Introduction: Does the UN Model Still Work? Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Multilateralism

In: Does the UN Model Still Work? Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Multilateralism
Kim Fontaine-Skronski
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Valériane Thool
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Norbert Eschborn
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When the United Nations celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1995, the Cold War had recently come to an end, and it appeared the world was embarking on a new phase of multilateralism with a privileged place for the UN. Around this time, the well-known Swedish UN diplomat Hans Blix remarked that international cooperation and multilateralism were indispensable. Twenty-five years later, the portrait is quite different: as global issues such as climate change, threats to democracy and humanitarian crises are on the rise, the international community’s response has become both fragmented and divergent. Emerging powers are rising in different regions of the world, seemingly aiming at counterbalancing the existing global order. The international community is witnessing an unprecedented degradation of biodiversity, due to human activities, excessive urbanization, transportation activities, exploration and extraction or overfishing.

Other new issues are increasingly gaining attention. The expansion of new technologies and artificial intelligence raises questions about their use, about the growing gap between developing and developed countries, and about new threats that are emerging as a result of this expansion, namely ethical ones. Important changes in the geopolitical shifts are leading to a rethinking of alliances and oppositions, but also of defense and security strategies, climate change management, food security and nuclear energy. There is also a rise in regionalization, or the reconfiguration of regional alliances, as we witnessed with the creation of a new security pact between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia in 2021, known as AUKUS, at the expense of an agreement on nuclear submarines between Australia and France.

Eyes are focused on well-targeted areas, such as the Arctic, the Mediterranean and the China Sea. The Arctic, which is becoming a geostrategic terrain, involves complex issues such as the fact that global warming is occurring three times faster in that region than in other parts of the world, potentially opening up new shipping routes that are currently inaccessible. Not to mention the militarization of the Arctic region, which raises many questions about the ability of the states involved to collaborate and cooperate while maintaining peaceful relations in the region. A true geopolitical theater, the Mediterranean is a region on which attention has also been focused. Relations between the twenty coastal countries are not always smooth and the conflicts (migratory, religious, territorial) that have degenerated in recent decades have challenged the Mediterranean region. Migration flows have been a major issue in the region, where crossings in makeshift boats have lead to thousands of death each year since 2015. The China Sea is another area where maritime conflicts are fueling tensions between various coastal states, with China increasing its military activities in the region and discarding the principle set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on freedom of navigation. These examples reflect the multifaceted nature of the issues at stake in certain regions of the world, which call for multilateral responses.

Without a strengthening of multilateralism, the challenges facing the UN system are likely to grow and degenerate. “Multilateralism is under threat at a time when we most need it,” stated António Guterres, the current Secretary-General of the United Nations. Clear commitments to multilateralism, such as in the form of the German government’s White Paper entitled “A Multilateralism for the People,” updated in 2021, remain the exception but will perhaps be the precursor of a larger movement.

At the end of the Second World War, and even more so after the end of the Cold War, multilateral cooperation became increasingly significant in international politics. Nonetheless, since the start of the 21st century, the system has been accused of being fragmented, unrepresentative and ineffective, and this dwindling confidence has had an impact on global governance, democracy, trade and investment, the environment, human rights and many other areas. In this sense, the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020 occurred at a time of great turmoil. Indeed, the United Nations remains a controversial model of multilateralism and, as argued by the authors of this collective work, there is a need for a multilateral system that is inclusive, networked and effective.

Although a wide array of authors have contributed to the field of international studies and adopted interesting perspectives on these omnipresent issues, this volume fills a considerable gap in the current market by combining original research from academics with practical hands-on policy orientations from former diplomats. In addition, considering that most of the authors do not come from within the UN system, their analyses provide an external, more neutral and more politically inclined assessment of the UN in terms of its ability to continue to function today as a serious actor within a global movement in favor of a renewed form of multilateralism. The institutional distance of the authors from the UN ensures a view of the problems and perspectives of the organization after 75 years of existence that is unaffected by interest group influences. In this regard, the combination of authors from purely academic backgrounds, who reflect on the international discourses on the subject of multilateralism, and political and executive practitioners, who can provide an outside view from multiple perspectives informed by professional experience in senior positions, offers original and practical insights into the challenges and prospects our international system faces today. Finally, this edited volume also distinguishes itself by its great regional and gender diversity: indeed, it includes contributions by authors from North and South America, Europe and Africa, and with more than 50 percent being women, hence the broad, multifaceted and international perspective of the book.

