The United Nations, Multilateralism, and International Peace and Security


The Executive Director of the Programme on International Peace and Security at the Blavatnik School of Government, Dr Federica D'Alessandra, made the following speech at the Brearley Prize Ceremony on the topic: "The United Nations, Multilateralism, and International Peace and Security: Outdated Models, or Best Hope for Humanity’s Future?"


Thank you Arun for your kind words of introduction, and for granting me the honor of being here with all of you today.


Ladies, gentleman, Society members, dear students: good afternoon.

As someone interested in security and Foreign Policy smyself, it is a privilege to be addressing the Oxford Stubbs Society, especially on occasion of the awarding of the inaugural Brearley Essay Prize, which endevors to deliver us 10 of the most promising students of these disciplines.


I read each one of your essays, and I was extremely impressed. In fact, I’d like to begin by saluting each one of you who participated and distinguished themselves in this essay competition for your interest in international affairs, your intellectual curiosity, and your impressive research and writing abilities. If these essays are any indication of how diligently and masterfully you will engage in your University studies, I do not hesitate to say you have great achievements ahead of you.


I would also like to express my gratitude to each one of your parents, for their dedication to your future, which, based on what transpired from the essays is very clearly our collective future, as well as for their support in your cultivation of knowledge and expertise, inescapable conditions of serious statecraft and principled leadership.

When I was asked to deliver this lecture, I dwelled on what would have been a topic that could suit the diversity of backgrounds and interests we have in the audience today.. I am told all of you wish to perfect your understanding of the genealogy of modern times through the lenses of history and statecraft.


I am not a historian, but history is certainly one of my favorite disciplines. Without historical memory, in fact, humanity is bound to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Except, that given the direction of our arms race, and the pace of our innovation and technology, including as applied to novel and sophisticated systems of weaponry, repeating past mistakes might as well cost us the ability to make any future ones.


Statecraft is also one of my favorite subjects to study, in particular the type of statecraft that results in innovative solutions to current challenges. I am fascinated by, and admire the type of leadership and statecraft that, in the course of contemporary history, has manifested itself in the establishment of a multilateral system of institutions –from the United Nations, to NATO, to the EU, and other regional organizations for security and cooperation- that, albeit utterly imperfect, has nevertheless brought about levels of peace and prosperity that are without a doubt unprecedented.


To this creative and courageous leadership as a form of statecraft, today we juxtapose the sentiment of many leaders around the world determined to undo the progress the international community has made since 1945, by sewing divisions with narratives and political agendas that pit “us” v. “them”, and by arguing we should “reject globalism” and instead fold inward, and look at the world, including our allies, with fear and mistrust.

So I told myself that today, addressing this group of young leaders who without a doubt will take on the helm of our societies in just a matter of years, was a golden opportunity to make a plea on behalf of multilateralism, not as an anachronistic and outdated model of statecraft, but –if history teaches us much- as the only hope and possible path forward humanity has left.


Some of you in this audience have written interesting essays on the necessity to reform the temple of multilateralism, the United Nations, and its Security Council in particular, as well as why these attempts at structural reform have failed. So, I decided to use the story of how the United Nations came about to highlight a tension that is itself, in my humble opinion, the “original sin” of the flawed system of international institutions we have today.


And while I hope to engage in a broader discussion about the United Nations that goes beyond its structural deficiencies, I also want to talk about leadership, and particularly the type of leadership I think we need today, which I hope you will be able to provide when your turn comes to lead.. And if my words will inspire even just one of you to become, or perhaps continue to be, a proactive agent of change, I will consider this Lecture to have been a success.


So let’s begin with some history, some facts and figures.


It is August 1941. Hitler’s death march across Easter Europe is almost complete when he orders the invasion of the Soviet Union. It has been almost a year since the United Kingdom defended itself from the devastating bombing campaign of the Luftwaffe. The United States is not yet at war. Yet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill are in conference “somewhere at sea”—the same seas on which the Battle of the Atlantic is desperately being fought. On August 14, the two leaders issue a joint, visionary declaration, destined to be known as the Atlantic Charter.


