Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.
The UN at 75
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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.

In this Council of Councils global perspectives roundup, members of seventeen leading global think tanks reflect on what reform or initiative is the most important for the United Nations as it looks toward its next seventy-five years.

Reform the Security Council

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.

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.

Establish an International Antivirus Consortium

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

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

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

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

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.

Create Standards for Digital Cooperation

Data is now a major economic asset, but its use and consequences go well beyond commercial issues to matters such as the quality of society and political systems. Yet data governance at the global level lags well behind technological developments. This gap is tailor-made for the United Nations to address. Interoperability standards are needed to create global data value chains that string together data collection, data access platforms, and artificial intelligence (AI) applications. Organizations also need data governance standards to build trust and manage issues such as data ownership and use, security, residency, privacy, and the protection of fundamental rights. However, no international organization is mandated to coordinate the development of data operations and data governance standards.

The Centre for International Governance Innovation proposes the creation of a Data Standards Task Force (DSTF) under the auspices of the United Nations. It would create the required framework for a single data zone through codes, standards, guidelines, and model technical regulations. The framework would facilitate the collection, sharing and use of data across jurisdictions and sectors. The structuring of the DSTF should reflect the new realities of the digital age. For example, standards should be developed through globally accessible online platforms. They should be kept evergreen to reflect evolving technologies and approaches. An online standards registry is also needed to avoid duplication and to identify gaps. A compliance program is needed to monitor AI operations on an ongoing basis.

Standards should cover the following elements:

  • common ontology, definitions, and terminology to allow for interoperability across sectors and jurisdictions;
  • data value chains technical standards covering data collection and grading; data access, sharing and storage as well as insights from AI; and
  • data governance standards for participating organizations to build trust by addressing issues such as data ownership and intellectual property, data residency, privacy and regulatory compliance, and cybersecurity controls and ethics.

The internet provides the infrastructure backbone on which global data governance might be built. A UN-led process in this regard would establish a much needed framework for data collaboration platforms to power a post-COVID-19 recovery and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Rebuild the UN's Legitimacy

At a time when the proponents of the United Nations believe that multilateral approaches are needed more than ever, the irony should not be lost on anyone that faith in multilateralism is at an all-time low.

The world looks vastly different economically, socially, and technologically than it did when it emerged from the ashes of World War II. The distribution of power has also shifted considerably. Global institutions need to reflect these changes or lose legitimacy in the eyes of the emerging players, whether governments or their people.

Rather than helping borders retreat and drawing peoples of the world together, international organizations have been scapegoated for causing domestic problems. Although this is no fault of their own, scapegoating would certainly be far more difficult if these institutions were actively and visibly proving their worth.

Today, everyone seems to have problems with multilateralism, which is eroding the authority of global institutions. Established powers do not believe that new powers comply adequately with existing institutions. New powers do not believe that existing institutions have the legitimacy to govern global affairs. Add the unilateral tendencies of populists into the mix and it is clear that the United Nations needs to prove itself to a new generation of peoples and countries.

The need to rebuild its legitimacy, whether in real or perceived terms, is urgent. Legitimacy involves at least two components that need strengthening: representation and effectiveness.

First, the United Nations should work harder on being more representative, not just at the Security Council (although it too needs reform), but also throughout its staff and corporate structure. People and ideas from East and South are still underrepresented. Second, UN bodies need to better deliver results—such as public goods—and be recognized for doing so. Given the limitations of international bodies in domestic policy implementation, transnational challenges should be the primary focus of UN work, an area where the mandate is clear and the difficulties in unilateral resolutions are obvious.

The United Nations should do more to reflect the best of human cooperation and endeavor at every level.

Reinvigorate the UN’s Collective Power

Among world-influencing institutions, the United Nations is perhaps the most significant yet neglected organization. Its charter is visionary, showing remarkable resilience over three-quarters of a century. Celebrating the body’s significant achievements is tempered by missed opportunities and failures in recent decades—the consequences of power politics, resource challenges, and institutional weaknesses as well as the current inhospitable environment. Many entities within the UN system are nonetheless surprisingly effective. As a multilateral membership organization, it remains unique in providing a truly global platform for dialogue and action.