Composed of original articles from researchers and academics, as well as policy notes from practitioners, this book constitutes an opportunity to assess the state of multilateralism through the UN model, all the while identifying potential ways to address its challenges and shortcomings. The chapters demonstrate the challenges and prospects for multilateralism 75 years after the adoption of the United Nations Charter in five main areas, reflected in the volume’s five parts:

Part 1: Global Governance, New Actors and Challenges to Multilateralism

Part 2: Threats to Democracy Undermining the Multilateral System

Part 3: International Multilateral Trade Governance

Part 4: Environmental Governance and the Climate Challenge

Part 5: Human Rights and Migration Governance

In Part 1, Marcello Scarone, Vice Admiral (retd.) Lutz Feldt, Elizabeth Bloodgood and Henri-Paul Normandin evaluate the various challenges opposing multilateralism and global governance. In “Is Classic Multilateralism Outdated? The Case of the UN,” Scarone assesses the evolution of the UN’s practice of multilateralism and the current issues it faces, and he offers his practitioner’s perspective on pressing yet sensitive questions such as “whose fault is it?” and “what can be done?” The themes discussed in this chapter include the changing world order and geopolitics, the newly found prominence of nonstate actors and the misguided internal actions and functioning of the various UN system organizations themselves. Feldt, in “Geopolitical Shifts: Issues and Challenges for the Arctic Region,” addresses topics such as nuclear waste, resource exploitation, climate change, geopolitical tensions and military build-up. His chapter illustrates how the Arctic will remain a very dangerous, challenging and unpleasant place for maritime, air and land activities in the coming years, and how the international community can address these major obstacles. In “New Multilateralism: The United Nations and Governance in the Era of Nonstate Actors,” Bloodgood examines the features of “new” multilateralism, characterized by the ever-broadening array of active nonstate actors, and their resulting effects upon both the United Nations and global governance. Finally, Normandin, in “Inclusive Multilateralism: Cities Take a Seat at the Table” evaluates the potential of “inclusive multilateralism,” which entails the participation of other stakeholders such as civil society, businesses and other levels of government including cities, in reinvigorating classical multilateralism. This chapter illustrates how global issues are often local issues, and vice versa, through several specific and relevant examples such as climate change, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, migration, biodiversity and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Part 2 of this volume features original work by Marianne Kneuer, who examines various threats to democracy that impede the classical multilateral system. In “Democratic Erosion and Multilateralism: When Authoritarian Leaders Challenge the Liberal International Order,” Kneuer evaluates the foreign policy implications of the process of democratic erosion at the international level. She does so by examining cases of democratic erosion (such as Venezuela, Russia, Hungary and Poland, as well as the USA under President Donald Trump) and the activities of their incumbents on the regional and international levels, and by tracing in what way and to what degree the erosion agents did change foreign policy approaches by introducing new foreign policy elements. Departing from an actor-centered approach, the argument is that the protagonist of democratic erosion, the erosion agent, might link his or her domestic mission to missions on the regional or international level. In other words, as erosion agents strive to change the rules of the game domestically, they also strive to change the rules of regional politics or even influence the international level.

In Part 3, Michèle Rioux, Maria Teresa Gutiérrez-Haces and Mehdi Abbas analyze the international multilateral trade governance system. In “Multilateralism, Interdependence and Globalization,” Rioux addresses the structural changes that have affected the dynamics of multilateralism in order to understand what distinguishes it from the phenomena of international interdependence and globalization. To do so, she distinguishes three historical periods of multilateralism, allowing the reader to follow the dynamics of the articulation of collective action over time. She also identifies challenges of multilateral collective action in the 21st century, while considering the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts. Gutiérrez-Haces, in “The Gradual and Uneven Consolidation of an International Investment Protection Regime Decoupled from Multilateral Economic Organizations,” questions whether we can speak of a rule of law in the multilateral system of trade and investment. Indeed, Gutiérrez-Haces’ chapter focuses on a contemporary analysis of the rule of law, which she advocates is increasingly being used selectively to favor the interests of certain governments and companies over others, and she illustrates this by devoting part of her analysis to Latin America. Finally, in “Reframing the International Trade and Investment Framework to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century,” Abbas explores avenues for renewing the global trade and investment framework and, in doing so, examines the future of multilateralism as a principle for organizing international economic relations. Is the global COVID-19 pandemic crisis a tipping point in the process of globalization? The chapter argues that this crisis opens a window of opportunity to rethink the governance of the international trade and investment system.