The document contains the leaders’ “hopes for a future world” after a war that, by its end, had consumed 80 million lives, 50 million of which civilian, about 20 million of which were battle related deaths, another 30 million deaths by famine and widespread disease. It is striking that in the face of a destruction of such scale, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were capable to imagine a world in which people could live in “freedom from fear and want”, where nations would seek “no aggrandizement, territorial or other”, and where the use of militaristic force would be abandoned; “aggressor nations” would be punished and disarmed.


The historic statement outlined what Yale professors Oona Hathaway and David Schapiro have called a vision for a ‘New World Order’, in contraposition to and so radically different from the ‘Old World Order’ that preceded World War II that would become its ‘photo negative’. A New World Order where “states no longer have the right to conquer other states; waging aggressive war is a grave crime; gunboat diplomacy is no longer legitimate; and economic sanctions are not only legal, but the standard way in which international order is enforced”.


The historic statement did more than just outline a vision, however. It set forth the basis for the process that lead to the establishment of the United Nations.


Indeed, within four years, with the war still not officially over, a conference of 46 nations was convened by the Allied powers in San Francisco, where the Charter of the United Nations was eventually drafted.


In the course of two months, countless debates and differences of opinions constellated the 3500 delegate strong conference. Controversies ranged from the role that regional organizations that held security, defense, and mutual legal assistance and cooperation agreements should play, or the role that the new organization would have vis-à-vis generating new laws for the international community.


These 400 meetings in the course of only 2 months often saw crisis escalate to the point some feared the conference would break up, and no organization could be created. Above all, the right of each of the "Big Five" (which included the four sponsors plus France) to exercise a "veto" on action by the powerful Security Council provoked long and heated debate.


The smaller powers feared that when one of the "Big Five" menaced the peace, the Security Council would be powerless to act, while in the event of a clash between two powers not permanent members of the Security Council, the "Big Five" could act arbitrarily. As we will see, these fears, it turns out, were not unfounded. They strove, therefore, to have the power of the "veto" reduced.


But the great powers unanimously insisted on this provision as vital, and emphasized that the main responsibility for maintaining world peace would ultimately fall most heavily on them anyways.


Not having forgotten that the United States’ failure to join the United Nations predecessor, the League of Nations, ultimately caused the League to falter, in the interest of setting up the world organization and ensuring that all great powers participated, smaller powers had to eventually conceded on the veto.


Each delegation was, in fact, acutely aware of the need to set up a system that would prevent the world from falling again into the tragedy of another deadly world war, which could as well have annihilated the human race. For this reason, all nations were determined to set up, if not the perfect international organization, at least the best that could possibly be made.


While inspired by the values and principled outlined by Roosevelt and Churchill on that August 14, the Charter was indeed the result of a compromise among several visions of the world order. As such, it contained some idiosyncrasies from the start.


On the one hand, the Charter set the stage for what some drafters imagined would eventually become a self-contained system of world government, much akin to a worldwide federation of United Nations.


The Charter did indeed set up an embryonic form of world government, composed by a legislative body, the UN General Assembly, in which each State, no matter how big or small, would have one vote, and which would take decisions by a 2/3 majority; an “Executive” branch, the Security Council; and some form of “judicial branch”, an International Court of Justice, that would help the organization fulfill its ability to “settle international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace, by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law”.

The UN Charter also established the three founding pillars of the UN system: 1. peace and security, 2. human rights, and 3. Development, which together provided a framework for the whole organization to tackle challenges its predecessor, the League of Nations, could never have foreseen.


On the other hand, however, despite this “normative” vision that called for a self-contained system of world government, the Charter was punctuated by both subtle nods and explicit references to national sovereignty as the ordering and primary element of this new organization. This notion of the primacy of national sovereignty, and its tension with the aspirations of the newly established organizations, it turns out, is very much what made the system flawed at its foundation.


Because of the primacy of sovereignty, for example, the organization’s most democratic and representative body, which is mandated to legislate for the benefit of the entire international community, was made unable to impose binding decision on any of its members, this power being in fact reserved to the most undemocratic and unrepresentative body of the three, composed by 5 permanent members who hold the prerogative to veto any decision that might counter their national interest, or that of their allies, proxies, and protégés. These 5 permanent members were to serve next to a number of rotating states, 6 up to 1965, and 10 ever since, elected for a 2 year term. While all members can contribute a majority vote to any decision- any such decision can be struck down by any of the P5s vetoes.