The United Nations rose from the ashes of a devastating global conflict never to forget, but the world is once again at risk. To avoid another major global conflict, the supporters of the United Nations—with all its imperfections—need to reinforce and reinvigorate its collective power. Doing so will require restructuring the Security Council to reflect the changed power distribution in today’s world and to tackle inaction by veto.

At a time of profound global change and increasing competition over values, the United Nations needs to be bold in setting out a vision. It needs to get ahead of the game in transformative change, including shaping the governance of new technologies and reinforcing efforts on persistent challenges from conflict prevention, poverty elimination, and reducing inequalities to address systemic racism and xenophobia. It needs to make the most of political capital behind the Sustainable Development Goals and building back better from the pandemic to ensure that human rights are at the core of all global and national efforts.

All of this will take energy, time, money, and leadership. It will also require a new compact between the United Nations and the public because the organization’s legitimacy and influence will increasingly rest on a sense of ownership. In today’s complex world, identifying problems, designing policies, and delivering change is no longer within the power of states standing alone. It requires participation of diverse actors, including nonprofits, grassroots movements, corporations, and local authorities. Getting inclusivity right and shifting to a more equitable governance model will be critical to weathering power politics and delivering for all.

Working out how to bring the United Nations closer to “we the people” and remaining relevant for future generations should drive the organization as it enters its next phase.

Embrace the Multiplicity of Regional Actors

The United Nations was created in 1945 with the aim of consolidating a new world order that would achieve and protect peace by creating a multilateral system and intensifying global interdependence. Although most African countries were not independent seventy-five years ago, the colonized African territories seized the normative opportunity to pursue a sovereign quest for peace, security, and development. In 2020, African member states made up 28 percent of the UN membership and were the subject of more than 50 percent of UN Security Council discussions and resolutions. This provides an important space for Africa to shape the debate at the United Nations.

Since the 1990s, the dominance of intrastate over interstate conflicts, asymmetric wars, violent extremism, and climate change have all threatened the world and, in particular, Africa’s ability to effectively deal with international peace and security matters. As a result, the United Nations has been pushed not only to change, but also to create the space for enhanced regional multilateral responses that are now intrinsic to the global order.

Over the past twenty years, Africa developed a complex continental peace and security architecture, made up of its continental organization—the African Union—and its regional economic communities and mechanisms. Often facing numerous political, financial, and logistical challenges, African organizations have sought to tread the fine line between maintaining and privileging the sovereign state on the one hand, and dealing with the constant threat posed by emerging nonstate actors on the other.

The world needs to adapt strategically and functionally to remain relevant. Seventy-five years after its creation, it is therefore critical that the United Nations continues to embrace the multiplicity of regional actors seeking to assist national governments and international institutions in maintaining the global order and achieving peace. Only by adapting will it be able to achieve the principal goal of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, as presented by the UN Charter.

Address the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In looking ahead, the United Nations should strive to play a more conducive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To do so, two important UN bodies need reforms: the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).

The UNHRC is already the product of reforms introduced to the UN Commission on Human Rights. Although some of the ailments of the Council have been cured, its (many) constructive contributions are overshadowed by its political bias against Israel. One reason is the UNHRC’s agenda item 7: the only country-based situation to feature as a permanent item on the Council's order of the day in its three annual sessions. This status guarantees that Israel will be the focus of scrutiny in every such session, leading to oversized condemnations relative to states such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria. 

The UN's important work with Palestinian refugees also appears compromised by different standards adopted toward them—in care provided by UNRWA—and toward refugees from all other conflicts in the world, collectively cared for by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Differences pertain to the mandate, definitions of a refugee, conditions under which refugee status is revoked, the budgetary and staff allocation per refugee, and procedural functioning. For example, should UNRWA follow UNHCR's definition, 80 percent of its beneficiaries (living in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and as citizens of Jordan) would not be eligible for refugee status—freeing up funds for those who need assistance most and reducing the political obstacle encapsulated in the demand to enable 5.6 million Palestinian refugees to live in Israel.          