Part 4 of the volume examines various issues related to environmental governance and is composed of original articles from Guy Saint-Jacques, Valériane Thool, Patrícia Iglecias, and Walter Arévalo-Ramírez. Saint-Jacques starts off with his chapter “A New Climate Club Is the Best Way to Reduce Global Emissions of Greenhouse Gases,” in which he discusses several topics such as the role Canada played in climate change negotiations and why negotiations in the UNFCCC will never produce a binding agreement to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also discusses the challenge that China poses to the world and explains why the G20 could be a better forum to create a Climate Club that would adopt a carbon tax, including on imports. Thool, in “Biodiversity Loss Under the Lens of Multilateralism: An Environmental Governance and International Law Perspective,” focuses on one of the main challenges of environmental law and governance: biodiversity loss. This chapter examines several topics such as the governance and legal issues related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the multiplication of relevant legal instruments as well as the principal solutions to be used by the international community and the UN in the next decades in terms of biodiversity challenges at a multilateral level. Iglecias, in “Fostering Sustainable Economic Growth, Transformation and Promotion of Responsible Consumption and Production: The Subnational Government’s Role in Contributions to Multilateralism,” looks at how subnational and local authorities are leading in environmental innovations by examining the case of the State of São Paulo. Her chapter explores themes such as subnational government initiatives, the São Paulo Environmental Agreement and its relation to the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as ways to ensure responsible production and consumption. Finally, in “Challenges for the Coming Years: Learning Regional Lessons on Environmental Protection and Achieving the Participation of Indigenous Peoples in the United Nations System,” Arévalo-Ramírez examines how the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has taken important steps toward the protection of the environment, and why these developments need to be enshrined by the UN as a contribution to its goals in the upcoming years. The author also discusses a fundamental issue that needs to be understood as a challenge for the UN, namely the participation of indigenous peoples in the UN system.

In Part 5, Emnet Berhanu Gebre, Yasmeen Abu-Laban and Christopher Isike discuss issues related to human rights and migration governance. Gebre, in “Migrants’ Protection and Assistance in the Face of a Changing World: Taking Stock of the Challenges and Responses,” highlights existing normative and institutional gaps in addressing challenges related to migrant protection and assistance, and she evaluates the responses taken, primarily at the policy and programmatic level, to address them. In “What UNRWA Tells Us About Refugees and the United Nations,” Abu-Laban aims to center the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in relation to discussions on refugees and refugee governance. She traces how UNRWA’s creation in 1949 led to the world’s refugees falling under two different UN agencies and mandates, with the consequence that both UNRWA and Palestine refugees are comparatively vulnerable and subject to ideological attacks. Finally, Isike, in “The Value of Re-socializing Boys and Men for Positive Gender Relations to Curb Gender-Based Violence and Femicide in South Africa,” discusses the disconnect between policy and practice on gender inequality and gender-based violence in Africa. While there is no shortage of state interventions rooted in human rights aimed at gender equality, women and girls in South Africa continue yearly to suffer from male violence at alarming rates, prompting President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare gender-based violence and femicide a national disaster in 2020. This resulted in the National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Strategic Plan 2020–2030, which provides a coherent national framework to support South Africa in meeting UN SDG targets 5.1–5.3 and 16.1–16.2. By using secondary and primary data from South Africa, Isike makes a case for re-socializing boys and young men in the country to change their mental image of girls and women.

Aside from Parts 1 to 5, this volume also contains special contributions from Bertrand Badie and Cecilia Cannon. In the introductory special contribution, “Post-Bipolar Challenges to Multilateralism,” Badie answers three pressing questions that relate directly to the challenges and prospects for the future of multilateralism: (i) What are the main aspects of the gap that is widening between the present multilateral context and the one that prevailed in 1945?; (ii) How can we explain why these contextual changes have never been really instilled into the UN system?; and (iii) How do these failures generate the challenges that we now face and that currently threaten multilateral institutions? To do so, Badie explains the main features of the 1945 context and identifies the factors of dislocation that question the order of decolonization, depolarization and globalization, and what he considers to be the UN’s present challenges: the growing split between the Secretary-General and the Security Council, the inclusion and management of nonstate actors inside the UN system, and the fragility of the new concept of global security as it was progressively coined by some agencies, particularly the UN Development Programme.

Cannon, in “The UN at 75: A Political Declaration and a Global Conversation,” brings together the themes discussed in this volume and describes the unstable context in which the United Nations commemorated its 75th anniversary. The author also provides an overview of the major commitments presented in the UN75 Declaration, as well as the key results of the UN75 Public Engagement Initiative. She concludes by offering some reflections on the current challenges faced by the United Nations, and possible ways forward for better addressing the most pressing global challenges.

In conclusion, this edited volume, inspired by the International Political Science Association’s virtual conference on the Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Multilateralism held in October 2020 in partnership with Concordia University and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, consists in a modern, far-reaching overall contribution to the international debate on multilateralism. In this sense, it is of particular interest to students (both graduate and postgraduate), negotiators and practitioners (from both nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations) as well as decision makers and government representatives. It is equally likely to interest members of the general public whose lives are affected, in some way, by the issues discussed in the book.

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