The 76th UN General Assembly’s high-level session — the general debate, in which the leaders of 193 member states speak on global issues for more than a week — begins on Tuesday, with US President Joe Biden expected to advocate multilateralism in his address on the opening day. This is precisely what the UN currently needs, after having seen its founding role in preventing war and ensuring peace consistently eroded in the last three decades of rampant US unilateralism across the world.
Even though the five permanent members of the Security Council — namely, the US, Russia, China, the UK and France — have the final say in matters of global peace and security because of their veto power, the UNGA, where all member states have equal representation, plays an important role by framing the annual global agenda, deliberating current world challenges and deciding requisite policy options.
Of course, from COVID-19 to climate change, and with so many conflicts burning or brewing, the issues facing the world body are so grave that only a rules-based international order grounded in the spirit of multilateralism can pave the way for their viable resolution. Multilateralism may help in building the necessary global consensus to deal with the effects of a conflict (which the UN does relatively well), but it also needs to tackle its root causes (where the UN is found seriously lacking).
No surprise that the theme of the 75th anniversary session of the UNGA, held virtually last year, was on reinvigorating multilateral institutions. The report titled “Our Common Agenda,” released by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ahead of the current session, also calls for “multilateralism to the teeth,” while offering more robust approaches to crisis management and the mitigation of persisting security conflicts and emerging nontraditional threats.
This augurs well. The UN’s history since 1945 is replete with instances where geopolitical rivalries among great powers prevented meaningful progress in multilateralism, resulting in the global drift in managing persisting and emerging conflicts. However, between the superpower contest of the Cold War and the American unilateralism in its aftermath, there was a decade-long period when the UN emerged as a proactive global actor.
In the 1990s, the world body intervened in several critical conflicts — from Bosnia and Kosovo to East Timor and Sierra Leone — to keep and make peace. More than half of the UN’s 71 peacekeeping missions were undertaken during this decade alone. The UNGA also then became a key platform to debate the reformation of the UNSC for the purpose of greater representation, and novel concepts of humanitarian intervention, such as the responsibility to protect, entered the lexicon of international diplomacy.
Alas, the last 20 years have seen the UN’s role being diminished by the day, as the US waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and intervened in conflicts like Syria and Libya without fulfilling the corresponding responsibilities these ventures entailed. In the process, US unilateralism also reduced to ashes the spirit of multilateralism on which the whole UN system is built. President Donald Trump’s open disdain for UN institutions, including even the World Health Organization amid the global pandemic, was the last straw.
Hence, it will be crucial if Biden makes an unwavering commitment to “America is back” in the multilateral game at the 76th UNGA. Since assuming power, he has already rededicated the US to multilateral cooperation, including at the UN and other international bodies, as is clear from America’s re-entry to the Paris Climate Accord and its renewed support for the WHO’s COVAX program for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the world.
By ending the “forever war” in Afghanistan and deciding to withdraw all US troops from Iraq this year, Biden has also done away with the bitter legacy of neoconservative unilateralism in US foreign policy. He has also opted for a rather civil approach toward the UNSC by dealing with the emerging crises within its ambit, and letting China and Russia also voice their concerns as competing powers.
Unfortunately, the “war lobby” is so well entrenched in the US power structure that it may be difficult for Biden, just as it was for President Barack Obama, to pursue the multilateral path with ease. The US-UK agreement to provide nuclear submarines to Australia to patrol the Pacific has already created a serious rift with China and France — reinforcing Chinese fears about containment by the US post-Afghanistan. Moreover, China and Russia also differ with the US on dealing with the Taliban regime.
For now, neither the US nor its geopolitical rivals seem eager to move beyond diplomatic balancing toward taking substantive steps to deal with new crises, such as authorizing new sanctions regimes or peace operations. Therefore, the UN has to increase its political relevance and operational capacity within the limitations imposed by a fractured UNSC for some time to come. This requires Guterres to be more politically active so as to ensure decisive UN actions in mitigating crises.
The most pressing issue is the worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where a third of the population is facing starvation, according to the World Food Program. The statistics on health and displacement are equally startling. A UN appeal has generated more than $1 billion in humanitarian assistance, which the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan must provide in time. The UN can also help resolve other political and economic matters facing the war-torn nation, in consultation with the P5 and Afghanistan’s neighboring countries.
Other crises that need proactive UN involvement include the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, which is worsening with every passing day; Syria and Yemen, where civil wars have produced major humanitarian disasters; Libya, where the UN needs to build on the ceasefire it helped mediate; and Iraq, where the withdrawal of US troops may open up old wounds. The threat to global security from terrorist groups such as Daesh is far from over, and many conflicts such as Kashmir and Palestine have not been resolved for decades.
Dealing with the pandemic is also an urgent matter, which can be resolved by enabling the WHO’s COVAX program to act as the sole distributor of COVID-19 vaccines the world over in an equitable manner. Currently, it is distributing only 4 percent of global supplies. Resultantly, fewer than 2 percent of people in poor countries are able to have a single dose of the vaccine. Now that there is no issue with the supply of vaccines, there should be no issue in meeting the global demand, especially of the poor nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Climate change is a potent long-term challenge. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change reported last week that the planet is careening toward warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — far above the 1.5 C limit scientists say is necessary to stave off the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
Forging a global consensus on how to deal with nontraditional threats to international security emanating from digital technology constitutes another long-term agenda for the UN.
Ultimately, all of the global issues, current or future, require a multilateral diplomatic path for sustainable settlement — a possibility that looks more promising today than ever before.
- Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who has subsequently served as the Vice Chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.
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