It’s time to imagine UN-reform beyond language, formalities and gestural politics.
Among other gems, contemporary newspeak has given us the term “geopolitics.” But what does it mean? It sounds good– geo implies earth, or that which is mineral, rock-hard; followed by politics. Coined in 1902 by a Scandinavian social scientist, the term’s popularity has only grown. Despite its reference to rock (geo), “geopolitics” is actually weightless: compared to “international relations” or “diplomacy”. “geopolitics” does not carry the same implications of compromise and diplomatic negotiation–perhaps one reason why Putin and his adversaries share a fondness for the term. As a technical neologism, it implies that actions are determined mechanically, by and from the expert community, thereby surpassing popular opinion and democratic forces.
The plethora of challenges nowadays facing true internationalists, clearly cannot be solved by wording, nor by erecting yet another committee. In its current form, the United Nations proves incapable of upholding the once-pacifying promises made between international actors that enabled the end of the Cold War– the perseverance of NATO not least among these dangerous anachronisms.
Existing UN mediation structures have even failed to preserve the multilateral agreements made between former colonial powers and their former subjects, following the breakup of traditional colonialism, after the Third World movements engaged Western imperial powers in ferocious wars of resistance and counterinsurgency. That realignment in the 20th century’s post-war, post-colonial order was brought about through traumatic events which still reverberate today. At the height of its glory, the UN played a role in supporting anti-colonial resistance and pressured for change in imperial policy.
The emasculated and compromised organization we behold today does not even hold up to a faded carbon copy of what it was. A corroding bureaucracy has enabled UN functionaries to act as a form of supranational modern nobility: a jet-set unaccountable to peoples of the world. It is therefore all too unsurprising, that the planetary debating-platform fails to provide genuine answers for the 21st century’s millions of stateless people and immigrants, left to haunt a transnational limbo of grim uncertainty.
The sense of neglect and exclusion from international decision-making, experienced by many antagonized former colonies of the world, fuelled efforts to create alternative international forums. Among these were the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR. Ratified in Uruguay in 2011, it united most of the leftist Latin American governments then rallied by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Other initiatives sought to unite the BRICS countries, such as the forgotten plan to create a BRICS Bank as an alternative to the international monetary firms.
The African Union was forged in 2001 in Addis Addeba. Friction with the Global North, and a sense of not being heard by greater power-players in the UN forum, sparked these creative political initiatives, and attest to the UN’s crisis of credibility.
These experiments demonstrate how unions and citizens of the countries most vulnerable to humanitarian intervention could play a protagonizing role, beyond mere protesting, in advising a radical UN-reform project. The Latin American platform, convening dissident countries of the global South, embodied the mood of the bygone (and all-too-optimistic) Chavez era’s internationalism and friction with the Global North. UNASUR fell buried with the reversal of the so-called “Pink tide” in Latin America. By 2018, a consortium of newly risen neoliberal governments effectively dismantled UNASUR. From its ashes they started the Lima Group. Fronted by Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, the Lima group eventually incorporated Colombia’s Iván Duque administration, with the curious addition of Canadian Justin Trudeau.
Hopefully, the recent re-election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico –and comparably historic left-ward changes elsewhere on the continent–inspire a revival: this time of a more self-critical UNASUR 2, which sets partisan illusions and empty invective aside, whilst grappling honestly with the turmoil afflicting the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan peoples, the orphans of our revolutions and of counterrevolution.
Western powers have seldom honored the international agreements that emerged from the end of Second World War and the Nuremberg Trials, let alone those pacts that enabled the end of the Cold War, or the final hours of colonialism’s sundown.
Rather than keeping its promises as to respect for sovereignty or the renunciation of Great Power games– rather than even pretending to have learned anything from history, the Western centrist establishment has instead chosen to update its language. For example, the “Third World” became the “Developing World”; now “Global South” is au courant whereas “Third World” is frowned upon by leftists whose forbears once associated the term with the radicalism of anti-colonial revolution. Secretary General Gutteres shows he’s a hip Boomer by boarding the Latinx train and advocating gender-neutral linguistic formulations.
But genuine change must be profound– in the true sense of the word “radical”, meaning “to get at the roots of things,” the crux.
A problem at the heart of the UN system, manifests in the overly diplomatic relationships fostered between oligarchies and officials in a variety of member-countries. The existing structure allows for local functionaries to cull prestigious posts simply by belonging to inner circles of powerholders.
