The UN at Seventy-Five: How to Make it Relevant Again

The UN at Seventy-Five: How to Make it Relevant Again

The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss the situation in Syria at its headquarters in New York City.
The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss the situation in Syria at its headquarters in New York City. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Council of Councils global perspectives roundups gather opinions from experts on major international developments. In this edition, members of six leading global think tanks reflect on what reforms are the most important for the United Nations as it looks toward its next seventy-five years.

September 14, 2020 9:00 am (EST)

The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss the situation in Syria at its headquarters in New York City.
The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss the situation in Syria at its headquarters in New York City. Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The United Nations, founded in the aftermath of World War II’s devastation, is marking its seventy-fifth year in 2020. The anniversary comes at a time of unprecedented strain on the framework of international institutions created to peacefully manage conflict and foster global cooperation within multilateral forums. In this time of upheaval, amid a pandemic and facing the specter of climate change, the debate over how to reform and strengthen the United Nations is more relevant than ever. 

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This group of international affairs experts, writing from China, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, and South Africa, calls for a wide range of changes. Suggestions include expanding the UN Security Council to include a more diverse selection of countries; creating new UN bodies to address climate change, the pandemic, and nuclear nonproliferation; and launching a concerted effort to lower the temperature on U.S.-China tensions, which threaten to upend the rules-based international order.

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Read rest of the entries at the Council of Councils.

Reform the Security Council
Cyprian Heen, Interim Director General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (Nigeria)

The United Nations stands at a crossroads. Unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations, it has endured, and in its seventy-five years as the largest and most representative global multilateral institution, it has recorded many successes. Today, however, it is bedeviled by a litany of challenges, including gross underfunding, bloated bureaucracy, disunity, and geopolitical rivalry among the permanent members of the Security Council. These and other issues both weaken its effectiveness and undermine its relevance.

UN reform has been on the agenda since the organization was created in 1945. The greatest challenge confronting the organization—one that has repeatedly rendered it unable to act decisively on critical global issues—is intransigence among the permanent members of the Security Council. Reforming the Security Council to be more inclusive, representative, transparent, and effective, and to demonstrate greater cooperation and consensus-building, therefore remains critical to the United Nations’ overall success. 

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The Security Council as currently constituted in terms of membership, functions, and powers cannot effectively respond to the myriad crises engulfing the world. Although it has become apparent over the years that its permanent members have little interest in internal reform, it behooves the other UN member states as well as civil society to continue to push for it. As powerful countries move toward unilateralism, populism, and nationalism at the expense of multilateralism and collective action, a united and forward-looking Security Council capable of effectively driving the wider United Nations to achieve its goals is sine qua non.

From an African perspective, reform of the Security Council should be in line with the Ezulwini Consensus, which proposes two additional permanent seats and two additional elected seats for Africa. Under this proposal, the two permanent members would be granted all prerogatives and privileges of permanent membership, including veto power.

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Establish an International Antivirus Consortium
Miguel Ruiz-Cabañas Izquierdo, Member, Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (Mexico)

As the United Nations looks to its next seventy-five years, three initiatives stand out in their importance: creating an international antivirus consortium, protecting biodiversity, and strengthening warning protocols within UN agencies.

The first priority should be to reform the World Health Organization (WHO) to create an international antivirus consortium to guarantee access to a COVID-19 vaccine for all countries, as well as access to future vaccines for new viruses. The consortium could be funded as the UN and peacekeeping budgets are, using a scale of quotas under which every member country, without exception, financially contributes according to its payment capacities. The responsibility of the consortium would be to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines to every country.

Second, a new international strategy for the protection of biodiversity is needed. Neither the antivirus consortium nor future vaccines will be enough without other preventive measures, such as the preservation of biodiversity. New viruses emerge because human activities disturb ecosystems and undermine their biodiversity. A global emergency plan to identify, safeguard, and protect biodiversity and the ecosystems of endangered species would help countries that cannot afford measures themselves.