These biases have deterred Israel from cooperating and contributing to the work of relevant UN bodies, sidelined the United Nation's ability to contribute to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and antagonized Israeli public opinion, which largely perceives the United Nations as a hostile monolithic bloc. One result is the strengthening of hard-line Israeli stances against compromises given the perception that the UN system cannot be trusted to safeguard Israel's interests.  

Retaining Relevance

The COVID-19 pandemic has spared no country and its devastation continues. In addition to global health and the economy, the crisis has affected international relations by exposing the weak points of many nations. Nationalism, which has been simmering globally for some time, is on the rise and out in the open. International and regional organizations have fared the worst in that they have failed to propose initiatives or act in concert. The European Union was able to muster some coordinated economic measures, albeit only after the crisis deepened and with much difficulty. The United Nations did not respond much better. The World Health Organization, the primary body responsible for promoting global health in the United Nations, wavered in its recommendations and was mostly ignored in many nations.

Thus one pressing issue will be for all international institutions to take stock of what has happened, do some soul searching, and reassess whether they want to remain relevant. The same is true of the United Nations.

It has been seventy-five years since the United Nations was founded and its functionality has taken a toll whenever it faced a crisis. Why else would other entities—such as the Group of Seven, the Group of Twenty, or the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa)—be created? The few times the United Nations was more or less united was when one or more countries took the mantle of leadership. That initiative is frighteningly lacking in this pandemic. A special UN session to deal with COVID-19, at the least, should have been held. Even now, no coordination, no cooperation, and no consensus has been reached on how to deal with the pandemic.

UN reform is not a new issue. Yet it has gained a new urgency. Beyond the pandemic, other challenges are pressing: climate change, nuclear proliferation, artificial intelligence, the digital economy, and international terrorism.

The United Nations, at its heart, is a reflection of the world order, and currently world order is lacking. An organization can be effective only if its members are willing to act together. Even a common enemy—the pandemic—has not managed to unite it. In a rudderless world, without sensible guidance and leadership, reform or change at the United Nations will have to wait. 

Expand the Security Council

The need to reform the United Nations is critical. Political leaders, experts, and civil society agree that the United Nations is lagging behind global change, failing to anticipate emerging risks, and not adequately resolving or mitigating global challenges.  

This common understanding notwithstanding, disagreement is growing among various states and alliances as to how to undertake this reform—the priorities, scale, nature, and objects of the process. For example, in an increasingly great power conflict-ridden world, properly addressing the shortcomings of the World Health Organization is at best difficult.

In addition, many UN member states insist on the inviolability of the organization’s foundations and basic principles, in particular and above all its charter. Further, some countries, such as Russia, think that revising any of the powers of the permanent members of the Security Council, including the veto, is unacceptable.

Given all these considerations, securing the necessary two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly, to say nothing of consensus, to pass and implement reforms is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, that reforms are needed to make the UN more effective is clear.

The secretary-general’s recommendation to focus reforms on three pillars—the UN development system, peace and security, and management—may be seen as a serious contribution to a process of change. The leadership of the various UN agencies and bodies deserves close attention. Also  the desire to give proper representation to developing countries should not come at the expense of efficiency.

The Security Council in particular should be a focus of reforms, and more intensive and goal-oriented intergovernmental discussions are needed. The Security Council, including its permanent membership, should be enlarged to grant broader regional representation. At the same time, redistribution of some power from the Security Council to the General Assembly could be problematic and any reform should be done carefully. But the General Assembly itself is in need of reordering. 

This reform would not require a qualitatively innovative approach. It is instead a question of whether enough political will can be summoned to revive proposals, some of which go back to the times of Kofi Annan, and to speed up the process of finding compromise resolutions.


Make Room for “We the People”

The COVID-19 pandemic calls on national governments and international institutions to bolster a system of governance based on modern and sustainable multilateralism: diplomacy, negotiation, and dialogue. The world, and the United Nations in particular, needs to avoid militarized political responses. The new policies of the twenty-first century should be based on the premises of “we the people”—the opening words of the UN Charter—and multilateralism.

