By Mariarosaria Iorio.
In these controversial contemporary times, the United Nations (UN) and its agencies are at best sidelined, at worst ignored. The most recent case of sidelining relates to the Corona virus epidemic, which had been announced by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and had been ignored by political leaders already end of 2019.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the UN is considered as being under perfusion as it has lost its political pertinence. There are UN agencies whose existence is ignored by citizens, there are programmes that appear to be irrelevant to observers, there are staff that appear to be too expensive for what they produce.
The most recent symbolic political examples of the world crisis are: the contribution withdrawal of the United States to the WHO, the resignation of the Director General of the WTO before the end of its mandate (the WTO is not part of the UN but its deadlock is part of the reasoning that applies to the UN) and the stillmate of the negotiations on the European Recovery Fund.
Such a trend can be summarized as follows: disbelief in multilateralism in general, and the growth of nation-based interests, in particular. Indeed, the United Nations are commonly critized for their lack of pertinence, lack of impact, lack of cost-efficiency and lack of justice.
It is a pespective that can be understood, when looked at from the average citizen lens. Hearing comments by citizens, while defending the need for the UN to exist I have often found myself imagining how would the world be without the UN. How would the world be if one day we woke up without any UN Headquarters in Geneva and in New York, and without any UN agency in the world.
The first immediate result would be that all international staff would have to either go back to their own countries, or look for jobs in other sectors (not a very probable option) in what used to be host countries. As of local staff in host countries, they would have to also look for relatively less well paid jobs in their own countries.
The buildings of the UN in Geneva and New York would probably become either museums, as for exemple the building at the Place des Nations in Geneva. Other less historical buldings would be rent to multinationals business. Some buldings would remain empty for a while.
People would remind themselves of how it « used to be » when the UN still existed, and of the time when tourists used to come from all over the world to visit the Place des Nations, and its « broken chair ». The Geneva and New York international bubble would puff and suddenly disappear, with an immediate effect of lowering rents and appartments becoming suddenly affordable.
International revenue derived from international burocrats for the respective host countries would disappear. Host countries countries would look for other sources of revenue. Maybe, new businesses would be encouraged to come in.
No more UN meetings with politicians and experts coming from all over the world to echange views and perspectives. As a result, no more international negotiated texts and Treaties. Only the once already into force would be kept. No need to update or to reformulate texts and governments commitments. After a few weeks of distress being expressed by diplomats and experts, life would go back to its rights and debates and comments on how the « disapperance could have been avoided » would decrease as time went by.
Countries would then look inwards, and restart building their own production systems and international relatiolns according to national priorities only. In sum, the world would not be as ONE but a rather fragmented and MULTIPLE world. It is the contemporary trend: fragmentation and inward-looking. Political leaders would jubilate of their refound freedom to make national choices without having to negotiate with any other country.
What a relief! At least at first.
So the United States would finally be on its own, not having to pay its contributions to any UN Organisations. China would go back to produce for its own population. The European Union would be on its own, if not fragmented and imploded itself in the meanwhile. International aid programmes would also be stopped.
The United Nations being one of the multilateral implementation tool of international cooperation programmes, once shut down developing countries would have to go on their own development policies as well. No more « external influence » processed through cooperation projects. This is what many observers had wished for years. Imagine finishing the programmes under way, but no new programmes in the pipeline. A dream for the anti-development cooperation voices.
Then, the day after we would have to think about the next steps. Every country would finally be in charge of its own policies. Its own labour, economic, environment and industrial policies.
What would happen to International Treaties ?
In our fiction pushed to its extreme, Treaties would be put on hold and only existing legislation would be taken into account for nations, which would also be based on before-the-en signed international Treaties. In sum, the world without the UN would be a world of nations on their own, with less dialogue and less international Treaties.
What would that mean with regard to world peace-keeping ?
Hopefully, each country would keep peaceful relations with other nations. Conflicts would have to be solved between concerned parties. This would apply also to invasion of small by stronger countries. No more blue helmets, no more Security Council meetings. No more Human Rights Commitee meetings. The surveillance violation of human rights would also stay at nations level. In fact, this scenario would be the scenario of 1919 when the Ligue of Nations was set-up.
The world of the first world war was already a world without the UN (created in 1945 after the failure of the Ligue of Nations and a series of previous aborted attempts). It was a world of nations states. We could go back to that world: fragmented and violent. The Ligue of Nations (1919) was replaced by the UN (1949) to ensure security, peace and stability.
We could go back to a world without the UN, and take the risk of moving towards a world that would be more unstable, unsure and conflictual, if not in war. Not an unprobable circumstance in light of the increasing tensions and the lack of international solidarity. The COVID 19 has been a clear exemple of what a chaotic management of worldwide public health issues can be like. A great number of deaths caused by a disorganised management of frontiers, weakened national hospitals, and no international sanitary policy. World health is indeed a piece of the peace puzzle.
Breaking down the dialogue among nations based on a purely economic calculation remains an extremely risky choice. The existence of multilateral organisations is to be definetely adapted to a changing world. Indeed, the UN is not perfect.
And yes, there is a large margin for restructing and change, namely by refocusing mandates of its agencies and by probably shutting down a number of programmes that are no longer relevant (in the part II of this analysis I will take agencies one by one to highlight what in my view shall change to make the agencies more relevant).
However, a world without multilateral fora such as the UN remains a world of instability, and of unbalanced power relations. One century ago nations had been unable to stay engaged in peace. The marginalisation of multilateral fora such as the United Nations are the symptom of a danger: that is a multipolar world based on a pragmagmatic and self-interested foreign policy. This framework combined to the weakening of the United Nations is only a major danger for world peace !
About the author:
Mariarosaria Iorio is a political analyst, passionate of international relations and African politics. Her professional experience in international relations and multilateral negotiations as an insider gives her a « hands-on » approach.
She started at the International Labour Office, and pursued her passion in The World Trade Organization (WTO), civil society and University. Her book on Global Governance Trade and the Crisis in Europe contains her reflection on the Global Governance, the Crisis in Europe and international trade. The book can be ordered from several websites, www.fnac.fr, www.amazon.com, www.feltrinelli.it. Her other articles are available on her linkedIn profile, where she can be contacted for further information/collaboration.