In Defense of Multilateralism and the United Nations
TEDx Georgetown remarks
by Kul Chandra Gautam
14 November 2020
I wish to share with you why multilateralism and international cooperation are needed more urgently than ever before to solve the great problems facing humanity today.
No country in the world, no matter how big or powerful, can tackle the headline problems of our times by itself – like the COVID pandemic, the climate crisis, issues of war and peace, poverty and inequality.
I come from Nepal, a relatively small country, between China and India.
When you are surrounded by giant neighbors, you develop two instincts:
First, a strong national pride in your unique identity.
And second, a sense of humility, and willingness to partner with others.
I find this combination of pride and humility a healthy mix.
Big and powerful countries often lack such balance. The United States has just passed through four years of shocking imbalance – flaunting a surplus of hubris and deficit of humility.
Americans are divided on reasons for the colossal mishandling of the COVID pandemic that has killed more Americans than the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
But the rest of the world attributes it to America’s refusal to follow science and proven best practices.
This is the first global crisis in the past century when the US has failed to exercise global leadership.
International friends of America see the need for it to make a radical course correction to reassert its global leadership as a champion of multilateralism, with humility and generosity.
Many of the world’s worst problems respect no borders. Pandemics, global warming, terrorism, cybercrime and fake news don’t need passports or visas to travel.
You cannot build a wall to prevent their entry or exit.
That’s why we need the United Nations.
The UN is part of a system of global governance guided by international laws and treaties that are beneficial to all countries.
It provides a forum to seek win-win solutions for the collective interest of all peoples.
The United Nations just turned 75 years.
To make it more fit for today’s challenges, it definitely needs to be reformed.
I was fortunate to work with the UN, and one of its most effective agencies, UNICEF, for over three decades.
Based on my direct experience, I am quite aware of its strengths and its weaknesses.
But you might be surprised that the UN’s real weaknesses are NOT the ones that most Americans are led to believe.
Many Americans think that the UN is anti-American, dominated by China and Third World countries. Not true!
A few weeks ago, former US Ambassador Niki Haley said that the UN was a place where dictators, murderers and thieves denounce America, and demand that we pay their bills.
What she said was not entirely untrue. It was simply half-true.
The other half of the truth is that the US often votes at the UN precisely with those dictatorial regimes, rather than with its democratic European allies.
Yes, the US generally champions civil and political rights at the UN.
But when it comes to social and economic rights, such as the right to health, education and housing the US consistently votes against them.
I have witnessed the US enter into “unholy alliances” with many undemocratic regimes at the UN.
It often joins them to oppose women’s right to safe motherhood and reproductive health; children’s right to clean air and water; and citizens’ rights against gun violence.
Today, the US is the only country in the world that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and one of the few that has not ratified the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
Yes, the US has been a generous funder of the UN.
In return, the UN has also been VERY generous to the US, offering it many leadership positions and influential roles.
But you cannot “buy” leadership with money alone.
“America First” is a fine principle. But when the US isolates itself by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and the World Health Organization, that makes it “America Alone” – as a pariah, not a leader.
With 193 members, the UN is a complex organization.
It is neither pro-American, nor anti-American.
But if America plays by the rules and leads by example, the UN can be its best ally.
The UN Charter speaks about “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,
in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small”.
But we know that the UN has not always lived up to those ideals.
The main reason why the UN fails is because its Members often pursue narrow national interests, when the problems require global solidarity.
But when the nations of the world, particularly Big Powers like the US, Russia, China and the Europeans, take an enlightened approach of global solidarity, the UN can achieve great success.
Let me mention some of its major successes.
The UN helped prevent the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and American allies from turning into a hot war.
The UN mounted over 200 peacekeeping operations; protected millions of civilians, and contained many local conflicts from becoming regional or global wars.
Over 300 treaties were negotiated at the UN, setting international norms to reduce conflict, protect human rights, and promote the health and wellbeing of people, and our planet.
The UN helps developing countries reduce poverty, eradicate diseases, and to promote health and education – with notable success.
The UN remains second to none in coordinating humanitarian assistance during natural disasters and man-made conflicts.
Unfortunately, such good news is rarely reported on the front pages of our media.
Yet, UN, its agencies and leaders have won 14 Nobel Peace Prizes for their good work and achievements.
No other organization can claim such honor.
Let me now address two frequent criticisms:
#1. The UN is bureaucratic and ineffective
#2. The UN is too expensive
Yes, the UN is often bureaucratic and inefficient, just like the US government, the Pentagon, and perhaps even Georgetown University.
In my memoir, I discuss the major strengths and weaknesses of the UN, and outline some proposals to make it more effective, transparent and democratic.
I argue that the main fault for UN’s weaknesses lies with the Big Powers, including the US.
The effectiveness of any organization depends largely on the quality of its leadership.
Sadly, appointments for the UN’s top jobs, including the Secretary-General and the heads of its major departments and agencies like UNICEF, UNDP, the World Bank, are not based on open competition to select the most qualified candidates.
Such posts are mostly “reserved” for the nationals of certain powerful countries, or are agreed through haggling among different blocs of countries.
If the Big Powers agree to competitive selection for ALL senior posts, that would help to make the UN more effective.
On the UN being very expensive – yes, there is room for improvement.
However, it depends on what we compare it with.
Let us take one big-ticket item – the UN Peacekeeping operations.
