A diamond jubilee deserves more than prerecorded speeches, but somehow a parade of three-minute videos broadcast to a mostly empty General Assembly chamber succinctly captures the moment for the United Nations. The world is facing a set of crises that is unprecedented in modern history — the COVID-19 pandemic, a global economy that has gone off the rails and a climate catastrophe — and the world body is distracted by geopolitical rivalries and a growing tendency of national governments to go it alone while complaining about the institution’s ineffectiveness. As U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres explained in comments at the world body’s 75th anniversary, “we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions.”
This is, warned Guterres, “a 1945 moment.” The COVID pandemic has “laid bare the world’s fragilities. … Climate calamity looms, biodiversity is collapsing, poverty is rising, hatred is spreading, geopolitical tensions are escalating, nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert.” Yet even in this precarious situation, cooperative action remains beyond reach.
There is plenty of blame to go around. The U.S. essentially snubbed the world body. Although U.S. President Donald Trump was listed first among the 182 heads of state or government to address Monday’s commemoration, he did not deign to speak and instead dispatched the acting U.S. deputy U.N. ambassador who complained that for too long, the United Nations has resisted “meaningful reform,” lacked transparency and was “too vulnerable to the agenda of autocratic regimes and dictatorships.”
When he did speak to the body, in a short prerecorded address to the U.N. General Assembly later in the week, Trump was combative. He attacked China for unleashing the “China virus … this plague” upon the world. He denounced the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal and, as he did last year, urged other nations to emulate his “America First” policies.
Other leaders, like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, urged countries to reject that view and embrace multilateralism and cooperation, but it is important to match words with deeds. They enjoy contrasting themselves with Trump — an easy way to look good — but they have been as obstinate in the protection of national prerogatives, as obstructionist in addressing problems and are no more eager to reform the U.N. — and in some cases have been even more reluctant than the U.S. to do so.
The focus of reform efforts is the Security Council, where five countries — China, France, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom — have permanent seats and vetoes over its deliberations. Those seats reflected those countries’ status as victors in World War II, but the world has been transformed in the 75 years since then and their power and privilege no longer reflect international reality. Nevertheless, those governments refuse to modernize the institution if it means that they will lose power. Equally important to them is the prospect of elevating rivals. Beijing has no desire to put either Japan or India, each a competitor for regional leadership, on the Security Council; Moscow is troubled by the idea of giving Germany that status or power. Their veto means that reform will not proceed. (Smaller regional rivals — Pakistan in the case of India, and Italy in the case of Germany — also oppose reform.)
Japan remains committed to the vision of the United Nations articulated at its founding — a world united in a shared purpose: preventing war, promoting rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes, and ensuring human rights and equal opportunities for all peoples to be prosperous, healthy and participate in global governance. Even as successive Japanese governments have pushed to increase their defense capabilities, they have remained committed to diplomacy and multilateralism, and working through international institutions to address global challenges. Japan’s push to reform the world body reflects a desire to do more, as the world’s third leading economy should. In remarks at the commemoration, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi called for U.N. Security Council reform to make it “an effective and representative organ” of the 21st-century world. He reaffirmed Japan’s readiness to take up the responsibilities of a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, “and contribute to ensuring peace and stability of the world.”
On the sidelines of this week’s General Assembly meeting, Motegi along with counterparts from Germany, India and Brazil — collectively called the Group of Four — issued another call for Security Council reform, in which they confirmed the urgency for change and expressed “disappointment at attempts to derail this process.”
Reform is not impossible. The Security Council increased from 11 members to 15 in 1965, with the addition of four nonpermanent members. At that time, the world body had 117 members, up from 51 at its founding. Today, there are 193 members; that growth alone indicates that change is overdue. It is difficult to be optimistic, however. The clock ran out on the anniversary celebrations with 58 countries — nearly one-third of U.N. members — waiting to speak. No date has yet been set for their messages to be heard.
The Japan Times Editorial Board