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The United Nations and the Future of Global Governance

Authors: Philippe Moreau Defarges, Senior Fellow, Institut Francais des Relations Internationals Michael Fullilove, Executive Director, Lowy Institute for International Policy Xue Lei, Research Fellow, Center for Maritime and Polar Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies Fen Osler Hampson, Paul Heinbecker, and Gordon S. Smith, Distinguished Fellows, Centre for International Governance Innovation
September 24, 2012

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Editor's note: This roundup is a feature of the Council of Councils initiative, gathering opinions from global experts on major international developments.

The sixty-seventh UN General Assembly, now under way, is expected to address issues like the rule of law at the national and international level, and the Palestinian Authority's bid for non-member state recognition. Four experts recently contributed their thoughts about the role of the United Nations and the future of global governance to this expert roundup.

Philippe Moreau Defarges from the Paris-based Institut Français des Relations Internationals (IFRI) writes that three preconditions must be met for successful global governance: balancing world powers, garnering regional support, and fostering an environment of trust. For Fen Osler Hampson, Paul Heinbecker, and Gordon S. Smith of the Ontario-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, minilateral groups like the G20 can help the UN move forward.

Michael Fullilove, of Sydney's Lowy Institute for International Policy, says the UN must work toward being more representative of all its member states, and contends that Australia obtaining a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council would further this important goal. Similarly, Xue Lei of Shanghai's Center for Maritime and Polar Studies is critical of the current structure of the UN Security Council, and argues that the UN body must adapt to reflect the geopolitical shift in power from West to East.

Philippe Moreau Defarges, Senior Fellow, Institut Francais des Relations Internationals

I – The UN: Safeguarding International Peace and Security

Two central concerns must drive the UN agenda:

1) The socioeconomic challenge: We must ensure that our planet is habitable, even comfortable, for billions of people, even as powerful demographic shifts transform the global economy.

2) The diplomatic challenge: States must strike the right balance between self-determination and stability. Conflicts where states fight for territories are vanishing; most armed violence now arises from populations claiming the same territories (e.g., ex-Yugoslavia) and/or new regimes coming into power (e.g., Arab Spring upheavals). Therefore, the world must be governed as a whole. The UN is the necessary mediator for this global management.

The sovereign state is reshaped both internally (via citizens and media) and externally (via global opinion and geopolitical forces). The order is governed by a universal social contract, governed by the UN. There is no other way to transform the jungle of states into a society.

Today, state legitimacy rests on myriad moving parts: marshaling public opinion; garnering the support of other states; passing mandates at international organizations. Any international intervention without UN agreement suffers from an inherent weakness (e.g., the 1999 NATO operation against Serbia; the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq). Only the UN can provide the broadest legitimacy, but it does not guarantee immunity from controversy: last year's UNSC resolution 1973 on military action in Libya serves a stark reminder of this.

II – Preconditions for UN Success

Three things are necessary to ensure successful global governance:

Balancing world powers. Global governance must make allowances for these imbalances and even organize its dynamics around these realities.

Garnering regional support. Regional actors know the issues on the ground and can set up adapted configurations. Peace must be a two-way process: top-down, bottom-up.

Fostering trust. In an open and democratic world, nothing should be imposed; rather, everything should be negotiated. Most peacekeeping operations are fraught with myriad challenges, including protagonists with conflicting perceptions; traumatized and suspicious populations; indifferent or weakly motivated peacekeepers; and governments that prioritize self-interest at the international community's expense. The concept of state building must evolve into society building.

Michael Fullilove, Executive Director, Lowy Institute for International Policy

United Nations commentators usually fall into two camps: groupies and bashers. Neither group espouses a particularly balanced or realistic view of the international organization.

The groupies defend the organization at all cost. Their catchcry is, "My UN, right or wrong." The blame for delay or mistakes is always laid at the feet of the member states, never the secretariat. Serious problems pointed out by critics are waved away, to the long-term detriment of the organization that they think they are protecting.

Bashers, on the other hand, believe that nothing good ever happens in Turtle Bay. They decry talk of a rule-based international order and fixate on the UN's shortcomings.

The truth is that the UN is both flawed and indispensable. It is important because it provides the forum where states come together to discuss mutual problems.

The other reason it matters is that, to a significant extent, the Security Council can confer legitimacy on the use of force, or deny it--which in turn affects the risks and costs of an operation. The UN bashers hate this fact, but the Iraq experience requires them to face it. The Council is the world's preeminent crisis management forum.

