During the Cold War, the contours of the U.N. agenda were shaped by East-West and North-South fault lines. While the East-West divide disappeared with the Berlin Wall, the North-South divide continues to plague the organization, undermining its relevance at times. There is evidence of a recent relaxation in North-South tensions. It must be encouraged.

Two of the United Nations’ great triumphs have been the ending of colonialism and the progressive universalization of the human rights norm. If the latter has occurred mainly under Western impetus, credit for the former lies largely with the countries of the South. With the decolonization process that began in the late 1940s, the organization’s membership increased dramatically and the U.N. agenda shifted to include concerns of the former colonies. The Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM, largely composed of newly independent countries, aimed to provide substantive alternatives to the positions advanced by the competing Cold War blocs.

Many of these countries also organized themselves into the Group of 77, pursuing an agenda of economic and social development and redistribution of wealth. The South sought to achieve adjustment of trade through price stabilization, the regulation of transnational corporations, increased foreign aid and reduced foreign debt. The initial success by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in boosting oil prices in the mid-1970s forced countries of the industrialized Western nations to pay heed to the political agenda of the dominant OPEC countries.

The economic damage caused by the oil price rises was far greater for the South as a whole — proving that neither the agenda nor the interests of the South were cohesive and unified. At the Cancun Summit of 1981, which brought together a number of countries from North and South, the “New International Economic Order” effectively met its nemesis when it came face to face with “Ronald Thatcherism.”

Due to the skill of their local diplomatic operatives and the policy drive of some of their capitals, a number of countries — Cuba, Algeria, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia — have historically dominated the G77 and the NAM. Recently, Nigeria and South Africa have emerged as leaders of a more pragmatic African camp that engaged with Group of Eight members earlier this year at Kananaskis.

The global South, while lacking substantive cohesion at the U.N., has nevertheless projected an often united and sometimes effective front to challenge the orthodoxies of the North. The end of the Cold War and the triumph of liberal capitalism had a doubly corrosive effect on the NAM: There was nothing left to be aligned against, and the command economy, bankrupt conceptually and politically illegitimate, lost all attraction as a model for the South. The G77 and the NAM have drifted aimlessly in the post-Cold war era.

Northern states are no more cohesive or purposeful as a group at the U.N. While leading the opposition to the demands of the South, the United States has not consistently managed to rally the other Western states behind its views, particularly on political issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Differences among trans-Atlantic partners have multiplied of late: On climate change, international arms control negotiations and international criminal justice, the U.S. is often at odds with its Canadian and European allies.

The major political organs of the U.N. are yet to reflect this complex and subtle change in world affairs. The intergovernmental process in the General Assembly has been stuck for years in the dynamics of the immediate postcolonial period, crippling many substantive debates and reducing a number of important issues to questions of process and tactical advantage. Success is often measured not by concrete outcomes but by negotiating triumphs recorded in resolutions and declarations of little interest to the outside world.

Is the North-South divide at the U.N. still as pronounced as it once was? Perhaps not. U.N. members have recently displayed evidence of diminishing ideological zeal in pursuing national or group objectives. The global conference on financing for development, held in Mexico earlier this year, yielded a broad consensus. Washington and EU members also announced aid increases.

In contrast to the calamitous Durban conference on racism and development in mid-2000, the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg proved a happy surprise. It tackled important issues such as sanitation and involved the private sector to a greater extent than previous such U.N. meetings. While a number of issues, particularly energy, proved contentious, battle lines did not form along the North-South divide. Indeed on energy, the OPEC countries lined up with the U.S. to oppose European activism on alternative sources.

Perhaps the U.N.’s most important and successful role has resided in the consensual development of international norms. It provides the umbrella under which important treaties are negotiated and embedded in international regimes. Emerging challenges requiring global action, such as climate change and AIDS, have frequently been addressed first within the U.N. system. The U.N. also serves as a weather vane of international trends, such as greater adherence to human rights standards and to the imperative of humanitarian action, a greater voice for civil society in international policy discourse and increasing partnerships with the private sector in solving international problems.

The widely respected Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has noted that in the South “there is strong, bitter resentment of what is often seen as arrogant big power domination of the U.N., total disregard for the interests and aspirations of the majority of mankind and blatant double standards, particularly in the management of conflicts.” It is vital that this resentment be addressed.

If anything positive can come out of the horrific 9/11 terror attacks, it should be the emergence of a concerted approach to addressing this bitterness, one possible root cause for the support that Osama bin Laden’s advocacy has received on the streets in much of the developing world, even outside the Islamic bloc of countries.

It is also important that leaders of the South examine their own policies and strategies critically. Historically, the greatest success of countries of North and South working together was the anti-apartheid struggle. If the impetus for action in international affairs usually appears to come from the North, this is partly due to a failure of leadership from the South. Canada has almost an exemplary record in forging winning diplomatic coalitions, for example on the land-mine treaty, even against the wishes of some major powers. Instead of forever opposing, complaining and finding themselves on the losing side anyway, NAM countries should learn how to master the so-called New Diplomacy and become norm entrepreneurs. But this will require alliances across the North-South divide, often distasteful to ideologues of all stripes.

More pragmatic, action-oriented approaches need to emerge. The North-South divide threatens the U.N. The new, more sober attitude of delegations at the U.N. needs to be encouraged, not least by the U.S. Otherwise it could prove fleeting.

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