Examples abound. Take today’s Colombian Iván Duque administration–alleged to maintain blacklists of unwanted or unaligned intellectuals, contrasted by whitelists of favoured pundits, “friends” who praise the hard-line positions of former president Alvaro Uribe, whilst violently undermining the historic peace process in that country.
Despite being democracies, no serious observer would find evidence that the Colombian, or for that matter, the Salvadoran Nayib Bukele government, are willing to select honest and critical diplomatic brokers. Nicaragua’s Ortega-Murillo government, which brutally persecuted former comrades of the Sandinista revolution, is unlikely to appoint an emissary who will eloquently defend the country and the Sandinista revolutionary tradition against the neocons.
The current internal structure of the UN ensures that the princes choose their UN representatives. Could the UN not have offered an additional forum to prevent the ongoing reversal of peace treaties?
The disarray of recent humanitarian interventions affecting entire regions– the Middle East and Africa in particular– have greatly harmed the credibility of the UN’s power and foundational mission. Internationalist movements today must campaign for this geriatric institution’s democratisation and local accountability, to let citizens bypass local fiefdoms, cartels and foreign meddlers, when appointing a people’s UN representation.
The malaise is of course not limited to the South.
How to enable the least corruptible, and the most visionary, to represent their countries in a forum originally designed as a utopian and idealistic project–a world-parliament? Originally named after the Allied victors of the Second World War, the United Nations expanded its membership to welcome less powerful countries in the hope of ushering in an end to wars of extinction and to the rule of Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Idealistic early believers in the UN agora sought to heed the warnings given to humanity by the outcome of the World Wars. Yet despite rhetorical commemorations admonishing us to remember the past, the patterns of action that characterised these calamitous wars, live on in the neo-conservative era, as we see with the present impasse in Ukraine.
Remember Rwanda, Srebrenica, and the UN’s deeply flawed responses to both of these crises, the emasculation of UN peacekeepers by bureaucracy awaiting a phone-call from New York during the massacres; or today’s total absence of UN peacekeepers amid the ruins in Ukraine.
Over-rigid hierarchy prioritises the influence of countries that host important UN centres in the global chain of command, buttressing these bloody tragedies. A more grass-roots organisational model could have helped. Stateless peoples need platforms, to resolve growing refugee crises, while preventing terrorist and counterterrorist regimes from continuing to stimulate each other’s growth in the warzones.
A UN reform campaign would need to defy what has been cynically, yet accurately called the “iron law of oligarchy” affecting relations between organisations and their environment. In the past, this reality was accepted or aggressively dismissed by imperial colonial powers, which assumed that a wholly different set of natural laws governed human comportment in the then-colonies.
UN Secretary General António Guterres embarrassing prescriptions for diminishing patriarchal corruption by way of using gender-neutral language , is another way of not taking on the corruption-prone UN power structure, and such rigmaroles do not steer UN functionaries (of any diverse category) away from resisting temptations to self-enrich and luxuriate. These functionaries instead become further entrenched with those national oligarchies that promote dictatorship and post-democracy around the world. Permeability to nefarious interests cannot be solved by re-wording, or by keeping with the fashions. Quick techno-fixes in terminology can be easily mastered by the agents of old corrupting forces. Gutterres’ endorsement of such linguistic campaigns, only expose him as kind of liberal intellectual which sociologist Barrington Moore identified in 1968: members of the technical intelligentsia who pursue “the predatory solution of token reform at home and counterrevolutionary imperialism abroad.”
Simply calling for more activistic UN diplomacy, might be interpreted as yet another endorsement of the modernized enlightened imperialism practised by humanitarian industries and by Western supporters of regime-change.
Appreciating the tools we have, to use them
The challenge to maintain a truly internationalist UN institution, requires an insistent, memorious preservation of internationalist tradition: the UN’s historic roots at the height of the Allied war effort, and its independence from local vested interests. Some countries with courageous progressives elected to power, could perhaps light the way by recruiting an emissary from outside the usual expert communities.
Threats and Remedies for Multilateralism
The UN offers a valuable, unique mechanism: the only multilateral institute offering representation for all nations to dialogue. We must preserve it. Nowadays the UN is generally perceived as a weak geriatric elephant, unable to move forward, attacked by many arrows until the next Trumpian shotgun comes along. This necessitates urgent renovation, investment, and democratization.
