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Global Challenges Foundation New Shape Forum

Michael Møller

27 mai 2018
Global Challenges Foundation New Shape Forum

Remarks by Mr. Michael Møller
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

Global Challenges Foundation New Shape Forum

Sunday, 27 May 2018, 10.00 AM
Münchenbryggeriet, Torkel Knutssonsgatan 2, 11825 Stockholm
Stockholm, Sweden

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a pleasure to be in Stockholm today, thank you for your kind invitation.

I appreciate the opportunity to exchange thoughts with you about global governance challenges and the role of the United Nations.

I like the way in which the Global Challenges Foundation has framed our discussion - namely as a focus on shapes, which is to say a focus on structure.

The shape of a system determines the outcomes it achieves. Or, as Winston Churchill memorably put it: “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”

But what are we talking about when we talk about the shape of global governance?

To explore this, I have brought with me three questions:

One, how should we understand current structures of global governance?

Two, how has the world changed since these structures were first established and are they still “fit for purpose”?

And three, what are the solutions; what is the best way forward?

Start with the first question.

Here, it is helpful to note that there is no single, uniform or coherent shape of global governance. Rather, there are different intersecting layers.

Global governance structures are like the United Nations itself, which the late Columbia Law Professor Louis Henkin described as a “multifaceted body, were no view permits seeing it whole and in detail at the same time.”

The first layer is the one that most people think of when they hear the word ‘global governance’. It is the layer that is often judged against the yardstick of the ‘world government’ ideal.

For the United Nations, it is the layer most closely associated with the Security Council and its five veto powers - the only political organ of the UN that can take legally binding decisions.

It is a truism to say that the Security Council has fallen short of our aspirations, and often even failed to meet our expectations.

Deadlock and division, stalemate and standstill - these are some of the words that a quick google search will suggest when you start typing the word Security Council.

All of these are fair associations. But also a very one-sided view. For there are instances where the Security Council has shown what it is capable of.

I’m thinking for example about the early 1990s, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The very same day, the Security Council adopted a resolution demanding the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces. Within a few days, it instituted sanctions. After Saddam Hussein did not comply, it authorised a military coalition to use “all necessary means” to compel Iraq to do so. And after successful military action, it established the terms of the ceasefire. [All of this of course stood in stark contrast to 2003, when the Security Council failed to reach consensus, with ramifications reverberating to the present day.]

More recently, I’m thinking about the impact of the Security Council in opening up a path for a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. As our Secretary-General António Guterres has observed, it was the unity of the Security Council that was able to come together and to have very strong and meaningful sanctions that made North Korea realize that it was necessary to come forward and enter into dialogue with the international community.

These examples do not excuse the countless instances where the Security Council failed to act. But they do show that even at the most ambitious level of global governance, there are instruments and organs that can be meaningful.

And global governance is more than abstract aspirations for world government. It is also about the nations of the world coming together to defuse regional and local crises, to safeguard peace and establish security wherever they are under threat.

This brings me to the second layer of global governance - and a good example to explore this is by looking at the Peacekeeping operations of the United Nations.

Again, the blue helmets are not the world’s armed police, much less a global army. They are, however, a remarkable enterprise of multilateralism and international solidarity.

Last month in Liberia, we closed the third successful UN peacekeeping mission in West Africa. Twenty years ago, the region was in freefall with civil wars raging in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

These countries were close to failed states; their economies had disintegrated; nearly a third of the Liberian population was displaced; an estimated 80% of women and girls experienced conflict-related sexual violence.

Today, with the support of UN peacekeeping operations, we see peace and stability taking hold. Civilian institutions have been restored; hundreds of thousands of displaced people have returned home; schools have reopened.

Peacekeeping missions are often high-risk and take place in crisis contexts where there is in fact little peace to keep. Some of them have challenges, which are regularly and rightly highlighted by the media.

But it’s more difficult to highlight what peacekeeping has achieved, because that may be things that did not happen: preventing death and destruction, stopping crises from escalating
You could be forgiven for not fully appreciating that. After all, you rarely read about it in the newspapers. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen.