The “judicial” branch of the organization was also crippled in the name of sovereignty, as member nations would not be compelled to accept the Court's jurisdiction, like any party to an otherwise regular social pact would be forced to do, but would voluntarily agree to its acceptance. Furthermore, the Court’s proceedings were set up to be more akin to a “civil suit” among nations than anything else.


Despite “aggression” was in fact declared the “supreme international crime”, and despite after the war the Allied powers had set up war crimes tribunals in Europe and in the Far East to try the criminal actions of the Axis, and in particular their “aggression”, the world had to wait for another 53 years, in 1998, for the Statute of an International Criminal Court to be adopted; and in the end even this world criminal tribunal was constituted as an organization independent from the United Nations (given the P5 vetos, that was intentional). Because of this, to this day, despite being 130 countries strong, this Court does not count Russia, the United States and China, 3 of the 5 permanent powers among its members.


Even more fascinatingly, despite the supreme international crime (that is starting a war in violation of the UN Charter, or a war of aggression) was recognized to be criminal ever since 1945, it took another 71 years after this precedent was set to for an international tribunal to be granted again the ability to try world leaders for planning or initiating wars of aggression. Indeed, that provision only became active in July of this year, and thanks, in part to both France and the UK, it is subjected to a very restrictive jurisdictional regime. But that is a story for another day.


Besides the apparent flaws of the “judicial” and “legislative” branches of this new organization, few will disagree that –albeit condition to its very establishment- the most consequential “birth defect” of the United Nations organization was indeed the constitution of its “executive” branch, the Security Council, and specifically its power to veto.


In its original stipulation, the Council did not include in fact any members of African, Arab, or Latin American nations, for example. Of course, 142 of the countries that today make up the 193 strong United Nations did not exist in 1945. Indeed, the original Charter was negotiated and signed only by 51 States.


Over the course of the years, geographical and regional representation, contributions to the UN budget (relative to the means of each nations), and contributions to broader UN activities, including peacekeeping missions, have become sine qua non conditions for election to the powerful body. However, the fact remains that 188 Nations around the world compete for 10 “seats at the table”, whereas 5 nations maintain a lifetime appointment, as well as the prerogative to block any decision or action, although, importantly, they cannot prevent discussions from taking place.


If one looks at the state of the world today, in every place on earth where international peace is breached or threatened, the Security Council is present. In particular, each of the 5 permanent members are active around the world either directly involved in military operations of different nature, or lending military or other material support to any such operations. And indeed, in many cases, their presence is benign, even vital; working under UN or NATO flags, P5-led and Security Council authorized peacekeeping or stability missions save countless lives in the most disparate of situations.


Since 1948, the United Nations alone have deployed almost 90,000 peacekeepers around the world in 71 missions, 14 of which are still active to this day, costing approximately 6.7 billion just this fiscal year alone.


And albeit P5 are the least likely to contribute troops to peacekeeping missions (the highest troops contributing countries being Ethiopia, India, and Pakistan), they contribute the vats majority of non-personnel military assets, military expertise, including at the tactical and strategic level, intelligence, and –of course- finances.

Indeed, the top financial contributors to UN peacekeeping are the United States (28.47%); China (10.25%); Japan (9.68%); Germany (6.39%); France (6.28%); United Kingdom (5.77%); Russian Federation (3.99%); Italy (3.75%). Similarly, the top contributing countries to the UN overall budget are, in order: the USA (22 %); Japan (9.58%); China (7.93 %); Germany (6.93 %); France (4.86 %); the UK (4.46 %); Brazil (3.82 %); Italy (3.75%), and Russia (3.09%).


So the argument that the lion’s share of maintaining international peace and security and keeping the United Nations running would ultimately fall on the permanent 5 was not after all so far fetched. (Even though already at this point it is apparent that, by no means, the P5 are the “sole” guarantors of international peace and security, with Germany, Japan, Brazil, Italy, and other countries like South Africa, Turkey, Egypt, and Nigeria also playing an important geo-strategic role of their own).


