What Future for the UN and Multilateralism?



Barrett College, Arizona State University, Tempe AZ

23 October 2019


Dean Jacobs,

Students, faculty and staff of Barrett Honors College and Arizona State University,

Dear friends,

First, I would like to thank Barrett College for its invitation to be Leader in Residence. I always envied people who had experienced life on an American university campus as students. Now, at long last, I join their ranks, albeit at a pretty late stage in my life! Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

I will speak today about the United Nations and multilateralism. I have chosen this topic for three reasons.

  • The first is that I prefer to speak about something I know. Since nearly half of my professional life took place in and around the UN, I feel authorized to offer a few thoughts on the subject.
  • The second is that this topic strikes me as highly relevant at a time when there are big questions about the future of the so-called liberal world order, the set of rules and institutions that were put in place at the end of the Second World War and are anchored in the United Nations.
  • The third reason for choosing this topic is simply because I am Canadian.

Support for multilateralism and the UN comes quite naturally to Canadians. We have long believed that our security and our prosperity are best served by a rules-based system supported by strong multilateral institutions.

Although Canada is the second largest country in the world, our population and our economy are too small for us to be able to impose our will on bigger countries. In one-on-one settings, it is not hard to imagine which party is more likely to come out ahead.

But we have historically found that we could influence the shape and direction of common rules to our advantage if we were ready to invest resources, energy and creativity in the multilateral processes that give birth to them. That is why you will find Canadian fingerprints on major pieces of international law, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Law of the Sea, the new International Criminal Court, the multiple rounds of trade negotiations in the GATT, not to mention the UN Charter itself.

When I joined the Canadian Foreign Service many, many years ago, it was immediately apparent to me that the real stars of the service were the colleagues involved in these multilateral processes.

I got an early opportunity to get a taste of that world when I was sent as a very junior diplomat, in the fall of 1972, to assist the Canadian delegation for the duration of the annual session of the General Assembly. It was a thrilling experience, one that convinced me that I had chosen the right profession.

I will confess that New York City added a lot to the excitement I felt during these three months.

Had the UN building been located, as originally planned, in a far suburb rather than in the heart of Manhattan, perhaps my memories of this blessed time would be a little less idyllic.

But still, to be there in the great Assembly Hall as Salvador Allende of Chile addressed the audience and as delegates discussed the conclusions of the first ever world conference on the environment, what a privilege!

I was reacquainted with the UN a few years later when I was assigned to the Canadian delegation to the UN in Geneva, the home of many specialized agencies and economic programmes of the UN. The Cold War was still raging and coloured the consideration of every issue on the table.

Being a diplomat in those days seems, in retrospect, somewhat less complicated than it is today. The world was divided into two blocs and we all knew to which side we belonged. On many issues, agreement was simply impossible. The Security Council, charged with maintaining peace and security, was impotent to address raging conflicts and met only occasionally.

It would be a mistake however to view the Cold War era as entirely sterile for multilateral diplomacy. Indeed a very large number of global international treaties and conventions were negotiated and entered into force while the rivalry between the Soviet bloc and the West went on unabated.

New legal instruments set out rules, norms and standards for relations among states in matters such arms control, air transport, the environment and many more. These “rules of the road” helped make the world a little more predictable, a little safer for everybody.

Starting in the early 60s, the decolonization process led to the admission of many new states to the UN. Their presence had a profound impact on the organization’s priorities. New entities, notably the UN Development Programme and the World Food Programme , were created to respond to the needs of the new, mostly poor, members.

Political dynamics in the UN’s deliberative organs also evolved as the new members often chose to speak with one voice better to promote their point of view and avoid becoming embroiled in East-West rivalries.

The end of the Cold War was a turning point.

When I returned to NY in January 1992 as Canada’s new Ambassador and Permanent Representative, I found a transformed institution. My fellow Ambassadors were in high spirits and the place was buzzing with bold ambitions and new initiatives. Gone were the old cleavages. Countries in all continents were embracing democracy, the rule of law and human rights as well as market-based economic strategies.

We were all convinced then that we could collectively make the world a better place; that the UN was finally in a position to fulfill the vision of its founders and bring peace and prosperity to the farthest corners of the planet.

I found the same positive atmosphere when I came back to the UN as Deputy Secretary-General in early 1998.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Security Council. It was now in quasi-permanent session, tackling situations that would have been considered off-limits just a few years before. It quickly pushed the boundaries of peacekeeping beyond its traditional limits.