This highlights a key point: the benefits of the existing multilateral system are rarely recognized, and its achievements are seldom spoken off.

But they have very real and tangible effects on every person on the planet. Indeed, they combine to produce the incredible human progress we have witnessed in recent decades.

I often say this to young people: if you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be - you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born, whether you were going to be a man or a woman - if you had to choose blindly what moment you would want to be born, you would choose now. Because the world has never, collectively, been wealthier, better educated, healthier, less violent than it is today.

That may be hard to imagine, given what we see in the news, but it’s true. And a lot of it has to do with the work of the global order and organizations established after the Second World War.

This, then, brings me to the third layer of global governance - the “behind-the-scenes”-actions if you will of the various funds, programmes and specialized agencies that make up the United Nations and its many partners.

Whether it’s UNICEF, the World Food Programme or the World Health Organization - it is the often low-profile and technical actions of these actors that have lifted families out of extreme poverty, cured diseases, helped people live longer, gave them more access to education and opportunity than at any time in human history.

And it’s not only the developing world that benefits.

Did you know that you are 96% less likely to die in a car accident in Europe than you were seventy years ago? This is not just the upshot of seatbelts and airbags. It is also things like the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, a multilateral treaty that standardized traffic signs across the world. It may be less grandiose than world peace, but that, too, is global governance.

In exploring the different layers of global governance, I have taken a positive, perhaps defensive, view of the existing system. I have done so more to set the record straight, not to suggest that everything is in fact fine. Indeed, there is much that could and should be changed.

And that begins with asking the second question I posed at the outset: how has the world changed since the current instruments of global governance were first established?

I would highlight two aspects to compare and contrast how they looked in the past versus how they seem today: first, the distribution of power; and second, the nature of the challenges.

The settlement of the 1940s that created much of what we today consider our global governance architecture was an achievement of design, an accommodation to circumstances, and an adaptation to events.

Its establishment coincided with the emergence of the Cold War, the bipolar confrontation of two global superpowers. The Cold War’s fault lines were hotly contested, but the geopolitical landscape was otherwise neatly bifurcated into the West’s blue states and the East’s red states. There was hardly a local conflict that was not a proxy for hegemonic confrontation; hardly an instance where diplomacy did not adhere to the strict logic of bipolarity.

Comparing then and now is instructive, because it shines a light on a critical development -- and that is the dramatic diffusion of power.

If in 1969 Henry Kissinger could still declare that the “axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington and then goes to Tokyo”, this historical cartography today seems hopelessly dated.

But it’s even more than just a proliferation of mid-level states that act increasingly autonomously from the big powers. Rather, power that used to be firmly in the hands of the state has metamorphosed into something much more diffuse: whether its non-state actors challenging the state’s monopoly of violence; or whether its private corporations evading effective regulation by any one state - power in international relations is altogether a more complex, messy affair.

One way to think about this change is as a contrast between hierarchy and order versus networks and entropy.

Whereas in the past, international relations were centralized - with core and periphery, with top-down commands and control - today, we live in an ‘age of entanglement’.

Global politics has been reconfigured. The traditional ‘chessboard’ of inter-state diplomacy may still exist, but it is joined by a new web of networks made up of governments, companies, NGOs, terrorist groups, philanthropists, and countless others - all wielding influence and cooperating or clashing at various points in time and place.

And these intricate connections are mirrored by something else too, namely by the challenges and threats we face.

Looking at any one of them - escalating climate change, protracted conflicts, rampant inequality - you simply cannot neatly disentangle one from the other.

Take climate change, the worst threat of all. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are now higher than they have been for 800,000 years. Biologists warn that half of all species on earth will face extinction by the end of the century.

Climate change is a direct threat in itself and a multiplier of many other threats - from poverty to displacement to conflict.

But poverty and conflict in turn also aggravate climate change. You cannot ask people who are struggling to find enough to eat today to worry about what happens to the planet tomorrow. Worrying about climate change is a luxury you can only afford if your immediate needs are met.

It is connected: as long as we cling to a social and economic model in which eight men own as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity; in which one billion people make less than one dollar a day; and in which all of that is met with indifference, not outrage - in such a world, tackling climate change is terribly difficult.

