NEW YORK - The United Nations has been holding its annual General Assembly at a very disunited time. There is little agreement in the air.
There used to be a time when all the democracies were lined up in more or less unanimous support for the multilateral organizations that came out of World War II and grew in influence during the second half of the 20th century — and for the order based on international rules, laws and norms that they helped underpin — although not always successfully.
Once the Soviet Union imploded and communism ceased to have a worldwide following, or look anything like the future, hopes were high that a new era for the U.N. would dawn.
But not anymore. America, once the team leader of the free world and most global institutions, now has a president who sings quite a different tune. His vision, or at least his rhetoric, divides the West, rather than unite it, and tilts the balance of world order very much the nationalist way. America, he insists, must come first and be protected — in trade, in security and in all aspects of what he interprets as the national interest.
This has the effect of shuffling the whole international chessboard and making for some odd new bedfellows.
It is the Chinese who now proclaim their devotion to global free trade ( although their practice is not exactly in accord with this), while the Europeans are thoroughly uneasy about U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy and the pressure he insists on putting on Iran.
They wonder which international body he is going to savage next (with the Group of Seven already rubbished, so is it next the Group of 20? NATO? The World Trade Organization. The U.N. itself?) and how they can stand firm against him.
Meanwhile, the democratic Russia once hoped for has morphed into the surly disrupter and rule-breaker, with tragic and ugly consequences in Ukraine and Syria but verging on ridiculous bravado elsewhere. One wonders how their veteran foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who in distant times past used to hold more liberal views, can continue to defend the Putin clique’s absurd posturing and half-truths at the U.N. General Assembly, or for that matter, for how long the patient and long-suffering Russian people will put up with it when they deserve so much better.
Meanwhile again, Trump’s habit of blowing hot and cold, toward Chinese President Xi Jinping, toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, toward leaders everywhere, is confusing the global scene — and the role of the U.N. — even more.
Add to this the outdated and hierarchical structure of the U.N. Security Council, locked in a 1945 time warp and with the central Permanent Five excluding several of the world’s most powerful nations today (including Japan and India for instance), and it is a wonder than the whole great endeavor, with all its vast agencies, is able to go forward at all.
Yet go forward it must, and in some ways the need, and the longing for its success, seem greater than ever nowadays with 193 nations participating, or trying to — almost four times the original 51-state membership at its foundation in 1945.
The problem is how the U.N. adjusts to this new age of public diplomacy, total connectivity and digital empowerment, and how it reconciles the atomization of opinion and information flows, the widespread fragmentation of legitimacy and authority, and the multiplication of identities with the intense need for global coordination in addressing the world’s new challenges.
One can sense this very problem in physical form right there in the streets of Manhattan itself. There was a time when visitors to the U.N. — the parliament of the world and its peoples — could just walk up to the main building, pass a few checks and enter in. Now it has to be a fortress. Now there has to be barricades and security checks everywhere, all road access barred off, ranks of heavy police vehicles at every corner, harassed but always good-natured New York cops coping with total traffic gridlock.
That symbolizes in a down-to-earth way the dilemma, not just for the U.N. but for almost all multilateral institutions in the 21st century, as indeed for many national governments and parliaments. How do the world’s rulers stretch out, embrace and be open to the ordinary individual in the street, and yet stay safe and protected against malign threats and dangers? How does the “power of us” fit with the great machinery of governmental power? How — the eternal question — do the governors stay in touch, and be perceived to be in touch, with the governed?
It is a problem not yet solved. Maybe technology can solve the problem technology has created. There still have to be meeting places for those in authority, there still have to be great seats of government — in this case of world government. There still have to be bureaucracies to run them. They must still be fully protected in their necessary work.
But the tools of linkage and interactive communications are available as never before. The barriers of language and translation have been lowered as never before. The opportunities for U.N. and world leaders to converse with and consult with all the world’s networks — civil, nongovernmental, private sector and charitable — and all the world’s great movements for justice, fairness and gender equality, and even, dare one say, all the generations, young, middle and old — have never been more accessible and simpler to operate. They should be opened wide.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations.