As readers of UNToday will be all too well aware, today’s uncertain international situation is beset by what some commentators have termed polycrises: interconnected challenges to peace, security and well-being that feed on each other in a menacing cycle of instability and devastation. We face this acutely in the Middle East, in the Ukraine/Russia conflict, in the lingering threats of the pandemic and the shadow of climate change hanging over us all. At the same time there are far too many “frozen conflicts”, where unresolved tensions resist the best efforts of the United Nations and other intermediaries over decades to bring them to a conclusion and an end to the human suffering, bitterness and frustration they impose on the affected communities.
A daunting prospect for us all – and especially for young people at the start of their careers, or in the midst of university studies and poised to take on an adult role in society. I’ve been teaching some courses on global challenges and the multilateral institutions at several of the leading universities across the world – with results that unfortunately left more questions than answers. Together we have looked at all the challenges cited above, as well as how they impact and aggravate each other. And in parallel we have examined the international organizations established primarily to bring order to a troubled world, to enhance human security and promote economic and social well-being: at the universal level the United Nations and its global system, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO; at the regional level the European Union, the African Union and others, and then security alliances such as NATO.
I’ve been fortunate to work with brilliant, engaged, intellectually curious students from all regions: most now facing a sombre future. At the end of our course I ask whether they feel more or less optimistic about the international community and our global destiny. Most often they respond that the more they learn, the less hopeful they become. A sense of frustration, disappointment and powerlessness prevails, coupled with a newly realistic appreciation of international cooperation. Of course this may reflect poorly on their professor… but we’ve always had intensive, vivacious, dynamic discussions together. The core issue is the dawning realization of the limits of international action in a world still dominated, indeed driven, by the principles of unshakable national sovereignty.
Without entering into political polemics, if we examine any of the major international challenges alluded to above, we find effective multilateral responses stymied by national interests, national priorities, national politics. The structures of international cooperation available to us, it would seem, simply do not allow for successful international action. And yet they accurately reflect the current international reality. Small wonder, in fact, that an idealistic young activist such as Greta Thunberg can cry out “how dare you?” to the world’s leaders, “You have stolen my dreams..”. And it is a telling commentary on the paralysis of his own institution’s main organs that Secretary-General Guterres seems more than ever to be speaking as a global activist himself, decrying in eloquent and courageous terms the lack of progress on climate change, or the inability to bring desperately needed humanitarian succour to the innocent victims of conflict. It may be that his outspoken words in fact contributed to the relative success of COP28.
Speaking as a “multilateral professional” who has spent a major part of his life and career with the UN, the World Bank, even NATO and the EU, this is hardly the realization I would like to leave my students. But it is that dichotomy between aspiration and reality at the heart of the UN that the moving, inspirational words of the UN Charter throw up in stark relief: “We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”: but the Charter was signed by Member States, not Member Peoples. More than one Secretary-General has been brought up short by this dichotomy and undertaken everything in his power to circumvent it, as Kofi Annan makes abundantly clear in his fine memoir “Interventions”, or as Secretary-General Guterres seems increasingly, and bravely, called upon to confront today.
So where does this leave us? What should we tell the next generation, our students of international relations, should they all become hard-headed “realists” or can they look to a more promising future? Some of the best and brightest may dismiss governmental structures, indeed governmental careers, as ineffectual, politicized, bureaucratic, impractical; and possibly look to the private sector as the only sphere hcapable of providing large-scale, action-oriented answers to climate change or sustainable prosperity. And indeed the power and potential of the great tech companies, riding on the crest of transformational AI and data analytics, or even the wealth and expertise of the multinational energy companies confronting global warming, seem to dwarf the ability of all but the largest governments to effect meaningful change. Others of the most promising may relinquish this idealistic sphere altogether, electing instead to make millions in finance if the opportunity presents itself. And of course still others make individualistic choices in start-ups and entrepreneurship i- n a society that thankfully rewards risk-taking and innovation.
Ultimately all of our futures still depend on human choices, on the decisions we take, on the leaders we elect. We all have the power to see beyond current structures, beyond the walls that divide – in a shared interest. We can still choose the long-term over the short-term, the sustainable tomorrow rather than today’s instant gratification. The problem lies, of course, in that the longer conflict or an impasse persists, the harder it becomes to take this path, to overcome bitterness and hatred engendered by years of resentment. A New York Times article highlighted the “dehumanization” of mutual perceptions in the Palestine/Israel conflict. The inability to see the human on the other side: strikingly conveyed in the first lines of Wilferd Owens’ great First World War poem Strange Meeting: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”. We have to bridge apparently insurmountable divides, or as another great English writer, EM Forster, urged: “Only Connect”. That is finally the suggestion I leave to my students: use the greatest faculty available to mankind, your own imagination. That same imagination that led to the founding of the UN and that can still give us hope for a reimagined future – and a renewed determination to deploy the only multilateral structures available to us to make it a reality.