “build back better” after the pandemic, which it describes as “the largest global challenge in the history of the United Nations.” (Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, might do well to note a pledge to “abide by the international agreements we have entered into and the commitments we have made.”)
Rather than throwing a big party, the UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres, decided to use the anniversary for a “global conversation”, consulting world opinion through a series of surveys and meetings. The conclusions, in a report called “The future we want, the United Nations we need”, were released for Monday’s 75th-anniversary commemoration.
Conveniently, the world thinks more or less what the UN hoped it would: people’s immediate priority everywhere, unsurprisingly amid a pandemic, is access to basic services such as health care and sanitation, and education. For the future, they worry most about climate change and are also concerned about respecting human rights, settling conflicts, tackling poverty and reducing corruption. Fully 87% of respondents to the UN’s online survey believe international co-operation is vital to deal with today’s challenges (in a separate survey, by Edelman, 74% of respondents said they saw the UN’s role as essential, though more than half perceived it to be remote from their lives).
Although support for the UN around the world is robust, it is uneven. In a Pew survey conducted in June-August, also published on September 21st, majorities in almost all the 14 rich countries polled had positive views of the UN (the 14-country median rating was 63% favourable against 33% unfavourable). But Japan is a glaring exception: 55% of respondents there view the UN unfavourably, whereas only 29% hold a positive opinion of the organisation, a drop of 18 points since last year’s survey. According to Pew, Japanese who say the World Health Organisation has done a good job dealing with the outbreak are much more likely than those who say it has done a bad job to have a favourable view of the United Nations (52% against 22%, respectively). And in America, though overall approval of the UN remains strong, at 62%, there is a big partisan divide—85% of Democrats see the UN favourably, but only 39% of Republicans do. A similar partisan gap exists in views on international co-operation. For example, 83% of Democrats thought that if America had co-operated more with other countries it would have had fewer coronavirus cases; only 27% of Republicans thought this.
The pandemic is a powerful example of the need for such co-operation (to share data, spread best practices and ensure that when vaccines are ready for use they are distributed efficiently). So is climate change, and from the cybersphere to space, global governance is increasingly needed. But the call for reinvigorated multilateralism comes at a time of reinvigorated nationalism in many parts of the world. Great-power rivalry is crippling the Security Council. And at 75, in its structure—with the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council—the UN still reflects the world as it was in 1945 rather than one in which India, Africa and others deserve and demand a growing say.
The need for reforms is widely acknowledged. Mr Guterres wants to make the bureaucracy more agile and more open, finding ways to engage regional organisations, businesses, NGOs and young people in the UN’s deliberations. The declaration also includes a commitment to “instil new life in the discussions on the reform of the Security Council”. Sadly, when it comes to messing with the core power structure of the organisation, vested interests make change almost impossible. In this respect the format of this year’s UNGA is likely to prove all too apt: reforms will remain more virtual than real.
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.