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The UN’s Existential Crisis

Far from bolstering multilateralism, COVID-19 has revealed a world of nation-states locked into a destructive zero-sum contest. The United Nations' upcoming 75th anniversary thus risks being remembered as the moment when a lethal virus destroyed the very idea of our common humanity.

On October 24, the United Nations will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its founding in 1945, when the historic UN Charter entered into force. Sadly, the organization will do so at a time when multilateralism has never seemed more in peril.

The COVID-19 pandemic has inaugurated a new era of deglobalization. Evidence of isolationism and protectionism is mounting, with many governments loudly emphasizing sovereignty, nationalism, and self-reliance, and questioning treaties and trade agreements. The UN therefore has every reason to worry about its continuing salience.

In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 22, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called COVID-19 a “fifth horseman” of a potential global apocalypse. The coronavirus’s emergence, rapid spread worldwide, and rising death toll (now exceeding one million), together with the pervasive fear it has stoked, have been accompanied by a dramatic contraction in world trade and the most calamitous recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is now beyond reach in a world suffering from economic collapse and social dysfunction.

The UN faces an existential crisis, in which its biggest former advocates are challenging the very premises of the multilateralism upon which the organization was founded. Under President Donald Trump, the United States is backing away from multilateralism, prompting French President Emmanuel Macron recently to decry America’s unwillingness to remain the international system’s “guarantor of last resort.” Trump’s recent announcement that he intends to withdraw the US from the World Health Organization may be a harbinger of a broader unraveling of the multilateral system painstakingly constructed after World War II.

But Europe also has been buffeted by pandemic-related strains. The continent was once seen as a poster child for the virtues of regional integration, but European solidarity quickly crumbled under the onslaught of the pandemic, with the Schengen area’s guarantee of border-free travel being among the early casualties.

In fact, European Union member states threw up national barriers at the first sign of the virus. Italy, the first center of the COVID-19 outbreak outside of China, was initially denied medical equipment by its EU neighbors, who introduced export controls instead of showing solidarity toward fellow Europeans in distress. The credibility of EU multilateralism will take a long time to recover.

The threat to the multilateral world order is accentuated by increasing Sino-American tensions, even as well-meaning liberals warn that China will take advantage of the West’s abandonment of the UN by seizing leadership of the multilateral system. But China’s multilateralism is largely rhetorical. Its preferred modus operandi, evident from President Xi Jinping’s signature transnational infrastructure investment program, the Belt and Road Initiative, is to pursue unequal bilateral arrangements – without multilateral supervision by an independent UN body – that leave partner countries dependent and indebted.

When the WHO attempted to exercise its oversight role in Wuhan at the start of the pandemic, China rebuffed it. Far from showcasing the multilateral system’s ability to fight a global health emergency collectively, COVID-19 has demonstrated the waning legitimacy of international institutions.

The WHO’s pandemic response showed that many global institutions and their agencies are politicized, manipulated by major powers, and lack independent leadership and purpose. China, a leading player in the WHO, preferred to safeguard its national interests rather than safeguard global public health.

This is not the only area where nationalism and economic parochialism have fractured the post-war international order and diminished the UN’s capacity for collective action. Perhaps the most serious global failure relates to mitigating climate change. Once a priority only for scientists and activists, the impact of global warming is now more visible and devastating than at any time in history. Today, climate migrants outnumber refugees fleeing conflict or seeking economic opportunity. Although several world leaders spoke of climate change at the recent General Assembly, there was no renewed commitment to a common effort to tackle it, even though the 2020s are certain to be a make-or-break decade for doing so.

Given that the world is struggling to manage its most pressing existential risk, it is no surprise that other international policy regimes are gridlocked, too. Twentieth-century rules relating to trade, connectivity, innovation, peace, and security have all become forums for perverse unilateral state behavior. The UN Security Council is stalemated by fundamental differences among its permanent members.

To be sure, the UN is still doing vital work around the world. About 95,000 troops, police, and civilian personnel serve in over 40 UN peacekeeping operations and political missions. But unpaid contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget, which is a little over $8 billion, totaled $1.7 billion in the last fiscal year. Likewise, $711 million in assessed contributions are owed to the UN’s general budget.

Developing countries remain the UN’s core constituency: the organization works for them, serves as a “force multiplier” for their voices on the global stage, and frames the challenges they face as the collective responsibility of all. When a country like India clamors for UN reform, it is acknowledging that the institution has done well enough on a wide range of issues to be worth reforming. Multilateralism protects those who otherwise would be left exposed to the depredations of an unequal world.

But COVID-19 has buffeted the UN. Had the system worked effectively, a global alarm about its danger would have been sounded as soon as the coronavirus emerged, best practices to prevent or limit its spread would have been identified and publicized, and all countries would have been encouraged to adopt them.

Instead, the pandemic revealed a world of nation-states locked in a destructive zero-sum contest. When the current crisis is over, the UN must lead the world in learning lessons about what happened, and assessing how international systems and institutions can be strengthened and radically reformed to forestall a recurrence. Otherwise, the UN’s 75th anniversary may be remembered as the moment when a lethal virus destroyed the very idea of our common humanity.

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