Whereas peacekeeping missions used to be confined to the observation of peace accords to ensure parties kept to their word, they were now deployed in states emerging from long civil wars to carry out a dizzying list of tasks – from organizing elections to disarming ex-combatants and resettling returning refugees. Missions were also deployed where combat was still raging to deliver humanitarian relief and protect civilians.

The notion that the international community should step in to protect people when their government could not or would not do so began to emerge after the terrible genocide in Rwanda, the massacres in Srebenica and rampant violence against the civilian population in Kosovo.

Although never entrenched in a legal instrument, a new principle called the Responsibility to Protect gained favour with many governments. It is fair to say however that many others remained strongly attached to the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs of States as enshrined in the UN Charter

The end of the Cold War also opened the way to a significant strengthening of the UN’s machinery to promote and support human rights.

The post of High Commissioner for Human Rights was created in 1993 and her office (four of the seven incumbents so far have been women) received vastly increased resources to be able to act not only in conference rooms but also on the ground in individual countries. Ad hoc UN tribunals were created to judge perpetrators of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These were replaced eventually by the Permanent International Criminal Court, which came into existence in 2002, after long and difficult negotiations.

The same dynamism was evident in other areas. UN conferences on women, on population issues and on social development committed UN members to higher standards of justice and equality while the 1992 conference on the environment adopted the landmark UN framework convention on climate change.

This more intrusive, I am tempted to say hyper-active, UN in defense of values deeply rooted in the Western world could thrive in part because, for nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States and its Western allies were able to exercise almost uncontested leadership.

Throughout the nineteen- nineties, Russia was extremely weak, hardly able to influence decisions in spite of its privileged position in the Security Council. As for China, it was more preoccupied with building its economy than weighing in on debates in the Council.

The Millennium Summit in 2000, which I had the privilege of attending, was a remarkably positive event. The world was in a state of relative serenity. The assembled Leaders’ vision embodied in the Millennium Declaration was imbued with hope and confidence. Their commitment to reduce by half by 2015 the number of people living in extreme poverty epitomizes the spirit of the moment.

Twenty years later, the prevailing spirit is profoundly different. I see three fundamental factors behind this change.

First, the political landscape has changed significantly.

Russia has returned to the front pages, determined to regain its lost status as a country to be reckoned with. China, after decades of phenomenal growth, is now much more engaged in world affairs and more assertive in its own region and beyond. Its political and economic weight is being felt everywhere.Many poorer countries have achieved notable economic progress in the last couple of decades. They are less dependent on foreign aid than before and are, therefore, less likely to bend to political pressures.

Furthermore, democracy is being challenged in a good many places. Governments refuse to relinquish power when their time is up. Public opinion grows disenchanted with democracy when economies falter and inequalities increase.

Second, new challenges and new threats have appeared, starting with 9/11 and the aftermath of the controversial war in Iraq.

Religious extremism has subjected thousands upon thousands of people to paroxysms of violence and destruction in the Middle East and elsewhere, while multiple terrorist attacks in a very long list of countries have traumatized populations and increased their sense of vulnerability.

Third, enthusiasm for economic globalization has waned. Deep disruptions in production and trade patterns have left behind many regions in Europe and North America and contributed to an increase in inequalities in most western countries. The 2008 financial crisis, particularly acute in this country, has served to crystallize the sentiment that something is not right in our economic system

No wonder 2019 feels so different from 2000. The current era is characterized by uncertainty and fear and a lack of confidence in the capacity of institutions to keep us all on a path of peace, prosperity and justice.

In many societies nowadays, powerful political forces are promoting barely concealed racist and xenophobic positions in the name of protecting national identities and values. They reject the open and tolerant worldview that was the hallmark of the immediate post-Cold war period.

All these developments have a significant impact on the United Nations and on multilateralism generally.

We seem to be drifting back towards a world of blocks and entrenched rivalries where major powers vie for control and influence with scant regard for the niceties of international norms.

When I read reports of Russia bombarding hospitals in Syria, I wonder how much longer international humanitarian law can survive.

There are also signs of unraveling in the economic sphere with trade rules being flaunted and the WTO hampered in its adjudication role.

The risks of an increasingly fractured world are compounded by the rapid emergence of new realities – new powerful unmanned weapons, cybercrime, wide dissemination of false and harmful, information, massive population movements, evidence of accelerating climate change– all of which would require coordinated and coherent responses on a global basis

The gradual erosion of the current multilateral system may actually be welcome by those who see the UN as a would-be world government and consider legally binding agreements as a denial of national interest and an unacceptable infringement on national sovereignty.

Needless to say, I do not share these views.

The UN is emphatically not a world government. It is a voluntary association of sovereign countries. The Secretary General is not the President of the world. He has literally no power. He can propose but he cannot dispose.

The UN has no army, no police force, no independent source of revenue and no, there are no black helicopters hidden in the basement of UN headquarters. It depends entirely on the decisions of its member states (as do all other multilateral bodies that I know of, incidentally). It is a servant of governments, not their master.

Countries do not leave their national interest at the door when they enter UN premises. Even “do gooders “ countries like Canada never lose sight of it and fight tooth and nail to avoid undesirable outcomes and promote ones that best serve their circumstances.

But their notion of what is in their national interest allows them to take account of what can work for others as well, which is, after all, a necessary condition of any agreement.

There is nothing unpatriotic about accepting some constraints on the exercise of one’s sovereignty when it is necessary to protect the safety, security health and prosperity of our fellow citizens and to preserve our natural environment.

To put it in other words, to advance their national interests individual governments must be prepared to contribute to the common good and often to sign on to a common rule book.

Very little can be accomplished if every country on earth insists on serving only its own immediate interests.

These thoughts were very much on the minds of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill when they laid the foundations of the World Order under which we have lived for nearly seventy-five years. Already in August 1941, they had sketched out their vision for the post –war era – a vision that affirmed the aspirations of all people to live a free, prosperous and peaceful life, protected by a permanent system of international security. The principles they proclaimed in the so-called Atlantic Charter became the foundation of the UN charter.

The big question today is whether we are living through the dying days of this world order, whether a new and different one is about to emerge. How is the UN, a centerpiece of the current world order, likely to evolve in the years to come? Will it gradually adjust to the changing political dynamics among its member states? Will it collapse to be replaced by something entirely different? Will the very notion of universal rules and universal membership bodies like the UN disappear entirely?

It would be more than a little presumptuous on my part to try to answer these questions in any definitive way. The world is in a state of flux and there is simply too much uncertainty at this juncture.

There are however a few things about which I am fairly certain.

The first is that the need for international cooperation involving all states is as strong as ever. The UN and its multiple agencies, funds and programmes provide various services that the world will continue to need no matter what happens on the geo-political front. The UN is a forum for discussion, a neutral space for negotiations of international norms, a tool for the harmonization and coordination of international action, an authoritative source of information and statistics. It provides direct assistance to countries and people in need and is a strong advocate for the poor and the vulnerable.

Short of a new global conflict (which I do not see on the horizon), I have no doubt that such functions will be performed somewhere in the future, if not by the UN then by some new-fangled entity or entities enjoying universal membership.

Organizations with regional or limited memebrship bodies such as NATO or a hypothetical organization of democratic states can do part of the job but there is no substitute to universal participation in international systems to ensure air travel safety, combat cross border transmission of infectious diseases or curb global drug trade for instance.

The second thing about which I am fairly certain is that the highly interventionist UN which emerged in the immediate post-Cold War period is a thing of the past and will not come back, at least not in the near future.

I said a moment ago that UN action in the post-Cold War period was motivated in large part by a strong commitment to certain values dear to our heart – human rights, democracy, justice. The welfare of people came to matter as much, if not more, than the security of states.

The pendulum is now swinging back towards concerns for state security and the defense of national sovereignty in social and economic matters. Not only are the political stars no longer aligned in the Security Council to permit intrusive interventions in support of democracy and human rights but there are also signs of serious push back by a broad range of countries in other organs of the UN, notably the Human Rights Council. Progressive social norms endorsed in various UN conferences in the nineteen-ninety, notably those regarding the rights of women, are under attack from multiple quarters.

The fact that interventions have proved much more challenging than anticipated is also a contributing factor. The experience today with Mali and Syria tragically illustrates the limits of the international community’s capacity or willingness to stop conflict and protect civilians.

As for the adventure in Libya, it is a sobering example of the unintended consequences of military intervention, even when carried out for admirable humanitarian reasons.

