U.N. officials probably didn’t expect to be celebrating the institution’s diamond jubilee this way. A year ago, they must have imagined special ceremonies in a U.N. General Assembly hall packed with thousands of delegates, diplomats and dignitaries. But, thanks to the pandemic, the world’s preeminent international institution marked three-quarters of a century since its founding in subdued fashion, launching its annual world leader gabfest in New York through Web browsers and videoconferencing.
The event usually snarls Manhattan traffic and crams the island’s hotels. But this mostly virtual affair is now seeing heads of state and government participating via prerecorded messages. On Tuesday, as proceedings got underway, only a thin crowd of New York-based envoys were seated in the hall to witness U.N. Secretary General António Guterres deliver another impassioned entreaty for greater global cooperation in the face of shared challenges.
Guterres said the world faces a new “1945 moment” – summoning the legacy of those who built the international system from the ashes of World War II. “We must be guided by science and tethered to reality,” he added, nodding to the challenges of climate change and the coronavirus. “Populism and nationalism have failed. Those approaches to contain the virus have often made things manifestly worse.”
And he gestured to the deepening divide between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies and two major players in the U.N. system. “We must do everything to avoid a new Cold War,” Guterres said. “We are moving in a very dangerous direction. Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a great fracture – each with its own trade and financial rules and Internet and artificial intelligence capacities.”
Not long thereafter, President Donald Trump beamed in and did nothing to assuage the secretary general’s fears. He immediately raged against the “China virus” and declared that the world must hold China “accountable” for having “unleashed this plague.” He cast China as the world’s most villainous polluter and lambasted both the “one-sided” Paris climate accords and the “terrible” Iran nuclear deals – two international pacts from which the White House withdrew U.S. involvement.
Trump went on to reiterate the same nationalist talking points he’s trotted out in the past at the U.N. and in international gatherings like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The United States, in Trump’s view, is pursuing its own interests on the world stage, as every other nation should. He invoked America’s capacity to forge “peace through strength” with a decidedly Trumpian turn-of-phrase: “Our weapons are at an advanced level, like we’ve never had before, like, frankly, we’ve never even thought of having before.”
Unlike last year, there wasn’t a large enough crowd in the General Assembly to hear the bemused groans of assembled diplomats. But Trump couldn’t obscure the lonely path furrowed by his administration at the U.N., where the United States has attacked leading agencies like the World Health Organization and embarked on a widely derided effort to “snap back” international sanctions on Iran that most of its close allies view as illegitimate.
For Chinese President Xi Jinping, who followed not long after Trump, the opportunity was there to play the role of custodian of the international order that Washington is so heedlessly trampling. And he took it. Though he never explicitly singled out the United States or Trump in his speech, Xi launched myriad barbs, deriding “unilateralism” and “protectionism” while repeatedly referring to World War II as the “World Anti-Fascist War” – a telling phrase at a time when Trump has sought to criminalize anti-fascist protesters in the United States. Xi also tightened China’s climate targets, vowing carbon neutrality by 2060.
“Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance goes against the trend of history,” Xi said. “The world will never return to isolation, and no one can sever the ties between countries.”
The Chinese charm offensive, of course, also has limited appeal. French President Emmanuel Macron warned that Sino-U.S. bickering was pushing the U.N. toward “impotency,” a sentiment probably shared by other world leaders. But this may yet be a sign of things to come.
“We have definitely seen Sino-American tensions at the U.N. escalate immensely since Obama and Xi worked together on the Paris deal in 2015,” Richard Gowan, chief U.N. analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Today’s WorldView in a message. “And COVID has acted as accelerator, forcing the two powers’ tensions out into the open.”
“It is not up there with Germany and Japan quitting the League [of Nations] in the 1930s. U.S. and European diplomats say that the Russians are still far more trouble in the UN Security Council,” Gowan added. “But I don’t rule out a further escalation in tensions in the next few years, and it could happen quite fast. I worry that if Trump wins [reelection], he’ll decide quitting the WHO was good politics and ramp up diplomatic confrontations with Xi in the U.N.”
But the U.N.’s troubles extend well beyond the squabbles of its two most powerful members. “The problem is that much of the world is questioning whether the UN is still relevant at 75,” Sherine Tadros, head of the U.N. office of Amnesty International, told the Guardian. “To use a Covid analogy, it’s a matter of whether it’s got too many underlying pre-existing conditions to make it through this next period.”
“The current United Nations system, built 75 years ago in a very different context, has proved to be outdated,” said Maria João Rodrigues, a Portuguese academic and former political ally of Guterres, in a recent online forum on making the international order more fair and inclusive. “We need to restructure and reflect the political and social composition of today’s world.”
But major critiques of U.N. restructuring ultimately fall on the composition and workings of the Security Council, where neither China nor the United States seems willing to relinquish its veto-wielding powers. “Significant reform of the UN is not a realistic option,” wrote Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “as potential changes, such as altering the composition of the Security Council to reflect the distribution of power in today’s world, would favor some countries and disadvantage others. Not surprisingly, those who stand to lose can and do block any such change.”