The United Nations (UN) has always struggled when its most powerful members are disunited. On the 75th anniversary of the UN’s foundation, not only is great power rivalry rising to Cold War levels, but the world is under enormous forces of change, whether technological or environmental. The organisation recognises it needs to make major adjustments, but it can only reform if there is a sufficient consensus among its members to that effect. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at the supplementary high-level meeting, stressed the need for reformed multilateralism to ensure UN’s continued relevance.
India has long called for the Security Council to be expanded to provide permanent seats for emerging powers like itself. That a draft text for such reforms has made it to the UN General Assembly is an accomplishment. While New Delhi must continue to iterate this requirement, it should be recognised this is an aspiration and comes with a long and unpredictable timeline. It is not merely China which will be a barrier, neither the United States or Russia is eager to see their positions diluted.
There are three obvious multilateral issues in which the UN needs to become much more active. The most obvious is the pandemics. No government can claim there is not a case for much more transparent and intrusive global preventive health system. Then there is climate. The UN hosts the world’s primary climate change conference, but this role needs to be institutionalised. In addition, climate policy now affects other areas such as trade and immigration and urgent multi-disciplinary discussions are needed at the highest level. Finally, terrorism remains a global threat. The collapse of the Islamic State has taken the wind out of the terrorists’ sail, but no one believes this is not a temporary situation.
Cynics will say the UN will be hampered by a de-globalising world, superpowers at daggers drawn and rising protectionism. The debate over a reformed multilateralism and more relevant UN needs to begin sooner rather than later. The speeches have now been made, but India and other governments now need to find ways to convert these into action on the ground. The UN is imperfect because the cohesion of its member-states is imperfect. But no one can deny, as Mr Modi said, “Our world today is a better place because of the United Nations.”