The world body needs to reflect new global realities

2020-10-30

The recent speeches by world leaders to the UN General Assembly were  by in large notable for three reasons. First, most countries  acknowledged the 75th anniversary of the international organization,  praising its good work while recognizing the need for reforms. Second,  most also expressed a commitment to multilateralism in global affairs,  citing the ongoing novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic as a  compelling justification for international cooperation. Third, the US  administration, however, as expressed by President Donald Trump himself,  used the venue to denigrate the organization and attack China in  particular.

Volkan Bozkir, President of the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly,  opens the general debate

at the UN headquarters in New York City on  September 22 (XINHUA)   

In a typical US presidential election year one can expect normal  niceties and diplomacy to be sacrificed for whatever wedge issue  candidates are using to shave votes from each other given perpetually  tight races and polarization. US presidents are most powerful in terms  of their almost unchecked power in foreign policy, and when a president  is struggling domestically like Trump is presently, it's not uncommon to  resort to shows of strength in foreign affairs.

The only problem is that American power isn't what it used to be,  comparatively. Sure, the United States is still the most powerful  country in the world, but COVID-19 and increasing evidence of a broad  and deep systemic failure in governance that has accelerated during the  pandemic have seen a large number of leading figures conclude that the  greatest existential dangers facing the country are those it has created  for itself.

Meanwhile, Trump's attempt to export America's problems by blaming  and holding others responsible accounts for his near constant attacks on  strategic competitors and allies alike, and his increasing abandonment  of international organizations and international law has made his  rhetoric a tired echo, particularly in a speech to the world's leading  multilateral organization.

A new era

Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly signaled a "new era", one  in which China is transitioning from being a major country to a major  power, but he has also used the description more broadly.

While almost everyone would now agree that the pandemic alone is a  clear threshold signaling a new era, multilateralism has reached a  critical threshold as well. This was made clear in Xi's speech to the UN  General Assembly on September 22 where he reaffirmed China's support  for the UN and other international organizations, called for global  cooperation to resolve the pandemic, offered Chinese assistance for a  global vaccine strategy, and called for more South-South cooperation and  equal treatment for developing countries.

In 2009, Yu Keping, one of China's leading intellectuals, observed  that China typically joined international organizations as a means of  building, not surrendering autonomy. What's most interesting of course  is that other countries, particularly the United States, allowed China  to join these groups with the understanding that it would in some way  help contain China's rise and preserve above all American power.

That American power has declined despite these efforts and that China  has sustained and reinforced sovereignty and autonomy while becoming  more integrated globally signal that Beijing's strategy has worked while  Washington's hasn't. So while we might ascribe Trump's  anti-multilateralism, xenophobia and racism and so on as being  symptomatic of a man out of step with the times, it's not surprising the  United States has become less enchanted with a system it can no longer  manipulate for its own national interests.

This brings us to one of Trump's most incredible criticisms in his  speech, namely, that the UN is too susceptible to authoritarian  governments. Is it not the case that the US Government historically has  been authoritarian in its foreign policy?

Is it not the case that the United States has historically  manipulated the UN by hook or by crook to advance its own agenda? Is it  not the case that the US presidency—which historian Arthur Schlesinger  described critically as the "imperial presidency" given its power in  foreign affairs—has operated in authoritarian ways during the Cold War  era following the establishment of the UN, and more so after the  dissolution of the Soviet Union, and even now, with an unabashed  recourse to unilateralism?

Is it not therefore strangely fitting if not ironic that Trump's  criticism, which he obviously directed at China, was in fact more a  truism of the United States' own history with the UN?

Yu's observation of why China joins and supports international  organizations remains valid in part but the sometime criticisms from  other quarters that China has not taken an active leadership role in  international organizations no longer are.

It's clear that China is embracing a leadership role in the absence  of the same from the United States, offering to be a bulwark for  multilateralism and the international system, including the UN.

Additionally, China has asserted the need for more justice for  developing countries in these organizations. As the only developing  country among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as  one of the new global health powerhouses, as a leading source of new  tech and innovation and outbound foreign direct investment, and as the  home of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China's willingness to  both play by the rules and contribute to global post-pandemic recovery  and development needs ought to appeal to most countries in the world  while also standing in stark contrast with what is coming now from the  United States.

The need for reforms

The need for reforms in the UN and other international organizations  is compelling. The UN itself was created under very different  geostrategic circumstances that existed at the end of World War II, and  while the United States eventually became the world's sole superpower,  that position is eroding. This is to say that the system needs to be  substantially reformed in order to reflect new global realities,  including new dangers like global warming and the reemergence of great  power competition, as well as the ongoing danger of a global pandemic  and likely more to come.

As a rising major country committed to multilateralism, it's clear  that China has many important roles to play in reforming these  organizations. On the negative side, a key objective must include  organizing international resistance to US reform proposals that either  are disingenuous, as we have seen with US proposals for the World Health  Organization, or aim to twist the UN and other organizations once again  in ways that privilege its own interests above others.

On the positive side, China needs to take a global leadership role  helping reform these organizations for better global governance, peace  and security. To do this, it needs to prioritize these efforts in its  foreign policy, study and share with others how these organizations  should be reformed, join working groups with other nations for  consultation and consensus building, then help push the results through  the international organizations diplomatically and democratically and  ensure they are implemented effectively.

And it should do this above all because no other country in the world  is more experienced with the challenges of reforming large  organizations and bureaucracies than China is. China is literally the  global leader of reform.

If we look at the Chinese experience over the course of reform and  opening up—no other country has demonstrated a similar capacity for that  kind of work. Conversely, other leading countries, including above all  the United States and to a lesser degree others including Japan, have  become stuck in declining positions because they are unable to reform  even themselves. So in this sense, China has the capacity, opportunity  and responsibility to help lead reforms.

The author is Professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai.


Source: China Daily

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华东师范大学
East China Normal University