2015: Time to Invest in Our Global System

29/06/2015 16:24 BST | Updated 29/06/2016 10:59 BST

On 26 June 1945, the United Nations Charter opened for signature, raising hopes for a new era of peace and prosperity. 70 years on, this prospect looks endangered.

Multiple crises, exacerbated by long-term challenges like climate change and inequality, are driving instability across the world. While globalisation has boosted opportunities for trade, it has increased our vulnerability to shocks, from bank defaults to disease outbreaks, and reduced the ability of governments to tackle traditionally domestic issues like fiscal balances and job creation. As a result, many of us have narrowed our horizons, becoming more fiercely local, discriminatory and, at the extreme, violent.


The UN is struggling to deal with this grim picture. On the ground, it is working wonders to feed, shelter and protect millions of people. But funding shortfalls have forced it to scale back its efforts in recent months, reducing food aid to Syrian refugees, for example, and potentially closing health clinics in Iraq. At the policy level, it is working to improve the international community's ability - and appetite - to tackle these challenges. Political leadership has been in short supply.

Has the UN failed in its quest for progress? Have its efforts over the past 70 years amounted to no more than a sticking plaster on the world's sores?

Despite the horrific headlines we see every day, the world has become a better place by almost every objective measure (environmental issues are the big exception). The number of conflict-related deaths has steadily declined since 1945. In the 2000s, the average annual death toll from warfare was a third of what it was during the Cold War. This decade's brutal outbursts of violence have not disrupted this trend.

Most people today live longer, healthier lives. Globally, life expectancy and living standards have improved by 18 per cent over the past 20 years. The world is also freer. In 1945, almost a third of its people lived in colonised territories. Since then, over 80 countries have gained independence. Technology has empowered individuals and civil society movements.

The extent to which the UN deserves credit for these developments is debated. Economic growth in China has had a great impact on reducing global poverty. Nuclear deterrence has probably helped to prevent big power conflict. But there are areas where the UN's impact is obvious, from the eradication of smallpox to the system of international agreements that now governs almost every aspect of human endeavour and planetary resource.

In the field, its success has depended on clear, achievable mandates. Targeted development campaigns, on infant mortality and school enrolment for instance, have worked. Those seeking wider social transformation, not least on gender equality, have some way to go. Peacekeeping missions have been most effective in smaller countries like Lebanon and Sierra Leone, especially when big powers show sustained interest.

More broadly, the UN has fostered the concept of an "international community", expected to solve problems peacefully. This idea has gained wide acceptance amongst global citizens, who want their governments to abide by shared international standards. But it is predicated on states' willingness to work together.

What we are witnessing now is the fading effect of the UN's guiding principles in restraining nationalistic ambitions. The refusal of Russia to follow UN norms in the Ukraine crisis is more than a straw in the wind. Up to now, Moscow had almost without exception been careful to respect the letter of its international commitments because it believed the UN system constrained the West. The sagas of Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and the eastward expansion of NATO, have soured this belief and provoked the Kremlin into a more brutal game of power projection.

The perception that international power structures are frozen in an outdated compromise is also damaging the UN. It is not entirely accurate. The five permanent members of the Security Council, for example, still rank in the top six for global firepower and their collective share of GDP is roughly the same today as it was in 1945. But to an objective observer it seems justified, particularly in the financial institutions. The New Development Bank is a non-violent manifestation of this discontent.

Our long period of global peace will not endure unless governments consciously will it to last. The UN has instilled habits between capitals of talking, debating, arguing and resolving that have a very real value. But it has also reinforced the authority of sovereign states within their own territories. And, as always in human affairs, the politics of holding on to power trumps everything else, including the search for collective solutions to global problems as serious as climate change and mass displacement.

The stark truth is that international compromises, of the kind that made the UN possible in 1945, still appear too costly when measured by the familiar criterion of national interest. The patterns of polarised thinking that led to the breakdown of relationships in the decade before the First World War are starting to be recognisable again.

This time the world has institutions, practices and early-warning systems in place to encourage more far-sighted policy-making. Political leadership, however, remains trapped in national agendas, or smaller. Unless that changes, unless governments - and the publics to whom they are accountable - embrace the need to use and refresh those institutions, we will have learnt nothing from the previous, and finite, eras of peace.

Photo: A woman and child at Za'atri refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan (c) UN Photo/Mark Garten