We cannot deal with the challenges we face either regionally, sequentially or in isolation. Challenges faced by any one of us may swiftly become crises faced by all – carbon emissions know no boundaries, distant conflicts lead to refugee flows and weak healthcare systems in a remote island state can lead to worldwide pandemics.

The diffusion of power; the globalisation of challenges - it may all seem quite destabilising and daunting. But here comes the twist: it also engenders tremendous opportunities.

I say this conscious of the fact that I speak as a civil servant for an organization that was founded in the old system of power politics, and that is still firmly built around the notion of nation-state sovereignty.

But I also say this conscious of what the American diplomat Ralph Bunch, one of the intellectual founding fathers of the UN, already observed in 1950. “The UN”, he said, “exists not merely to preserve the peace but also to make change - even radical change - possible without violent upheaval. The United Nations has no vested interest in the status quo.”

This is why we are pursuing an ambitious reform agenda to make the UN fit for the 21st century – because if yesterday’s tools are inadequate to tackle today’s problems, they will outright fail to fix tomorrow’s challenges.

And this is why I gladly accepted the invitation to speak here today, and why I look with great anticipation to the submissions for the New Shape Prize.

Today many people seem to be too chastened and paralyzed by their suspicion of global utopias, even the most practical ones, to want to fight for anything much at all beyond the perfection of their own lives. Against this indifference, the New Shape Forum provides a welcome antidote.

Now, the last question I raised at the outset was: what are the solutions; what is the best way forward?

I am hopeful that the winners of the prize will propose innovative answers. But whatever they may be, I am confident they will link with the one thing that we at the UN have unambiguously embraced - and that is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is our common roadmap to chart the course ahead of us and tackle the root causes of the challenges we face.

You cannot study the future of global governance without them. The 2030 Agenda is testimony to the power of unity and vision when it is shared by 193 countries, civil society, and the business sector – all supported by the United Nations.

What is unique about the 2030 Agenda is that it is truly global. It’s no longer about what some countries can do for others; it’s about everyone working together towards the same set of goals. The 2030 Agenda is changing international development aid from a handout to a handshake.

Moreover, it is not only about ending poverty and improving health and education. The 2030 Agenda encompasses key areas such as justice and governance. It is rooted in human rights and it is universal, applying to every country. Even the richest have yet to fully empower women, protect the environment or eradicate poverty.

The 2030 Agenda is indivisible, it leaves no one behind, and it is everyone’s responsibility - from businesses and civil society, to everyone in this room.

If that sounds familiar to you, it is because it links to what I outlined before. Indeed, the 2030 Agenda is the platform, the structure - the shape if you will - to leverage the opportunities presented by the new polycentric system defined by networks: implicating everyone and applying everywhere.
If a challenge of our time is too much short-sightedness and too little inclusion, the 2030 Agenda takes an integrated long-term view focused on preventing conflicts, rather than fire-fighting them.

If “you win-I lose” calculations dominated Cold War-era international relations, the 2030 Agenda is the paradigm shift necessary for the new polycentric system that does away with zero-sum games. The new logic is simple and powerful: if the threats are existential, if power is dispersed and challenges are global and interlinked, then we really are all in this together, and no one wins unless everyone wins.

We now live in a global village, and the United Nations is the global Town Hall, a safe space to look for solutions and reach a better understanding of each other – because we are better together than we are separately.

The years and decades to come will test our civilization like no other. We are the first generation that can end extreme poverty and the last generation that can curb climate change.

We face a stark choice: If we cling to an economic and social model that drives exclusion and environmental destruction, people die, opportunities are missed, the seeds of division and future conflicts are sown and the full force of climate change becomes ever more likely.

Or we create another world - where we consume sustainably; where gains are distributed fairly; where the digital revolution benefits not just the fortunate few, but lifts the fate of the many; where companies care about all their stakeholders, not just their shareholders.

We have the means and the skills to create such a world. In fact, I would even argue that we have most of the global governance structures in place, subject to successful reforms. But we can only hope for success if every single one of us contributes. That is what will make or break our whole endeavour.

Thank you.