Raison d’état, in international relations jargon, means “the justification for a nation’s foreign policy on the basis that the nation’s own interests are primary”, e.g. “American Exceptionalism” “Russia’s sacred historical consciousness” or the French, British variations of these, which flared up not long ago, catching the world’s attention, mid-pandemic, as France and the US squabbled over nuclear submarine sales to Australia. Those tensions had begun before the Australian impasse, of course– such as when France and the US under Trump were competing for military influence in Mali. Biden First, Trump First, America First, Holy Russia, the designation of Ukraine as Novus Axis Mundi, or Macron First: all these nuclear-tinged passions threaten chaos for the multilateralist agenda, which is the agenda of planetary survival.
The commonplace occurrence of powerful countries clustering together and sparring, altogether ignoring the international forums, further trivialize the UN system. “America First” unilateralism likely began long before Trump shed formal illusions of US acquiescence. No less dangerously, Trump managed to inspire his imitators to express a condemnation of the UN and of multilateralism– as seen in Jair Bolsonaro, who embodies the Brazilian right’s long-held nostalgia for a self-enclosed Brazilian empire. Further copying what seemed a popular strategy, Biden took up many Trumpian foreign policy traditions without eliciting a breath of criticism from his #Resistance supporters.
Today, the UN harbours a disordered multilateralism, driven by regional hegemonic powers which de facto boycott the path to its original goal. A democratizing force becomes pre-eminently vital, needed to rebuild “counter-power” to the paralysis and volatile conflict-seeking of antagonizing powers. Such a movement for democratic reforms could thrust the global institutions – UN first of all – towards transformation, according to our era’s needs and possibilities.
More democratic representation of different nations on global forums would allow civic activists, minorities, stateless peoples and opposition movements to wield stronger resonance, and to express their historic needs and aspirations.
The idea of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) might represent a first step towards the long-aspired, radical ideal of a World Parliament, where peoples of the world gather, rather than strictly governments (as is the case of the UN General Assembly) – precisely as it happened for the European parliamentary assembly, which later became the European Parliament, with representatives elected directly by European citizenry, instead of by delegations from the national parliaments (a relevant first step).
Representative democracy alone cannot satisfy. We need democratic platforms at the planetary and at national and regional levels, to keep citizens’ control over influential institutions in the lapse from one election to the next. Recent transnational activist meetings have also brought up the idea of a World Citizens Initiative on the model of the (still to be reformed towards more efficiency) European Citizens’ Initiative – a prospective future means for world citizens to exert influence upon UN decision-making.
Last to leave the party
A major challenge for reformists would be the reform of the Security Council, the “supreme” organ of the UN system, where the real equilibrium of powers is incorporated – which now seems a relic of the antiquated past. One clear measure of its outdatedness, is the presence of the United Kingdom on the Security Council. This is not to imply, merely, that “Brexit means Brexit”. But Britain’s current SC harks back to the international order of 1948, during the eclipse of British empire. The UNSCR should no longer feed feeding foregone imperial vanity and nostalgia. Renovation would make a small step towards abolishing the right of the veto for superpowers–yet a significant one, in tandem with Martin Luther King’s recipe of success, of climbing “Jacob’s ladder to freedom rung by rung.”
Honouring predecessors by acting now
Internationalist movements should heed the demands of critical NGOs calling to reform the UN’s “oligarchic system” of remunerations and distribution of tasks. This could be an objective for a new internationalism, as we fully exit from global quarantine, to be faced with inflation and the spill-over of the Ukraine conflict driven by two reckless superpowers–the US and Russia–whose short-sighted Presidents above all want to secure electoral approval at home, while testing new generations of weapons or (in the case of Russia) soldiers abroad.
We are faced with an ethical imperative to recapture the federalist spirit of visionaries like Altiero Spinelli,1 founder of the World Federalist Movement. Let’s hope to see the UN recapture its glory days– when the institution wholeheartedly supported struggles of anti-colonial independence leaders like Amilcar Cabral in the late 1960s, such a far cry from our current priorities. Now’s the moment to finally to address the cause of UN reform in view of a nascent international order. There may not be another.
*This article is part of a project of CAFEF: Critical Advocates For European Foreign Policy, a fledgling group-in-progress, started by Serb leftist politician Aleksandar Novakovic (co-founder of the political party Plamen) and the writer Arturo Desimone. Both were co-founders of the Diem25 foreign policy wing.
1. With thanks to Michele Fiorillo, scholar of international relations, for information on the UNPA and recent citizens’ initiatives. ↑