Multilateral Jiu-Jitsu: Turning Crisis into Opportunity

The UN Security Council holds a meeting on the Ukraine conflict. New York, February 2, 2017. (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)

Recent events bring to mind the perhaps apocryphal ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Things are really getting interesting. And not just since the election or inauguration of United States President Donald Trump—although that seems to be all anyone can think about at the moment.

A survey of the world reveals tensions all over: On top of the disorder in the Middle East, there is great uncertainty in Europe following the Euro crisis and Brexit and in anticipation of major national elections this year, not to mention the continuing conflict in Ukraine. In Asia, there are rising tensions in the South China Sea, real potential for deteriorating relations between the US and China, and the risk of new atrocities in Myanmar; in Africa, South Sudan, and the Lake Chad basin are sites of serious humanitarian concern; in South America, next door to the successful, if imperfect, peace of Colombia, there is the potential for further instability in Venezuela in 2017.

Indeed, we live in an extraordinary time of crisis and change: globalization and technology disrupting industrial economies, unprecedented numbers of people on the move, and the terrible specter of climate change.

The list could go on and on—and we are yet to even mention the uncertainty around the established international order, which results only in part from the change in the White House.

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. Many of the recent changes in the world also come with great opportunities and benefits: improved connectivity, scientific advances, and millions rising out of poverty, to name a few.

Yet we are witnessing governments and international organizations struggling to adapt. Many would point to the continuing crisis in the Middle East as evidence that the multilateral system has failed. And they would not be exactly wrong.

At the same time, the United Nations-based multilateral system has achieved some remarkable successes in the past two years; among them are the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the joint Security Council and General Assembly resolutions on reform of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture, known as the “Sustaining Peace” resolutions.

The UN-based multilateral system can still deliver. And not just agreements—it also delivers, quite literally, things like food, medicine, and education.

The UN is now over 70 years old. And the world of 70 years ago was vastly different from today. Thus many have asked, is the UN still up to the task? Does it still matter? It has become very common to ask is it still “fit for purpose?”

Over the course of two years, the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM), a project of the International Peace Institute (IPI, which also publishes the Global Observatory), investigated these questions in broad consultation with UN member states, the UN Secretariat, civil society, and the private sector.

The fundamental conclusion we came to was: Yes, the UN still matters, but it needs to change.

In that sense, critics in Washington and elsewhere are right that there is a need for reform, and there is a broad consensus on that front, both inside and outside the system. The new secretary-general has been repeatedly speaking of reform since he took office on January 1; in the peace and security architecture, in management, and in sustainable development.

But how can it be achieved?

As the ICM worked over the course of two years to come up with practical recommendations on 15 issue areas, something curious happened: We started to hear the same things over and over again—an emerging consensus that represents fundamental principles for change in the UN system, no matter what the topic.

In our summary report, “Pulling Together: The Multilateral System and its Future,” the ICM puts forward 10 general principles to guide member states and the UN secretariat on the path to reform:

1. Restore Trust and Recommit to Multilateralism: States are too often tempted to act unilaterally. A recommitment by member states to operate within multilateral structures and rules can help avert the disorder caused by going it alone. This is perhaps wishful thinking today, given the state of play in Washington and Moscow and the sense we are entering a time of reinvigorated and jealously guarded national sovereignty—but it is worth emphasizing. The secretary-general and member state champions will have to be vocal on this issue. It is something we heard from representatives from around the world across the international agenda.

If we expect the multilateral system to work, states have to work multilaterally. Key to this will be addressing the profound mistrust that permeates the system at present. Repeatedly, the ICM heard reports of a deep lack of trust among states, between states and the UN Secretariat, and between people and their governments. The Trump administration is not the only one that feels that the UN at times works against its national interest. Many countries feel that powerful states too often use UN mechanisms to interfere in the domestic affairs of the less powerful. This breaks down solidarity and creates resistance to multilateral action. Restoring trust will be a critical component of a strengthened UN system. And one way to do this entails our next principle:

2. Include the People: Strengthening the multilateral system is not only about states. It must also address the needs, concerns and perspectives of “we the peoples” enshrined in the UN Charter. A more people-centered approach that actively engages local populations and civil society would enhance the system’s legitimacy and help to restore that trust that is so needed.