Australia is a candidate for an elected seat on the Security Council in 2013-2014. As a medium-sized country located in the Asia-Pacific, we would help make the Council more representative. I have no doubt Australia would contribute positively to the Council's deliberations. Most importantly, Australia has demonstrated a willingness to spend blood and treasure to contribute to international peace and security--in world wars, UN peacekeeping operations, and non-UN missions such as the regional mission in Solomon Islands.

I very much hope that Australia's candidacy is successful so that we may lend our shoulder to the Security Council wheel.

Xue Lei, Research Fellow, Center for Maritime and Polar Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

In our rapidly globalized world, the challenges to humankind are myriad and complex. The task for global governance is to focus on the interconnectedness and interdependence of all these challenges and threats. It needs to provide the international community with a roadmap leading to the ultimate goal of sustainable peace and development. And with the rise of emerging powers, the need for a new global architecture has become even more urgent and critical.

As the only global institution with comprehensive competency and universal membership, the UN is uniquely positioned to deal with these multiple and complex challenges. On the operational level, the UN has a well-established institutional framework for deliberation, decision-making, and implementation. But more importantly, the UN can confer a unique legitimacy upon mandates and actions on an international level. The UN has always been the forum for countries to have their views heard, regardless of size, influence, or political system. Therefore, the UN should never be absent from discussions on global issues. If anything, it needs to get more involved in various initiatives ranging from the alleviation of poverty to prevention of conflicts around the world.

However, the United Nations has long been plagued by concerns about efficiency and effectiveness. Further reform of the institutional framework and working approaches of member agencies is needed, with the aim of helping the UN adapt to a changing world. On the other hand, the rise of emerging powers and the waning of established Western influence have, in effect, made this world more fragmented, crowded, and heterogeneous.

The heterogeneity is reflected in the UN's weakened mandate, especially in the security area. The attempts of Western powers to impose their concepts and ideas on the UN have been met with great resistance from the emerging powers, as the debates arising from the 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya demonstrated. Current differences regarding the situation in Syria also show that emerging powers are determined to break the Western domination in the UN Security Council. It also means that countries need to have a more open and candid dialogue, with the aim of forging a new global consensus based on equity, fairness, and inclusion. Only with this new global consensus can the UN fulfill its role of promoting sustainable peace and development.

Fen Osler Hampson, Paul Heinbecker, and Gordon S. Smith, Distinguished Fellows, Centre for International Governance Innovation

As we adapt to emerging global threats, let's not lose sight of what we have achieved. The UN has largely fulfilled the chartered goals established in San Francisco sixty-seven years ago, and, in doing so, has spawned an extensive body of international law, treaties, norms, practices, and institutions that govern most facets of interstate relations. With these "apps," the UN Charter has become the world's central operating system--the motherboard of global governance--making it possible for ideas such as the Millennium Development Goals to become policy drivers, and for other organizations (notably NATO, the G8, the G20, and civil society) to function more effectively.

Nevertheless, in too many ways, it remains our parents' UN. As we all struggle to adapt to the realities of a rapidly changing world, from climate change and population growth to pandemics and transnational organized crime, we are inadequately served by an unaccountable and anachronistic Security Council; a Secretary General chosen in a process akin to a papal election (and beholden to the Council); and various sub-appendage (like ECOSOC, UNESCO and the Human Rights Council) of questionable utility.

What to do? In an age of "messy multilateralism," minilateralism offers hope. Universal entities like the UN need minilateral groups of key countries that can work together across regional boundaries to achieve results that can be commended to the membership at large. The G-20 is one such minilateralist invention. Recently, G-20 member countries stabilized financial markets, coordinated regulatory reform, and launched an economic stimulus, thereby quite possibly averting a global depression. They have also taken preliminary steps toward global macroeconomic governance by addressing issues like monetary policy, exchange rates, and debt levels, which were once regarded as the exclusive province of sovereign governments.

So far, G-20 leaders have focused on their self-prescribed economic and financial mandate because, undoubtedly, they must get these issues right. But that does not mean that the G20 should ignore security challenges until the economic Shangri-la emerges.

The G-20 is not a panacea. But G-20 leaders could help the international community bring UN architecture and processes into the twenty-first century. Areas in need of most reform include the outdated membership configuration of the Security Council and the selection process (and empowerment) of the secretary general.