THE world is at an inflection point with mounting geopolitical tensions and global economic volatility contributing to a fraught and unstable situation. Multilateralism is facing growing challenges in an increasingly fragmented international system. The resurgence of East-West tensions, Ukraine war and intensifying US-China confrontation have further shrunk the space for multilateral cooperation. Multilateralism though has been in retreat for well over a decade now.
Strong headwinds unleashed by competing crises are making the future outlook a troubled one.
Climate change has emerged as among the present era’s greatest risks. Yet a deeply divided world is increasingly falling short of addressing multiple, interconnected challenges that are consequential for all countries.
It is clearly time for the international community to take stock and consider how to forge agreement on a global framework to address common challenges. A major initiative to do that is planned at the UN Summit of the Future called by Secretary General (SG) António Guterres and endorsed by all member states of the world body.
Can agreement be forged on a global framework to address common challenges?
This summit, scheduled for September 2024, will seek to evolve a consensus on what a shared future should be and identify the means to achieve it. Guterres has described the summit as a “once in a generation opportunity” to strengthen multilateralism, renew the commitment to core principles and adopt an action-oriented ‘Pact for the Future’, which will set out concrete responses to global challenges. This is expected to emerge from intergovernmental negotiations ahead of the summit.
As part of the preparatory process for these deliberations, Guterres has issued nine policy briefs on key issues which will be discussed by UN member states. A New Agenda for Peace, the policy paper unveiled earlier this month, focuses on issues of peace and security. This offers twelve specific proposals in five priority areas. In his introduction to the report and op-eds he recently authored, the SG states that with the post-Cold War period over, the world is moving towards a new global order with multipolarity as a defining feature. Never before have countries had to confront so many cross-boundary sources of instability and insecurity. Peace remains elusive as conflicts continue across the world while geostrategic competition is engendering geoeconomic fragmentation.
According to Guterres, all of this makes international cooperation an imperative in order to avoid more human suffering. This is especially so when disquiet is growing among people across the world that governments and international organisations are failing to deliver for them. He calls for a “new multilateralism” which goes beyond the narrow security concerns of countries, and is based on the principles of trust, universality and solidarity. It should also promote sustainable development and respect for human rights.
This ambitious policy brief prioritises five key areas. The first is to encourage “prevention” at the global level by tackling geopolitical divisions and strategic risk. The recommendation is to make greater use of preventive diplomacy.
Noting the continuing threat of nuclear war, it proposes a ban on the use of nuclear weapons and calls for their eventual elimination. An omission here is absence of a recommendation to proscribe the resort to force, especially as conflicts raging across the world involve the use of conventional force. The brief itself notes the surge in armed conflicts in the past decade, which reversed a 20-year decline, with the number of conflictrelated deaths reaching a 28-year high in 2022.
The second priority area identified is a “paradigm for prevention” within countries to deal with “all forms of violence”, so as to promote social cohesion, create links between sustainable development, climate action and peace, ensure meaningful participation of women and fully respect all dimensions of human rights. This is an ambitious goal given the uneven record among developing countries on this account.
The third area in the report concerns UN peacekeeping. It proposes updating peacekeeping operations to adjust to changing conflict environments, especially challenges posed by unresolved conflicts where there is no peace to keep.
The actions proposed include avoiding unrealistic mandates for peacekeeping missions, having more integrated operations and recommitting to reform in this area — all welcome and implementable suggestions. They are directly relevant for Pakistan, which has been among the world’s top troop contributing countries to UN peacekeeping missions for over six decades. Since 1960, over 200,000 Pakistani service men and women have served in 46 UN missions in 26 countries around the world. Currently, over 4,300 service personnel are deployed in 10 missions.
The fourth priority focuses on prevention of the weaponisation of emerging domains and technologies and promoting “responsible innovation”. This calls for measures to address threats posed by new technologies, including artificial intelligence, and urges a prohibition on lethal autonomous weapons systems. There can be no disagreement with the contention that “machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are morally repugnant and politically unacceptable and should be prohibited by international law”.
The last priority action area recommends building a stronger collective security machinery, including reform of the Security Council, General Assembly and the UN’s disarmament agency. The document calls for expediting negotiations for Council reform to make it more “just and representative” and democratise its working methods.
On the latter, there is firm consensus among states.
But fundamental differences persist on how to reform the Security Council especially between countries that aspire to permanent membership and others, including Pakistan, opposed to enlarging and reinforcing centres of privilege and who argue the only way to make the Council more representative, democratic and accountable is to add more elected, non-permanent members. This has held up progress in negotiations. Unless these differences are resolved, reform will remain elusive.
Having circulated this and other policy briefs to UN member countries, it will now be up to them to deliberate over these and offer their own proposals to arrive at a consensus for a ‘Pact for the Future’. As Guterres points out in his conclusion to the brief, it is member states who have primary responsibility to carry out reform. The big question is whether at a time when the world is so fractured and divided, meaningful and substantive agreement can be forged on the future framework for multilateral cooperation.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2023