3. No commitment to inclusion would be complete without a concerted effort to further empower women and engage with youth. And that brings us to principle three: Empower Women and Youth. The broad pursuit of the sustainable development goal on gender equality and the ongoing implementation of Security Council resolutions on women, peace, and security and on youth would help quite a bit. Early pledges on gender parity by the new secretary-general are encouraging.

4. Follow Through on Implementation: Policies are only as good as their implementation. This is true for the UN Secretariat, as well as for member states.

There is broad recognition that one of the great successes of the UN system has been the production of a multifaceted framework of norms since 1945. However, the implementation of those norms has been less successful. The unauthorized use of force and the widespread violation of international laws undermine the credibility of the system and create the conditions for future crises.

Norm-setting institutions such as the UN gain legitimacy when those who violate those norms are held accountable. Promotion of a more robust implementation of UN norms and policies can help to rebuild trust in the system.

5. Promote Accountability: This is in part a point about accountability among management and staff at the UN, particularly in relation to sexual exploitation and abuse. But there is also a larger issue of international accountability, and the need to hold member states accountable for living up to their commitments—for example, to abide by international humanitarian law. If the US withdraws its moral authority on this issue, it will be critical for the secretary-general and other member states to step up.

6. It is increasingly recognized that prevention should be at the center of the UN’s work, so principle six is: Put Prevention into Practice. This was something that came up again and again in the ICM’s consultations. The need to focus more on prevention was also a central theme in the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Sustaining Peace resolutions. Already we are seeing conflict prevention as a central theme of the new secretary-general, who has called for a “surge in diplomacy for peace,” but there will be a need get more specific.

7. Bridge the Silos: Sustaining peace depends upon work flowing through all three pillars of the UN system—peace and security, development, and human rights. A concerted effort will have to be made to further bridge the institutional divisions to bring greater coherence to the UN’s activities. This is something that has been discussed for years, and progress has been made, but there is a broad consensus that there is still far to go. The new secretary-general has indicated that this is a priority of his and has already shown encouraging signs in the reorganization of his executive office, and in his commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, which provide a perfect frame for thinking about the connections among peace, development, and human rights.

8. Enhance Partnerships: Today, no one can go it alone. The UN must strengthen its capacity to engage with local, national, regional, and international partners, especially regional and sub-regional organizations, civil society actors, and the private sector. This is likely to become even more important as the possibility of major funding cuts become a reality.

9. Develop Sustainable and Predictable Financing: The problem of adequate funding of UN activities is perennial. This is not just about more funding. It is about better funding, and this goes back to some of the previous points—particularly related to prevention, which over time reduces Partnerships and the bridging of silos in search of synergies are also critical for improved financing. In recent years the gap between demand and available funding has grown. This is not going to change in the coming period. Rather, it is likely to get worse. Creative solutions are needed.

10. Finally, and this may seem a relatively small issue, but it is an important component of any successful reform project: There is a need to better Communicate Success. At all levels of action, the UN must be able to effectively communicate its purpose based on clear goals, clear messages, and clear results. This is imperative in order for the UN to sustain its legitimacy and funding base among member states, as well as its reputation and image in the eyes of the world.

These principles are admittedly general. The task ahead is to see how they can be made concrete through their application throughout the UN agenda. In the coming months, IPI will be releasing policy papers with more detailed recommendations in each of the issue areas examined by the ICM over the last two years.

The new leadership at the UN remains a great opportunity. Historically we know every new secretary-general comes into office with a window of opportunity to make change, and this secretary-general seems more prepared than most to follow through.

On the other hand, the new leadership in Washington can be seen as evidence of another broader crisis: a crisis for multilateralism, both in terms of potential cuts in funding and in pronounced unilateral postures.

Nonetheless, there is a possibility that through all the noise, one can discern a signal that points to a real emerging consensus around the need for reform, and around some of the principles that could guide that reform. If, in the spirit of a multilateral jiu-jitsu of sorts, we can use the weight of that consensus to take this moment as an opportunity to effect real change, we might see a future for multilateralism that is indeed a better one. It will take a broad commitment to make it a reality. Get ready.

Adam Lupel is Vice President of the International Peace Institute. This piece is adapted from his presentation on the ICM report at the Stimson Center, on February 3, 2017.