Bottom line: I do not see any scenario that would bring back the generous – others might say foolhardy- ambitions of the immediate post cold war era.

I fervently hope, however, that we will be able to preserve the fundamental tenets of a rules-based world order, one that regulates the use of force and the spread of armaments, that defines standard of conduct among states and facilitates trade and cooperation for the greater benefit of all.

Such a global framework is needed for fundamentally three reasons;

One: because many issues are themselves global in nature and cannot be addressed effectively on a regional basis or by associations of the like-minded. We live in an intensely inter-connected world and the clock cannot be turned back.

Two: because the absence of global regimes, particularly in the economic realm, lead to sub-optimum solutions. A world where trade, investment and technological advances can only take place within one’s own block will deprive humanity of the benefits that more open sharing can bring. This is not a plea for a return to unbridled globalization and tolerance for blatant abuses of trade rules but a reaffirmation of the general proposition that an open economic environment produces better results for everyone than a closed one. This is the choice that we, in the West, made many decades ago and we should think twice before walking away from a global trading system that has served our interests so well over the years.

Three: a global rules-based multilateral system is desirable because the alternative, a world left entirely at the mercy of block rivalries increases the risks of conflict whether through proxies or in direct confrontation. History is littered with such tragic moments.

To be acceptable to emerging as well as current world powers, the evolving common rule book will have to recognize and accommodate, perhaps more than it has done in the past, the profound differences in political, social and economic preferences of vastly different countries.

This does not mean that we, in the West, need to abandon our efforts to promote democracy and human rights in our relations with other countries. These values resonate with people everywhere and are a powerful source of inspiration for changes within societies. We should do everything we can to ensure that they continue to be supported by multilateral institutions but we have to expect resistance from an increasingly strong group of countries that do not share our vision.

Ideally, the capacity of a rules-based system to provide a modicum of order and predictability in international relations would be buttressed by stronger enforcement mechanisms than exist today. In my opinion, this is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future but it does not necessarily condemn the system to impotence.

The history of the last 70 years proves that large, powerful countries can find it in their interest to support a global cooperative system. To this day, these countries are willing and able to find agreement in the Security Council on a broad range of issues.

Their active engagement in numerous processes underway in the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions to develop new norms, design new programmes and initiate new rounds of institutional reform sends positive signals of their continued commitment, for the time being, to collective security and the multilateral management of common problems.

Countries like mine also have a responsibility towards the preservation of a rules-based international order. We can and should seek to associate ourselves with countries that share our goal.

I believe very strongly that we have to look well beyond our traditional circle of Western friends. Countries in the Global South have a lot at stake in a healthy and open international system, one in which they can thrive without being beholden to one or other block.

We can and should work together not only to advocate respect for multilateral rules but also to vigorously pursue change where change is needed.

Multilateral processes and institutions must be seen to be tackling effectively issues that are important to people. Rules and norms that were patiently elaborated over the past many decades will be gradually ignored if they do not easily account for the kinds of situations we encounter nowadays.

For instance, is the convention on refugees a sufficient tool to deal with the massive displacement of populations we witness today and will surely experience tomorrow if the worse predictions about climate are realized? Are the laws of war adequate to deal with irregular combatants like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State or to regulate the use of new generations of weapons? If the answer is “no”, they must be reviewed urgently and made fit for 21st century situations.

Multilateralism also needs support from media and the general public. World public opinion can be a powerful tool to induce respect for international norms by governments and private sector alike, provided it is in possession of full and accurate information. You are as well placed as I am to know how daunting a challenge this is turning out to be.

It is not, in my opinion, beyond human ingenuity to overcome the current rising tensions and build solid bridges to support harmonious, or at least orderly, interaction between old and new powers. The world order born on the ashes of the Second World War survived for more than 70 years through constant adaptation and adjustment.There were, during that period, moments of extreme peril when the world seemed on the brink of a new global conflict. Yet, solutions were found and cooperation resumed.

The world order put in place by the likes of Roosevelt and Churchill was and still is imperfect and deficient in more ways than I can count. But it did save us from the scourge of a global war and supported useful, indeed essential, international cooperation in practically every field of human endeavour.

Let us hope that current and future leaders will show the same wisdom and strive to unite rather than divide nations. The challenges ahead, not the least of which is climate change and its consequences, demand no less.