Decision-making in international governance remains centered on the nation-state and in practice does not adequately deal with global challenges. Non-state actors—such as the private sector, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations, among others—need to be more involved.

The United Nations should not only address the logic of a top-down approach of the current state-centric system, but also make room for a bottom-up approach of “we the people.”

Multilateralism is not a natural feature; it is a convention or social construct based on broad legality and legitimacy. Today, it lacks strong support in popular culture. Without this underpinning, multilateralism cannot generate the strong pillars needed for durable policies.

In this context, and to strive for sustainable multilateralism, the United Nations should create such an underpinning to strengthen a popular culture of multilateralism; it should also prioritize policy mechanisms that incorporate the common woman and man. The UN Security Council’s Arria formula meetings—informal meeting formats that allow the Security Council to hear the views of individuals, organizations, or institutions—are an example.

As Bertrand Badie rightly reminds us, “we are no longer alone in the world (nous ne sommes plus seuls au monde).”

A broader and more effective multilateralism would strengthen the entire UN system, including the World Health Organization, the UN Children's Fund, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, International Red Cross, and so many international organizations.

In this endeavor, think tanks and the Council of Councils in particular have a unique and relevant role to play.

Establish Geographic Inclusivity in the Security Council

Abdulaziz Sager, Chairman, Gulf Research Center (Saudi Arabia)

The United Nations continues to champion multilateralism. Yet because the future of the multilateral order stands in jeopardy in the wake of criticism that international organizations serve only the interests of the most powerful, the United Nations should be ready to undertake real reform of the UN Security Council. The Security Council should reflect the current geopolitical realities, realities that have evolved since the United Nations was established in 1945.

As the United Nations looks toward its next seventy-five years, geographical inclusivity in Security Council membership is essential. Such a change would make it a more effective and democratic body, thus enhancing the legitimacy of its decisions. Western powers, for example, are overrepresented in the five permanent members. Entire regions lack a permanent seat but nevertheless are bound to Security Council resolutions.

Reform discussions should also consider allowing for regional bloc representation. This would bring greater consensus to Security Council decisions and enhance its legitimacy, given the wider geographical representation among members. Allowing for regional blocs in addition to or instead of new individual state members is also a way to enhance representation without introducing the dilemma of member states needing to agree on which particular states should accede, or requiring significant Security Council enlargement.

Similar reforms have been proposed in recent decades, including the possibility of regional blocs nominating members, a weighted vote system, or changes to the veto structure. Most important, discussions on Security Council reform should remain high on the UN agenda and not pushed to the sidelines because of geopolitics or difficulties in reaching member agreement on what form Security Council expansion should take. Security Council resolutions continue to affect the very countries and regions left out of the decision-making process. Continued legitimacy of the Security Council therefore depends on some type of inclusive reform.


Build Policy-Based Coalitions

As the United Nations turns seventy-five, its reform remains an unaccomplished goal. Security Council deadlocks, slow responses to crises, lack of legitimacy, wasted resources, and heavy bureaucracy have exposed it to such heavy criticism that even its traditional defenders have adopted an increasingly antagonistic stance. The decision by the Donald J. Trump administration to withdraw from the World Health Organization during the COVID-19 pandemic underlines this worrying trend in the clearest possible way.

It is a time of increased uncertainty and complexity in international affairs, and of increasingly fierce geopolitical competition between global and regional powers. Simultaneously, disruptive technological, societal, and ecological developments impose new challenges that require new partnerships beyond the current state-centric global architecture. More generally, an effort to engage all relevant actors, from regional organizations to civil society to the private sector, is sorely needed.

As the United Nations looks toward its next seventy-five years, its ultimate challenge is to reinvigorate the global multilateral system by addressing these two potentially conflicting trends. One worthwhile way forward is to change the paradigm and promote new forms of functional multilateralism that allow for policy-based differentiation. This would take the form of flexible, topic-focused coalitions of the willing, formed by stakeholders capable of pursuing shared innovative goals, with a view to enlarging representation and improving efficiency.

