Amid great power rivalry, the UN is a vital security shelter. It cannot fail
As the United Nations General Assembly celebrates its 75th anniversary on September 21, the question for the septuagenarian is not how to survive, but how to thrive.
The UN’s importance is firstly psychological. It is older than many people and mostly taken for granted. The largest intergovernmental organisation born out of the ashes of World War II looks like a big family where things are discussed peacefully among its 193 members. This gives a feeling of assurance and protection.
The best way to understand the UN is to imagine a world without it: who would take care of our common education, health and humanitarian needs, and our social, economic and cultural development? According to the UN, 690 million people still go to bed on an empty stomach. This is why the UN World Food Programme is indispensable.
Second, the UN has, by and large, fulfilled its primary role of saving people from “the scourge of war”. The long period of peace we are enjoying – an absence of major wars since the end of the second world war in 1945 – has not been documented since the Roman Empire.
That we are seriously discussing second-tier threats such as terrorism, the spread of small arms and human trafficking, and non-traditional issues such as climate change is because we know major wars are less likely today.
However, a test of the UN may be around the corner if US President Donald Trump is reelected. For a man who has ordered the United States to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, Paris climate deal and World Health Organisation, to name just a few, the question is what other damage he would inflict in the next four years.
If Joe Biden is elected instead, “America first” is more likely to become “America-led”. He has pledged to demolish some Trump policies, including restoring US funding and membership of the WHO, and rejoining the Paris agreement. What he will find hard to change, however, is the American public’s growing weariness of an international system that does not always deliver for US interests.
The UN’s efficiency and effectiveness depends primarily on how the five permanent members of its Security Council compromise on their divergent national interests. Since 2011, Russia has cast 19 vetoes, 14 of which were on Syria. Eight of the nine Chinese vetoes during this period were over Syria. But it would be naive to conclude that the council is divided into two camps, with the US, Britain and France on the other side.
In August, America’s two strongest Security Council allies joined China and Russia in rejecting Washington’s attempt to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran. Trump is a proud nationalist. But as French President Emmanuel Macron said, almost in his face during the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism”.
As a major power competition unfolds, the UN has unsurprisingly loomed as a main battleground for China and the US. Beijing’s support for and Washington’s withdrawal from the WHO is a typical example. This is a huge risk for the UN – China and the US are also the largest financial contributors to the UN’s general and peacekeeping budgets.
At the last UN General Assembly, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres talked about his fear of a “Great Fracture” – a global split as the two largest economies create separate and competing worlds.
But even if Washington looks determined to file for divorce, the UN is still a useful avenue for the estranged to get along. During the 1948 Berlin blockade, US and Soviet diplomats continued to exchange messages and ideas in the UN. Today, Washington still needs Beijing to strike compromises on, say, expanding sanctions on North Korea.
It is obvious that China’s influence in the UN has risen significantly. Unlike the US, which complains about the world body regularly, China has consistently called for measures to enhance the UN and is a cheerleader of multilateralism. In recent years, Chinese nationals have taken more – and senior – posts in different UN agencies. The number of Chinese nationals has at least doubled in the past decade.
The UN, too, has every reason to want to see a stronger Chinese role. Beijing’s championing of multilateralism is certainly welcome for the world’s largest multilateral institution, especially given the theme of the upcoming UN General Assembly: “reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism”.
The US owes the UN more than US$1 billion in unpaid dues, yet China pays its financial share on time and in full. It has also been doling out voluntary funds to UN bodies. And China’s efforts to reduce extreme poverty among its 1.4 billion people by the end of this year is a shining example for the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals.
It is ironic that China is integrating with the international system as the US withdraws. China has joined almost all international treaties and conventions so, in theory, Beijing should have no reason to wish to challenge the rules-based order, despite US claims.
Nor is Beijing seeking to usurp America’s global leadership, as Washington suspects. This is most clear in the UN, where the US is the largest provider of financial contributions, responsible for 22 per cent of the budget this year, with China the next largest at 12 per cent.
The gap is too big for China to close, even if it wanted to. And precisely because China is the second-largest contributor, it is in Beijing’s interests to work with the US to make the UN more effective and efficient.
At a recent symposium in Beijing to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary, Singaporean academic Kishore Mahbubani asked whether the UN is a sunrise or sunset organisation. At 75, it can hardly be described as the former, but it certainly isn’t in its twilight years either. It looks more like a vast shelter that, properly maintained, could provide security for us all. It is too important to fail.