Frédéric Mertens de Wilmars
Professor and Coordinator of the Degree in International Relations / European University of Valencia
oscow’s war in Ukraine highlights the growing divide between the West, those countries that challenge the international order under the banner of China and Russia, and those that choose to stay cautiously on the sidelines.
Vladimir Putin’s shadow is expected to loom over the UN General Assembly debates, which began on Monday 19 September, against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This high point of multilateral diplomacy, already undermined by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, runs until 24 September.
Never has the international order seemed so fractured, and the conflict has revealed a new map of global power relations. On the one hand, the West and its allies, led by the United States, tired of policing the world, but leaders in supporting Ukraine in a Europe traumatised by the return of war. On the other side is Russia, a member of the Security Council, accused of violating the UN Charter by invading its neighbour, and supported cautiously and not without ulterior motives by China.
Finally, the countries of Asia, Africa – such as South Africa -, the Middle East and South America form a heterogeneous group, represented by India, which does not want to choose sides and is concerned about the diplomatic, food and energy consequences of this war on the European continent. This conflict marks a rupture, that of the decline of Western influence, despite its mobilisation on the side of Ukraine, and the great return of the United States to Europe.
In this context, beyond the content of the General Assembly debates, the main objective of UN Secretary General Guterres is to try to put the world organisation back at the centre of the international political game. For more than a decade now, the UN has become something of a humanitarian super-agency, doing remarkable work in development aid, education, etc. But politically, the UN has become a dwarf on the international stage. The big decisions of world politics are no longer taken within it. Thus, the UN has been totally absent from the war in Ukraine, at the political level.
In fact, the organisation that was born at the end of World War II and the prelude to the Cold War is slowly dying a silent death, due to a lack of institutional reform. The current Security Council is totally archaic. It is a vestige of the Second World War with the five permanent members: France, Britain, Russia, China and the U.S. Why France? Why Britain? Why not Germany, not to mention the great emerging powers like India, like Brazil, like South Africa, etc.? In short, as long as there is no reform of the Security Council or its enlargement, it will cease to be representative. And this reform must obviously and inevitably concern the right of veto of the five members of the UN Security Council. We can see this today with the war in Ukraine. The blockade is total. It is impossible to send peacekeepers to try to sanctify the nuclear sites, and so on. Russia would veto and Russia, for one reason or another, would not be able to vote in this vote, China would veto, and so on. It is the same when it comes to France, the United States, and so on. So a lot of reforms would be necessary to re-legitimise the Security Council and thus the United Nations. But again, this will not happen. There will be no major reform of the Security Council in the next ten or twenty years, unless there is an extreme danger to global security (climate change, nuclear conflict, etc.).
Last Friday, at a ceremony at UN headquarters, where world leaders had come for the General Assembly, the UN Secretary-General rang the peace bell. Donated by Japan in 1954, the 116-kilogram Buddhist bell has an inscription in Japanese characters on one side that reads: “May there be absolute peace in the world”. A pious wish, a pipe dream in the real world of international relations.
Sixty-eight years later, as war rages again on European soil, unleashed by one of the five countries with permanent membership of the UN Security Council, this wish from Japan, the only nation in the world to have suffered an atomic attack, has never seemed so merciful. From Ukraine to Ethiopia, from Yemen to Armenia, from the Sahel to Burma, peace is under attack on all fronts, in our regions, our countries and our communities, and the poison of war is infecting our world. A world scarred by war, but also wracked by climate chaos, scarred by hatred, shamed by poverty and inequality.
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