The UN’s track record on security is disappointing, but it plays a significant role in the resolution of minor crises and in aid for development.
With the coming of globalization, we have entered the age of universal history. And, with this, comes an era of extreme and irreversible global risks that are well-nigh unforseeable. There are financial risks, as illustrated in the 2008 crash; industrial risks, as in the Fukushima and Tianjin catastrophes in 2011 and 2015; technological risks from cyber-attacks; health risks from pandemics; and strategic risks, as illustrated in the chaos of the Middle East and the exodus of 1.3 million refugees to Europe this year.
Governments find themselves unable to deal with these risks. The United States cannot sustain them alone any longer; it remains a world power but is paralyzed by weak leadership, lack of strategy and a deadlocked political system.
Hence the rediscovery of the UN, which has just celebrated its 70th birthday. The General Assembly has been subjugated by two interventions: that of Pope Francis, who launched a vigorous appeal to fight against exclusion, the deterioration of the environment and the propagation of hatred; and that of Vladimir Putin, who proposed the creation of a huge international coalition against Islamic State. Conversely, the decline of the United States has been underlined and symbolized by the pusillanimous attitude of Barack Obama who seems ready to go down as the president who allowed Islamic State to come into being and to develop. A new world division has appeared – no longer an East-West divide but one that places the activism of the new empires (China, Russia, Turkey and Iran) on one side, and the powerlessness and division of the democracies on the other.
Contrary to what General de Gaulle maintained, the UN is very far from being “the thing” (le machin). It is the sole representative of the international community. Often criticized for its lack of power, this lack is only relative. The main stated objectives of the UN Charter, signed on 26th June 1945, were the maintenance of peace and security in the world, the development of international cooperation and the harmonization of the actions of nations.
While it is true that the UN is sadly absent from major conflicts, especially when they involve permanent members of the Security Council, it plays a very useful role in minor crises: for example, it has managed to prevent genocides in the Congo, the Central African Republic and in Sudan. Furthermore, it provides the main support for the 60 million or so refugees throughout the world.
Its results with regard to development are very positive, even if such progress must primarily be credited to globalization. The implementation of the eight Millennium Development Goals has meant that, between 2000 and 2015, the number of people living on less than 1.25 dollars a day has been reduced from 1.9 billion to 836 million; child mortality (under the age of 5) has dropped from 90 to 43 per 1,000; women’s deaths in childbirth have fallen from 380 to 210 per 100,000 births; the rate of primary school attendance has increased from 83% to 91%; HIV-related infections have dropped by 40%; and public aid for development has increased from 81 billion to 135 billion dollars.
Large grey areas remain: the rise of inequalities, the concentration of poverty in certain countries and in Africa, and an acceleration in the deterioration of the environment with the sharp rise in carbon emissions from 21.6 billion to 33 billion metric tonnes. Yet the economic situation and the health of humankind has never improved so much in so little time. This is why the 17 new commitments for 2030 are so important for the 8.5 billion beings who will be sharing the planet by then. And this is why it is important to keep dialogue and mutilaterial institutions alive. Of course, none of the major negotiations that have been initiated since 2000 with regard to arms control, trade, currencies or the protection of the environment has achieved results. But the failure of these global agreements often masks the success of bilateral treaties, sectoral initiatives, and changes to the way in which companies, markets and individuals behave. The UN is a priceless legacy of the leaders of the post-war period (following World War II) who managed to meet the challenges set by the crises and wars of the 20th century and anticipated the era of universal history.