But what about the hesitations expressed by smaller powers at the San Francisco conference?


A recent UN and World Bank joint report called “Pathways for Peace” reveals that for the first time since the end of WWII, in 2010, the number of major violent conflicts has tripled, and fighting in a growing number of lower intensity conflicts has escalated; the same report reveals that in 2016 alone, for the first time in over thirty years, the number of countries experiencing violent conflict has grown, and albeit much of this violence remains entrenched in low-income countries, some of today’s deadliest conflicts are occurring in countries at higher income levels and with stronger institutions. Also, more and more conflicts today are internationalized, as countries, most likely P5, intervene in support of a party or parties in another country’s conflict.


Smaller powers fears expressed at the San Francisco conference that when one of the "Big Five" menaced the peace, the Security Council would be powerless to act, while in the event of a clash between two powers not permanent members of the Security Council, the "Big Five" could act arbitrarily, were then also not unfounded.

In too many cases, of which Russia’s 12 vetoes on Syria is the most shameful, Security Council power politics, when not the reckless behavior of veto yielding permanent members, are ultimately what is threatening international peace and security, and preventing lives from being saved. There have been 220 vetoes since 1946, of which 107 by Russia (90 of which racked up between 1945 and 1955), 79 by the US (42 times of which to block any action against Israel), 29 by the UK, 16 by France, and 11 by China.


This abuse of veto powers, which emboldens rogue actors to act with impunity, has doubtlessly contributed to fomenting violence around the world, and has cost countless lives, producing a “veto fatigue” over the years, and deep-rooted awareness that if the UN is to stay relevant and capable to confront new threats, the Security Council has to be reformed.


New threats to international peace and security are in fact posed on a daily basis by the emergence of new weapons, the technology of which is so rapidly changing that legislators and regulators cannot keep the pace; by the proliferation of small and traditional weapons (which today still cause the vast majority of battle related deaths) as well as non-traditional weapons, such as nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, and cyber weapons, which compressively and in light of their virtually boundless reach, pose a much greater threat to the world stability; challenges are also posed by the changing character of war, which no longer sees States exclusively fight States, but has witnessed the emergence of non-state armed groups, such as Boko Haram, Hamas, Isis and Al Qaeda, capable of mounting State-like protracted military campaigns, and threaten their enemies from anywhere on Earth.


The international community is not blind to this understanding for a need of reform. There have in fact been several proposals to reform the Security Council.

Some countries like India, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, have argued the Security Council permanent membership should be expanded to be more regionally representative, with the most important geo-strategic players in each region to be elevated to the ranks of veto-yielding permanent members. Of course, given the trouble already caused by existing vetoes, very little appetite exists (beyond these few States) for an expansion of such a privilege.


A High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change that was created in 2003 by then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to analyze threats and challenges to international peace and security, and to recommend action based on this analysis, brought about a series of reforms to the overall United Nations structure, including an expanded and strengthened role for Human Rights through the creation of a UN Human Rights Council, the incorporation of Human Rights components tasked with monitoring and reporting on the risk of atrocities embedded within peacekeeping missions, and a more forceful and vigorous debate on human rights issues as threats to the international peace and security of all nations, including via briefings by the International Criminal Court Prosecutor, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Secretary General Special Representatives before the Security Council.


The initiative also resulted in two proposals for UN Security Council reform. Plan A, proposed to expand permanent membership of the Council to include 6 more members WITHOUT veto powers, and add 3 more non permanent members, all seats to be distributed according to regional representation; Plan B, proposed to only expand non permanent members, one seat for a 2 years term, and 8 seats for a 4 years, renewable term, without veto power. Any such reform proposal has to pass a 2/3 majority of the United Nations General Assembly, and have to have the consent of each of the permanent 5. Based on these requirements, many fear UN Security Council reform might be doomed.


It is for this reason that, in recent times, the United Nations General Assembly and other bodies within the United Nations have taken on a more proactive role to do the best they can to supply leadership and innovative solutions to enforce and maintain international peace and security where the Security Council locks into a stalemate.

