At the UN, the quest for new multilateralism
Come September, the United Nations (UN) shifts gears. Open spaces at its premises give way to tightly-configured booths for backroom diplomacy. The General Assembly Hall becomes a platform for public diplomacy. This combination of hushed conversations in backrooms and loud proclamations from public platforms attracts more than 100 Heads of State and governments. These dual forms of diplomatic endeavours make the “High Level Week” or the “Leaders’ Week” unique. While the rhetoric of the “General Debate” makes for media headlines, it is individual and group meetings, away from the limelight, that add ballast.
This year, things will be different. As the UN marks its 75th anniversary, all events will be largely virtual. After much speculation that United States (US) President Donald Trump may use the physical pulpit, he too, like most leaders opted to send a video. This is awaited with some trepidation. There is talk of announcements that could trigger a crisis at UN, as the US seeks to enforce “snap back” UN sanctions against Iran.
The schedule provides for a 75th anniversary commemorative event on September 21. The “General Debate” begins on September 22 and ends on 29. A summit on biodiversity is on September 30. The 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Women (Beijing + 25) is on October 1. With concerns aplenty, a virtual talk fest is in store. However, the usual allure will be missing.
This at a time when global deaths from Covid-19 infections are comparable to that of major wars and unemployment is worse than at anytime since the Great Depression. The virus has exposed the failings of existing global arrangements. Some say that a globalised world without effective global platforms has made the virus more lethal. After all, the spread was accelerated by global connectivity. The adverse impacts have caused economic slumps, stoking States to focus internally, reducing international cooperation. Existing geopolitical tensions have exacerbated and global mistrust worsened. The global order is infected, with no vaccine for its ills is in sight.
Historically, acute disorder provides opportunities for change. Crises catalyse states to rise above inertia, myopia, and narrow self-interest. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648; the Congress of Vienna in 1815; the Treaty of Versailles in 1919; and conferences at Bretton Woods and San Francisco in the 1940s followed crises. No peace-time crisis, even a “crisis like none other” that we now confront, has changed a global order. Hence, diplomats have banked on the resilience of the existing system and kicked the can of reform down the road. The 75th anniversary declaration, agreed amid the pandemic, provides for the UN Secretary General to “report back before the end of the 75th session of the General Assembly with recommendations to respond to current and future challenges.”
Sometime in 2021, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will take a stab at suggesting a recalibration of the multilateral system in keeping with the session’s goal of, “The future we want, the United Nations we need”. For now, he will share the concerns and findings of consultations with civil society groups across the globe, including a global online Pew survey. The statements of leaders will be inputs for him to reflect on in future submissions.
From an Indian perspective, this comes when Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, is displaying more of an internationalist orientation than our leaders have exhibited since the end of the Cold War. During the 50th anniversary of the UN in 1995, the then PM PV Narasimha Rao spent five days in New York. He met five or six leaders bilaterally, and spoke once for the specified five minutes.
In contrast, at last year’s “Leaders Week”, the PM maximised bilateral meetings, principally with those who he had not engaged otherwise and had several pluri-lateral and multilateral conversations on global issues including the climate crisis, health, Sustainable Development Goals and cyber-security. For the first time, an Indian PM hosted an event at the UN to commemorate an Indian — Mahatma Gandhi.
Some among us view the UN from an India-Pakistan prism. For example, after PM Imran Khan’s diatribe at the General Debate last year, Pakistani diplomats made statements against India in various General Assembly forums during the course of the year, without a single supportive statement from anyone else. The UN is a platform to address global issues. The global order is faltering in addressing transnational dangers of conflict, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemics, climate crisis, cyber-security, and poverty. Advocating change of a status quo in turmoil, is a global good.
Yet, there is no coherent vision of change. For India, the principal utility of the session is the opportunity to articulate the why, what, when and how of our conception of “Reformed Multilateralism” and work with others on reinvigorating multilateralism. We need to be beneficent in contributing to rejuvenate multilateralism, before we can be beneficiaries of it. Else, international cooperation and the global public good that we take for granted will decline, and, we will all be poorer for it.
Syed Akbaruddin served as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York
The views expressed are personal