Third, the world may have entered a new era of global viruses. A consequence of increased pandemics could be new food crises in many countries. Therefore, the world needs new information-sharing procedures between specialized agencies—such as the WHO, World Food Program, and Food and Agriculture Organization, among others—to take preventive and prompt action to detect, prevent, and mitigate potential new threats that could undermine international security, national economies, sanitary and health conditions, and food security. Early warning protocols on international emergencies including famines and pandemics can help alert all UN members to take appropriate early and preventive action. Such information-sharing procedures should be proposed as resolutions at the UN Security Council and General Assembly.

Safeguard the Indo-Pacific
Harsh V. Pant, Director of Research, Observer Research Foundation (India)

The United Nations turns seventy-five years old at a time when the old, post–World War II multilateral order—for which it is a critical anchor—is facing strong challenges from multiple directions. The pillars of global governance are undergoing rapid transformation, institutional infirmities are being revealed, and a normative shift is becoming increasingly palpable. The stakes could not be higher for India, which aims to shape rules in the international system and not merely be a follower.

In the eyes of the rest of the world, India’s pursuit of permanent membership on the UN Security Council is evidence of its global ambitions. That is only part of the story, however. It is equally important for New Delhi that global institutions better reflect contemporary global realities. The security dynamics in the immediate aftermath of World War II focused on managing a divided Europe and safeguarding its peripheries from the Soviet bloc. Today, the Indo-Pacific is driving the global economic and political agenda. Global institutional frameworks should reflect this shift, especially when a weakening United Nations is leading to a proliferation of self-selected groups—the so-called plurilateral and minilateral forums. These coalitions of the willing are viewed as more effective and efficient ways of dealing with not only traditional security issues but also nontraditional ones, such as the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Definitions of security have changed considerably; the Security Council has yet to adapt to the new reality. Failure of the UN system to rise to the occasion during the COVID-19 crisis will have significant bearing on its global influence.

The issue of UN reform is also linked with that of ensuring proper resourcing. Discussing reforms without making provisions for adequate resources will lead nowhere; the flip side is that channeling more resources in the absence of genuine reforms only perpetuates the status quo. While some countries have gradually deemphasized the United Nations in favor of new frameworks to address their most pressing challenges, others have been gaming the UN system to further their narrow interests. For example, the danger in having UN officials and agencies champion China’s Belt and Road Initiative is immense.

These and other challenges are mounting. For India, as with many other states, the status quo is no longer a viable option. If UN reforms fail, New Delhi’s approach to the United Nations could significantly alter in the coming years as India would feel it necessary to look elsewhere for solutions. And India wouldn’t be the only country doing so.

Think Big but Think Real
Patrycja Sasnal, Head of Research, Polish Institute of International Affairs (Poland)
Szymon Zareba, Head of the Global Issues Programme, Polish Institute of International Affairs (Poland)

There is no longer any doubt that three primary threats endanger the existence of humanity: climate change, infectious disease, and nuclear weapons. They differ in their origins and degree of immediacy, yet they share one commonality [PDF]: only global, multilateral efforts can reduce their destructive potential. No other forum is more suitable for such efforts than the United Nations.

The United Nations can prioritize these threats by debating and drafting a resolution—symbolically numbered 0000—identifying them as the core global challenges. A permanent coordinating platform should be set up to integrate the UN response across agencies, funds, and related organizations, and to act quickly, comprehensively, and efficiently in various fields, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization. Establishing such communication channels will bolster cohesiveness, which is fundamental when dealing with ongoing, multidimensional threats in a fragmented UN system.

This coordinating platform could be created in one of two ways: set up from scratch or, preferably, through the existing Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB). The latter option, however, would require transforming the CEB and increasing the frequency of its meetings (currently two per year) because existential threats pay no heed to biannual schedules. The platform’s goal would be to link threat mitigation to all policy fields in the UN system when planning, deciding, and assessing results.