Functional multilateralism does risk fragmentation by poly-governance, which would require additional fora for regular global dialogues, but such worldwide platforms could promote annual meetings for information sharing, identification of complementarities, and strategic alignment of actions. These platforms would bring together representatives of the United Nations—both the secretary-general and the president of the General Assembly, together with the directors general of relevant UN agencies—regional organizations, ad hoc groupings, and civil society actors involved in the different issue areas.

This new model should make the United Nations more capable of identifying at an early stage both crises and new opportunities, and eventually tackling them effectively, restoring its credibility and legitimacy.

Address Three Challenges to Multilateralism

As the global pandemic continues to ravage the world, the United Nations on its seventy-fifth anniversary faces significant challenges. Even well before COVID-19, the UN’s global role was heavily constrained by a decreasing budget and increasing workload. Now it needs to meet the even more complicated challenges of geopolitical strategic competition, political and social division, and the reversal of global development. How the United Nations addresses these challenges may shape the trajectory of its future as well as that of multilateralism.

First, rising geopolitical tensions are disrupting the UN agenda. The world is experiencing unprecedented global power shifts. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has fully exposed the harmful aspects of great power competition, leaving confrontation as the main theme, dominating all interactions between the major powers. At a multilateral level, the rivalry has gradually evolved into a duel between two political approaches that could result in crippled multilateral organizations, including the United Nations. 

Second, the Western world is awash in increasing political polarization and social cleavages. Political tribalism has become a significant factor in influencing the future direction of political institutions in developed countries. In the meantime, the age of disinformation and ever-increasing influence of social media has left truth and facts more colored by predesignated concepts and ideas. 

Third, progress on global development and poverty is declining. One of the long-lasting effects of the current global pandemic is the reversal of the work of national governments and international institutions, in particular the UN system, on global development and the reduction of poverty. Developing countries are beset by heavy losses in jobs, income, and economic opportunities. The traditional major industries in developing countries, such as textile, tourism, and handcrafts, are now met with heavy international headwinds because of shrinking overseas demand due to COVID-19. The dramatic decrease of the volume of remittances from recession-hit developed countries has further aggravated their economic woes.

Embrace New, Creative, and Collective Actions

Seventy-five years after the San Francisco Conference, the United Nations is right to celebrate many successes and achievements. However, not only have some persistent challenges remained, new issues have also arisen. Geopolitical shifts, environmental concerns, and the onset of the fourth industrial revolution have added to the United Nations’ work on peace, security, poverty, freedoms, and rights. Moreover, differences among countries are marked on how to resolve critical issues such as climate change, Security Council reform, and women’s rights, to name a few.

This milestone anniversary finds the world—and the United Nations—trying to find a way out of the unprecedented crisis generated by the coronavirus pandemic, which affects far more than global health. Notably, in a highly interconnected and globalized world, the pandemic has severe social, economic, and even psychological consequences, deepening existing global challenges and calling for shared and urgent action from national governments and international institutions.

Crises are moments of great uncertainty, but they also harbor great opportunities. More than ever the world needs collective action. The United Nations is best suited to actively and creatively address existing and future challenges guided by the ideals and vision laid out in its Charter. These include promoting peace, security, justice, respect for obligations, treaties, and international law; improving social conditions and living standards; reaffirming fundamental human rights, dignity, tolerance, equality, and freedom for all—regardless of race, sex, language, or religion for large and small nations alike. These ideals and visions, now just as then, should be the driving inspiration for everyone.

To mark this anniversary, a declaration for the commemoration of the United Nation’s seventy-fifth anniversary will be adopted by all UN member states, calling for a reinvigorated multilateralism and a mandate to outline recommendations for a future agenda. Inspired by the founding ideals and including issues and challenges the world faces today, this agenda should definitely embrace new, creative, and collective actions involving all sectors of society, “to ensure the future we want and the United Nations we need.”