Take Syria, for example: outrage over the impunity with which war crimes and other assaults upon civilian security and human dignity are being perpetrated, paired with growing frustration over Russia’s role in preventing any accountability action whatsoever, led the General Assembly, on 21 December 2016, to resurface a 1956 resolution first used at the time of the Suez Canal crisis, called Uniting for Peace, and adopt on its basis another resolution 71/248, establishing the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011.


Similarly, just a few days ago, on September 26, the United Nations Human Rights Council reacted to the scathing report of the United Nations Monitoring and Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar finding that there are reasons to believe the military might have orchestrated a campaign amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity against Myanmar civilians in Northern Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States, as well as possibly perpetrated a Genocide against the Rohingya minority. Acting to prevent a China veto if the matter went to the Security Council, the Human Rights Council took it upon itself to establish a similar International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for Myanmar. And these are only two of a constellation of “rebellious acts” that other bodies of the United Nations are undertaking to signal to the Security Council that they are fed up.


Of course, these mechanisms have their limits: no one but the Security Council can, in fact, compel States action, and most of the new mechanisms and initiatives emanating form other “rebellious” UN bodies rely on voluntarily contributions by like-minded members.


But the fact that they do exist and are up and running, as well as the innovative modality through which are being set up, in my opinion, speaks to two important facts.

The first is that norms are changing, and crude power politics has become increasingly unacceptable to the vast majority of States that compose the democratic or elected bodies of the United Nations.


It takes visionary leadership however, and out of the box thinking, both to envision new solutions, and to find ways in which these new solutions can be channeled through existing structure to provide the immediate and urgent relief which is a duty of the United Nations, but that powerful states often forsake for the benefit of their broader geo-strategic interests.


The second fact that I think many of us struggle to acknowledge these days is that, the power of ideas continue to matter, and so does the courage of leadership in carrying them forward; against all odds, and against the opinion of those who might tell you such ideas are naïve, or unrealistic.


Each of these “rebellious acts” are in fact being spearheaded by individual leaders and civil servants that acknowledge and understand the current system can no longer continue. These leaders and civil servants are acting as what in normative constructivist theory we call “Norm Entrepreneurs”: leaders committed to higher values, interested in changing social norms, than when successful in their endeavors, produce norm bandwagons and norm cascades that lead to substantial changes in the normative course of history.


Norm entrepreneurs are not a manifestation of contemporary dynamics, however. Roosevelt and Churchill were the ultimate norm entrepreneurs. In fact, albeit in short supply nowadays, norm entrepreneurs, even beyond Churchill and Rosevelt, have delivered humanity throughout the whole course of history creative ways out of otherwise impossible situations. And this is why we need more of them today than ever.

Confronted with an emerging class of politicians that argue for a parochial view of national interest that “rejects globalism in favor of patriotism” as the answer to today’s challenges, we urgently need a class of enlightened and value-driven leaders, of Roosevelt and Churchills, that can counter this thrust toward power politics and the rejection of multilateralism that ensues, in that they are the root, in fact, of today’s unsolved challenges.


If we are to seriously resolve the issues that afflict the international community and affect our international peace and prosperity, we need a class of leaders that not only acknowledges what’s broken with our system, but also can envision creative solutions, and lead the international community through a new process of norm formation and institution entrepreneurship.


We need a class of leaders that acknowledges that change is a process that does not happen in a vacuum; and so as we continue to strive for institutional reform, which ultimately is the only way to overcome the current impasse, we ought to continue to think creatively of how we can bring about incremental change, how we can leverage existing mechanisms to promote and strengthen those norms and values that, over time, will make non-reform an anachronistic and no-longer acceptable outcome.

So, if I did a good job today, you will hopefully walk out of this lecture not only with a more informed view about the United Nations, its flaws, and its aspirations, but also with a more refined understanding of the appeal to humanity of higher values; you will hopefully walk out of today’s lecture with a renewed faith in the promise of multilateralism; and experience a sense of urgency to listen to your call of duty, inspired by the higher values of which public service can benefit, but especially convinced that, through ethical and innovative leadership, you too can become tomorrow’s norm entrepreneurs. Thank you.

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