There is 'enough common ground' to revitalize the UN, but it still won't be easy

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Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic and rising nationalism are two obstacles to the modernization of the United Nations. Photo by: GPA Photo Archive / CC BY

NEW YORK — In spite of growing polarization and isolationism, a massive, worldwide survey suggests the public overwhelmingly believes global cooperation is vital to dealing with today’s complex political and public health challenges. And the majority of respondents also want the United Nations to change and innovate, becoming more transparent, accountable, and effective.

These are some of the new findings produced by the office of Fabrizio Hoschchild, U.N. undersecretary-general and special adviser on the 75th anniversary commemoration. Over 1 million people worldwide voiced their opinions in surveys and consultations on how the U.N. should evolve, ahead of the institution’s 75th birthday this September.

Governments celebrated the event Monday by recommitting themselves to an “upgraded U.N.,” with a political agreement that recognized 12 action items that mirror the Sustainable Development Goals but also include new pledges like better pandemic preparedness.

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The commemoration offers a “very dark picture, and then a much brighter picture” for the future of the U.N. and multilateral organizations and potential for actual change, according to Sarah Cliffe, director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

“The dark picture is that we rarely see multilateral institutions being so contested. We have a deep contestation of the WHO [World Health Organization], immense sparring between U.S. and China, and the P5 [permanent members of the U.N. Security Council]. That is all negative and is not playing into a showing of the 75th anniversary,” Cliffe said.

But there has also been a “huge jump in the demand for international collaboration,” Cliffe continued.

“We see 90 to 95% of people in polls saying more international cooperation is needed. In most regions people are not very satisfied with the international cooperation they are getting, but the demand is very clearly there. It is an opportunity for national leaders to say, ‘OK, let's take the opportunity of this, when we have well enough support for international cooperation to put in place some new initiatives that could last and be fit for purpose,’” Cliffe said.

“We need international cooperation, but we need to do better, we need to modernize it, we need to reinvigorate it, we cannot go back to business as it was before.”

— Fabrizio Hoschchild, undersecretary-general and special adviser on the 75th anniversary commemoration, United Nations

The U.N.’s birthday party was not the festive event that was initially envisioned, with most conversations happening virtually. COVID-19 and the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November were also distractions from the conversations about updating the U.N., according to Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group.

“A lot of diplomats at the U.N. are probably more focused on the U.S. elections, even in this General Assembly week. There is a real sense that what happens in November will be a fork in the road. It will affect not only the future of the U.S., but the future of the U.N.,” Gowan said during a webinar on U.N. 75 on Tuesday.

‘Enough room for common ground’

The U.N. 75 review process continues through the end of this year, according to Hoschchild, who acknowledged that making good on the changes the public has called for will require “a lot of heavy lifting from all.”

“But there is enough common ground. The big question is, ‘Whether we will build on the common ground, or focus so much on our differences as opposed to really boosting what we agree on. I think that is the challenge ahead,’” Hoschchild told Devex.

The U.N. 75 agreement gives U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres a “broad mandate on how to put the changes into action,” and asks him to report back to the GA with a set of recommendations or action items by next September, Hoschchild said. But the continuation of this work will also depend on world leaders, the private sector, and civil society being “mindful of what came out of our conversations,” Hoschchild said.

“We will be looking for action through many different forums,” Hoschchild added.

“We need international cooperation, but we need to do better, we need to modernize it, we need to reinvigorate it, we cannot go back to business as it was before,” Hoschchild continued. “There is a common thread of messaging from states big and small, north and south, east and west, and it is broadly aligned with what we heard from our outreach. The challenge will be putting that into action, the challenge will be transforming those words into acts.”

Obstacles to modernization

The U.N. 75 initiative conducted global consultations and surveys with over 1 million people worldwide from January through September, with the overriding question of how the U.N. should modernize to become fit for the future. The immediate priority for most respondents was improved access to basic services, including health care and education, followed by greater international solidarity and support to those worst hit during the pandemic.

Rising nationalism during the pandemic is one of the main factors that Richard Ponzio, a director and senior fellow at the Washington-based think-tank Stimson Center, says could derail a reprioritization of these values.

“The biggest obstacles to changing and taking forward the UN75 Political Declaration's commitments in meaningful ways is, undoubtedly, the rise of exclusive forms of nationalism that corrode the essence of multilateral cooperation,” Ponzio wrote to Devex, identifying the threats of vaccine nationalism and a global downturn in the economy.

“Then it is difficult to imagine that sufficient political will be mustered in the near-future to enact the reforms necessary to advance the declaration's twelve far-reaching action commitments,” Ponzio continued.

Ponzio called for an inclusive continuation of the process, which could include a new external expert advisory group of business leaders, civil society, and other individuals that could help bring about “overdue structural changes” within the U.N. Long-proposed changes include expanding the Security Council’s permanent membership.

The timing of the pandemic, which is pushing many countries to look inward, focused on their own health and economic crises, has also served as a reminder “of just how interconnected we are,” Hoschchild said. Some countries, including Ethiopia, South Africa, Indonesia, and other lower- and middle-income economies have shown inclination to strengthen international ties as a means to end the pandemic, according to Cliffe.

“It has brought home many challenges that can only be addressed through international cooperation. It has raised awareness, and that came out of our survey very strongly. And it also gives us an opportunity, like many crises before it, to build back better, to start again, start afresh,” Hoschchild said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.