It was the autumn of 2001, sometime between the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and US President George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan. I was walking through Venice with Richard C. Holbrooke, who had been the US ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton. Holbrooke’s mobile phone rang. On the line was then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Holbrooke had expected the call. He and Annan spoke with the warm confidence born of their cooperation during Clinton’s second term. Annan, a kind of civilian pope, had forged a partnership with Holbrooke, the master diplomat who had been instrumental in ending the Bosnian War. It was a partnership that both men considered to be essential for global peace and stability.
This cooperative dynamic went beyond Annan and Holbrooke. The UN, as the quintessential symbol of international legitimacy and the rule of law, and the US, as the embodiment of pragmatic power and force, had a kind of alliance. As we mourn the recent death of Annan, perhaps we should also mourn that alliance – and, more fundamentally, the decimation of the UN’s global standing since Annan’s departure in 2007.
Annan was not perfect, and his career included tragedies and mistakes. In the mid-1990s, when he was serving as the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, massacres occurred in Rwanda and, subsequently, Bosnia, because UN forces failed to fulfill their responsibility to protect. Annan took no meaningful responsibility for that failure.
Nonetheless, Annan possessed a combination of charisma, elegance, eloquence, and self-control that was decisive in maintaining the visibility and legitimacy of the primus inter pares of international organizations. None of his successors has been able to offer these vital qualities, including António Guterres, who took the helm last year. Indeed, despite Guterres’s many positive attributes, the fact is that the UN has all but disappeared from the international radar screen since he took over.
The world stands on the precipice of a kind of chaos not seen since the end of World War II. Increasingly brazen attacks on multilateralism and the international rule of law threaten to destroy the postwar global system that was created – with the UN as its vital pillar – to ensure that history would not repeat itself.
Nowadays, the US has emerged as the UN’s chief detractor. In President Donald Trump’s view, the UN is useless at best. After all, it stands for multilateralism and the rule of law, whereas Trump advocates bilateral deal making and the rule of force.
Russia is also challenging the UN’s role, albeit to a lesser extent. This March, Russia blocked a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the human-rights catastrophe in Syria. But, in a sense, the Kremlin’s move actually reflects the enduring perception that the UN does still have some influence.
One world power that has emerged as a somewhat surprising backer of the UN is China. Unlike Trump’s US, China recognizes that the UN can serve as a platform for it to assert global influence, while building up its soft power. As a result, China has become the third-largest contributor to the UN’s regular budget, and the second-largest contributor to its peacekeeping budget. China has even pledged thousands of personnel to UN peacekeeping operations, indicating a commitment to global security.
But to restore the UN’s standing and influence to the level it attained under Annan will require stronger support from Europe – in particular, France and Germany – alongside at least two other influential liberal democracies, perhaps Canada to represent North America and Japan to represent Asia.
Of course, critics will express their doubts. If France and Germany can barely manage any progress in the European context, how can they be expected to lead the world back toward multilateralism and the rule of law? Canada cannot expect to represent North America over the powerful US. And Japan is an aging, if not decaying, society.
But what is the alternative? If these liberal democracies – which do wield their share of soft power – remain passive, the international order will continue to weaken, potentially to the point that it is shaped primarily by brute force, rather than diplomacy, cooperation, or the rule of law.
Together, however, these countries can try to arrest the decay of international institutions and prevent the world from falling back into the systemic violence of the past. If American voters, as seems likely, take away the Republicans’ majority in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections this November, the chances of saving the international order will be even higher.
A collapse into chaos is more likely today than at any point in the last 70 years. But it is not inevitable. We may not have a secretary-general with Annan’s gifts, but we can and must continue to fight for the world order that he helped to build. - Project Syndicate