It is a pleasure to be back at Yale. A few years ago, as a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute, I taught a course here on multilateral institutions in the 21st century. At the time I was a former official of the State Department, drawing on my experience representing the United States in multilateral fora, especially the United Nations.
Today I am an official of the United Nations. The department I head plays a central role in United Nations efforts to prevent deadly conflict and build sustainable peace. We have a global mandate: political missions in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Libya, Haiti and Somalia; and envoys addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Myanmar. We also have envoys practicing conflict prevention at a regional level in East, West and Central Africa, and Central Asia. We provide support to the Secretary-General in his engagements across the world and are increasingly involved in work with e countries where no formally mandated peace operation is present.
As you can imagine, the big questions raised by the title of my remarks suffuse my work. But in the press of daily demands, it can, in all honesty, be hard to find time to think about them. So I particularly welcome the opportunity you have given me to share some thoughts with you today.
A difficult time…
We are having this conversation at a difficult time. Far from a “new world order”, what we see is unease and uncertainty across the globe; intensified competition amongst major powers; and a perception that we face threats more serious than we have seen in a generation: persistent conflict, accelerating climate change, and new forms of warfare deriving from technological change and without international governance.
In our core work of conflict prevention and resolution, we are seeing some negative trends. Three, all intertwined, stand out:
- Increasingly intractable conflicts: The average duration of civil wars has risen over time and is reflected in an increased average duration for our peace operations and political missions.
- An abundance and fragmentation of non-state armed groups: Conflicts today often feature complex and decentralized non-state armed groups with loose and fluid chains of command. Some adopt terrorism as a deliberate tactic, targeting the UN and complicating our acceptance as an impartial actor by all sides.
- Increased regional and international involvement. Conflicts engaged are increasingly affected by competition for power amongst regional and other actors, as well as factors such as migration. The priorities of influential neighbouring or international actors can directly impact our conflict resolution efforts.
Together, these factors contribute to a sense that we have lost traction on the major conflicts; increase calls for isolationism and closed borders; and feed scepticism about multilateral efforts. Yet, as Secretary-General António Guterres has frequently observed, this is a moment where there is arguably more need for multilateral cooperation and collective solutions to a range of problems that transcend borders and regions than at any time in the United Nations’ history.
How to explain, and respond to, this central paradox?
My view is that a questioning of the relevance of multilateralism is rooted in divergence among states in their interpretation of the principles on which the UN is based, principles that have defined international cooperation for the past seven decades. This underpins a tendency to circumvent rules and leads some states to seek to redefine their roles in the multilateral system.
When the UN was established 74 years ago, its Member States committed to the sovereign equality of all states, to refraining from the use of force and to taking collective action regarding threats to international peace and security. These principles are outlined in the UN Charter, to which all Member States pledge adherence. They were developed by the victors of the Second World War — the major powers that exist today. But there are now new and rising powers that were not part of the creation of these rules. And even those who were, interpret them differently.
Let’s take one principle — sovereignty. To many countries, sovereignty does not mean that a state has the absolute right to do as it chooses. It also means that a state has responsibilities — not only to its citizens but to other states — not to pollute the environment, to prevent terrorists from crossing borders, to curb the flow of weapons, to abide by international human rights and humanitarian law. But to other states, sovereignty is deemed absolute. This has limited the UN’s ability to prevent and resolve conflicts in many parts of the world, including, perhaps most obviously, Syria.
Meanwhile, many people are losing faith in the process of globalization. They feel left behind. Around the world, we see the rising appeal of nationalist and populist voices.
Demonstrations are affecting countries from the Middle East to Latin America and the Caribbean and from Europe to Africa and Asia. While every situation is unique, one common thread connecting all demonstrations is a growing deficit of trust between people and political establishments. This constitutes a rising threat to the social contract.
Not all bad news…
Yet not all the news is bad. Indeed, if we look back at the recent high-level week of the General Assembly, more world leaders than ever before descended on New York. The climate crisis quite rightly topped the bill in terms of their attention – and beyond states, generated an extraordinary mobilization of activists, many of them young, demanding change at the Climate Action Summit.
As a collective body, the General Assembly itself counters the idea that unilateralism could be the answer to the world’s problems. What we heard from a number of Member States is that many of today’s challenges cannot be addressed by one state or a few states alone. For some issues, the way forward lies in more, not less international cooperation.
To quote the Secretary-General, however, “it is not enough to proclaim the virtue of multilateralism; we must prove its added value.” And collective action must be for a defined purpose, based on principles that are commonly agreed.
What to do?
So, what does multilateralism look like in practice? A short answer lies in one word, “partnerships”. There is not a juxtaposition between “multilateralism versus regionalism and unilateralism”. Multilateralism can mean a few states working togheter to solve common problems. Or an organization like the UN working with regional organizations or international financial institutions. But these partnerships must go beyond states and intergovernmental bodies to include civil society, the private sector, women’s organizations and youth – all of whom make an important contribution to global international cooperation.
We are still wrestling with existing threats and challenges to security – migration, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms transfers. And we have new challenges to address – the impact of climate change on security, the benefits and risks of new technology. I think that you would all agree that not one country can solve these challenges alone.
Let me end here, as I am keen to hear your views, in particular, on how you see cooperation that is needed to address today’s security challenges; and your role in helping realize it.