Redefining the UN

As world leaders descended on New York last week for the 58th session of the United Nations General Assembly, it was clear that the organisation faced one of its most decisive moments since it was founded.

As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pointed out in his speech to the Assembly: while the organisation brings legitimacy, credibility and collective solidarity to international affairs, its role continues to be questioned by some of the world’s most powerful states.

This questioning of the UN’s authority has become pronounced since the events of September 11 2001, which the United States seized as an opportunity to reshape the world in its image.

When US President George W Bush took to the Assembly’s podium to justify — even glorify — his war on terror, it emerged that Washington still favours go-it-alone strategies, even when most other states wish to strengthen global governance and empower the UN. While Annan criticised unilateral pre-emptive strikes, Bush insisted that military force is the US’s divine right.

But the US’s status and power, almost indisputable during the first post-Cold War decade, are now being questioned and it is increasingly showing its vulnerability. In Iraq it is faced with ever-increasing deaths and casualties among its military, and the unforeseeable financial cost of rebuilding the country has already reached close to $100-billion a year.
Not only has this dented Washington’s confidence, but the US now expects other states to share the burden.

One thing is becoming clear: superior military hardware and power alone do not guarantee victory. Instead, multilateralism, diplomacy, cooperation and partnerships remain key to resolving conflicts. Annan rightly raised the vexed question of whether peace and democracy can be imposed by outside states. 

In his address to the Assembly, President Thabo Mbeki said international terrorism should be dealt with on the basis of collective security and by addressing poverty, among other strategies. He called for the redefinition of the UN in a way that would strengthen multilateralism and continental governance.

In fact, the majority of states at the Assembly defended the UN and multilateralism, including Germany, France, India and Brazil.

Mbeki also used his speech to call for the strengthening of the UN to help developing countries deal with the challenges and consequences of globalisation.

The sooner the US sheds its obsession with old-style notions of crude power, and other industrialised powers show as much willingness to address the global poverty divide as they are to defend multilateralism, the better the chances to craft a global order based on solidarity.

David Monyae teaches international relations at Wits. Chris Landsberg is director of the Centre for Policy Studies.

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