Ideally, the Security Council should be stripped of veto power when a matter relating to these existential threats is on the agenda; such a move, however, is unfortunately unrealistic. More realistically, prioritizing this debate would lead to greater focus on what matters most. On its seventy-fifth birthday, the United Nations needs to think big if it is to see its one hundred and fiftieth.

Pursue a Fresh Approach to Climate Change
Cobus van Staden, Senior Researcher: China-Africa, South African Institute of International Affairs (South Africa)

As the United Nations celebrates seventy-five years of championing safety and security, social welfare, refugee rights, and more, it risks seeing all this work undone by one issue—climate change. The climate crisis manifests as an unpredictable series of upheavals, some freshly created and some immeasurably worsened. Climate change is currently hitting poor countries particularly hard, with flooding and catastrophic storms in Bangladesh and Mozambique, for example. It is also worsening fires in Australia, floods in China, and hurricanes in the United States. No country and no population will be exempt, no matter how secure they seem at present.

The United Nations is already a global leader in the fight against climate change through its UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP). The latter’s work stretches across numerous environmental issues, including biodiversity, chemical pollution, and more. This work is laudable, but it hazards treating climate change as simply another environmental problem rather than a crosscutting factor affecting all aspects of human life.

Meanwhile, the UNFCCC is frequently stymied by its need for universal consensus. This makes the climate fight dependent on its ability to foster moments of what David Victor and Bruce Jones call “episodic multilateralism” [PDF], the all-too-rare moments of agreement between member states.

The severity of the climate threat demands a fresh approach. The South African Institute of International Affairs suggests a full audit of the United Nations’ work on climate change across the UNFCCC, UNEP, and other UN agencies. This mapping should be followed by the implementation of a reform agenda aimed at targeting climate change as a crosscutting factor that will shape the entire world in the twenty-first century and beyond.

The result should be a dedicated UN institution focused on climate change not as one problem among many, but as a unique crisis that affects all UN activities. This body’s aim should be fostering and supporting technological and policy solutions on both a regional and global level while building support among all stakeholders (not only states) in a way that prioritizes the needs of the future over the short-term agendas of the present.

Avoid a New U.S.-China Cold War
Yu Tiejun, Vice President, Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University (China)

Although few are wholly satisfied with the performance of the United Nations since its establishment in 1945, equally few think that the world would be better off without such an organization. The international system is still essentially a collection of nation states, and world politics are still largely shaped by major-power competition. In this context, UN reform—both structural and functional—is certain to be a long journey replete with complaints and disappointment. It will, however, at least provide a public platform for countries to communicate and seek cooperation, a platform whose legitimacy cannot be replaced by any alternative.

UN reform discussions have gone on for decades but made little progress. This year, though, as the United Nations celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary, doubts about its usefulness are on the rise and the urgency of reform has grown substantially. The overlapping failures of many governments and international institutions in addressing the coronavirus pandemic—both the failure to arrest the spread of COVID-19 and the inability to mitigate its economic and political repercussions—explain much of this, but not all. Another element in the equation is the absence of action on intensifying U.S.-China tensions.

In retrospect, the most important prerequisite for an effective global institution may be a concert of powers. This has been true of the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century, the League of Nations after World War I, and the United Nations after World War II. In the absence of such coordination between major powers, any international institution becomes dysfunctional or paralyzed. The top priority for the United Nations, therefore, should be to avoid a new cold war between the United States and China, which would further divide the United Nations and the world into competing camps.

In the heated political discourse of 2020, the differences between the United States and China have been dangerously exaggerated. Washington and Beijing, in fact, have a decidedly common agenda: peacemaking, climate change, poverty reduction, arms control and disarmament, nonproliferation, antiterrorism, and regional security, among other goals. These challenges will be best tackled within the framework of the United Nations, now and over the next seventy-five years.

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