Currently, there are nearly 100,000 “Blue Helmets” from over 100 countries serving in dangerous conflict zones, mainly in the Middle East and Africa.
They help enforce cease-fires, demobilize combatants, protect women from sexual violence, and free children forced to serve as child soldiers.
The total budget for these peacekeeping missions is just under $7 billion dollars per year.
That may sound like a lot of money. But it is actually less than one percent of the US defense budget, and less than 0.4% of the world’s annual military expenditure.
Studies by the US Government Accountability Office show that UN-led peacekeeping missions are more cost-effective, and more successful than the US-led operations.
For example, the US-led peacekeeping mission in Haiti was seven times more expensive than the UN-led mission.
The US recently withdrew unilaterally from the World Health Organization.
That was condemned by the rest of the world.
But historically, the US provided generous funding and strong leadership for global health programs to eradicate and control deadly diseases like smallpox, polio, AIDS, malaria and TB.
These programs have been highly successful and cost-effective.
Today, UNICEF, in partnership with WHO and GAVI, supplies nearly half the world’s childhood vaccines – over 2 billion doses annually – for nearly 100 countries.
They save the lives and protect the health of tens of millions of children.
Sadly, the COVID pandemic is threatening to unravel many such gains.
But once again, the UN is rising to the occasion. Right now, UNICEF is getting ready to lead the world’s largest and fastest procurement of COVID vaccines as soon as they become available.
But as I said, the UN is not perfect. It must reform and transform itself.
I believe that the biggest reforms the UN needs are in four areas:
# 1. Democratizing the UN:
The UN is supposed to promote democracy in the world.
But its strongest organ, the Security Council, is itself very undemocratic, with its 5 permanent members enjoying the veto power.
There was good logic for the veto provision when the UN was founded 75 years ago.
But that logic is no longer valid.
Yet, the composition and powers of the Security Council cannot be changed without the voluntary consent of the same 5 veto powers.
We need highly enlightened leadership in those countries, and a sustained civil society campaign to bring real democracy to the UN.
#2. Responsibility to Protect:
Many countries, ruled by dictators and authoritarian regimes, like North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Belarus and Venezuela, hide behind their sovereignty to oppress their people; even to deprive them of humanitarian relief.
When governments are involved in massive violation of their citizens’ rights, they should not be allowed to get away with such crimes.
World leaders at a UN Summit in 2005 agreed that the international community has a “Responsibility to Protect” vulnerable people if their own government is unable or unwilling to do so.
Big powers like the US must help the UN to implement the “Responsibility to Protect”, but without using double standards to protect their favorite dictators, and only denounce their detractors.
#3. Prioritize Disarmament and Development:
The main purpose of the UN is to prevent wars and promote peace.
But today, the world is flush with arms & weapons.
We spend almost $2 trillion dollars per year on military expenditures. That is almost $5.5 billion dollars daily.
Instead of feeling ashamed, some leaders boast about spending more money on the military.
The time has come for enlightened citizens to demand drastic reduction in military spending.
What the world needs now is not more money for guns and weapons, but massive increase in funding for the Sustainable Development Goals, to combat poverty and inequality, and to protect our planet for future generations.
#4. Changing the UN’s financing system
Money and military power dominate the UN more than democratic norms. Major donors to its budget often wield undue influence.
Funding for the UN is currently based on a mutually agreed assessment of each country’s “capacity to pay”.
But from time to time major donors like the US complain that they are paying too much, and threaten to cut off their funding if the UN does not do their bidding.
To avoid such threats, former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme made a very creative proposal.
He proposed in 1985 that no country should be asked or allowed to contribute more than 10 percent to the UN’s budget.
That would have meant a significant reduction in the US share of the UN budget from 25 % to 10 %; and a modest increase in contribution by most other countries.
Don’t you think the US Congress and administration would welcome such proposal?
No! The Reagan administration actually opposed it.
Why? Because its reduced contribution could possibly lead to reduced US influence at the UN.
I am FOR the Palme proposal to reduce the UN’s over-dependence on a handful of large donors, IF they are also prepared not to claim undue influence in high-level UN jobs, and other decision-making processes.
Today, many UN activities benefit from voluntary contribution of governments, as well as the private sector, and philanthropic foundations.
I believe we must seriously explore more such innovative possibilities, including income from the Global Commons and the Tobin Tax, to liberate the UN from the perpetual threats of arbitrary cuts and defunding by major donors.
If we can achieve these 4 big reforms, we can help the UN to live up to its full potential.
Human civilization tends to march two steps forward and one step backward.
Currently, we see multilateralism weakening and populist nationalism rising.
But in the long march of history, I see humanity continuing to move from primitive tribalism, to modern nationalism, to a future of global solidarity.
Multilateralism is here to stay, because it is good for humanity in our increasingly interdependent world.
I sincerely hope that after four years of “America Alone” unilateralism, the new US administration will rejoin & help rebuild a more robust multilateral system with the UN at its core.
I am delighted that young people increasingly regard themselves as global citizens, united by common human aspirations rather than divided by narrow ethnic, religious or nationalist sentiments.
If we can prevent the rising inequalities from driving young people to alienation and extremism, we have a good chance to build a more united, prosperous and egalitarian world than any previous generation.
So, I call on all people of goodwill – particularly the young generation – to rededicate ourselves to build such a future, save our planet – and rebuild a stronger United Nations.