More than 130 presidents and prime ministers gathered at the United Nations for the high-level session of the world organization’s General Assembly this week. Yet much of the media coverage of the event, and the chatter on its margins, was about whether the UN is in decline.
The institution, now nearly 80 years old, is suffering from the effects of geopolitical tensions and global economic turbulence. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine dominates discussions in the Security Council, where Moscow uses its veto to block criticism of it actions. The General Assembly has passed resolutions condemning Russia, by large margins, but these have been largely symbolic.
During the first year of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war, Council members were at least able to keep cooperating over other crises, such as imposing sanctions on armed gangs in Haiti. Russia appeared willing to use the UN as a space for some compromises with the West. Secretary-General António Guterres was even able to help broker the Black Sea Grain Initiative with Moscow, allowing Kyiv to keep exporting its foodstuffs to the wider world.
But in recent months, as Russia and Ukraine have settled in for a protracted war, there have been signs that Russia’s approach may be changing. Moscow has quit the Black Sea deal, vetoed a long-standing resolution authorizing UN aid agencies to deliver essential supplies to millions of civilians in Syria, and opposed the Council acting on the war in Sudan.
Diplomats fret that if Security Council diplomacy continues on this downward trajectory, other important UN processes—such as the enforcement of sanctions on North Korea—could also break down.
Beyond the Council, developing countries have become increasingly outspoken about Western countries’ failures to meet past pledges on aid. Non-Western diplomats point out that the U.S. and its allies have found billions of dollars for Ukraine, but failed to conjure up comparable sums to help poor states handle the effects of climate change and COVID-19.
For many non-Western critics of the multilateral system, the organizations’ problems are deeply baked into its structure. Brazilian and Indian officials in particular argue that it is time to reform the UN Security Council—where Britain and France have permanent seats and they do not—to reflect modern power realities. Many developing countries would like to see parallel governance reforms to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to reduce Western influence.
But while President Biden has acknowledged the need for Security Council reform in particular—and this week promised to get developing countries more financing—making fundamental changes to these institutions is hard. Changing the composition of the Security Council to give Brasilia and New Delhi permanent seats would, for example, require the approval of two-thirds of the 193 UN members, including all the current permanent Council members. It is hard to imagine a formula for reform that Biden could sell to China and Russia, and he would also need to get support from the U.S. Senate, which could be even harder.
There is a risk that the UN will not be able to reform in response to a shifting world order. It is notable that many leaders are now investing more political capital in smaller, less formal decision-making clubs like the G7 and G20 which offer more flexible platforms for cooperation. Many commentators have noted that a significant number of leaders of G20 countries—including Narendra Modi, who just hosted the group in New Delhi—have decided to skip the General Assembly session. Other absentees include China’s Xi Jinping, Britain’s Rishi Sunak, France’s Emmanuel Macron and—rather less surprisingly—Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
With some of these key leaders staying home, the General Assembly looks increasingly like a space where small and middle-sized powers can get a moment of attention. That has value. The small island nations of the Pacific have, for example, been quite effective at using the UN to campaign for more action on climate change. Nonetheless, there is a concern among many UN members that real decision-making is increasingly taking place elsewhere.
Still, is too early to write the UN’s obituary. Big power politics may be limiting what the organization can achieve in terms of peacemaking, but the UN is still sometimes the only organization available to deal with noxious crises. Since the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 2021, for example, UN agencies have played a central role in dealing with the new regime and getting life-saving aid to Afghans, while Western policy-makers focus on Ukraine.
And while multilateral development diplomacy may be hard, the UN still provides a space where rich and poor nations can try to work out common positions on economic issues. As Secretary-General Guterres has warned, the alternative to this dialogue is a “great fracture,” with the world increasingly split into economic blocs led by major players such as China.
The UN may also have a new, albeit tentative, role as a space for global powers to try to work out the rules of the road on regulating artificial intelligence and other new technologies. Next year, Guterres will host a grandly-titled “Summit of the Future” on the margins of the General Assembly high-level session, with a focus on getting leaders to sketch out frameworks for dealing with these technological advances. Getting agreement will be hard, but the UN still has value as a convener for such difficult conversations. All too often the UN, and especially the General Assembly, can look like a talking shop. But it is still a useful space for dialogue in a period in which both big and small states are struggling to communicate constructively.
Richard Gowan is UN Director at the International Crisis Group. He has worked on UN peacemaking and diplomacy in New York since 2005.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.