Even at the best of times, there is a wide scope for misunderstanding in modern international relations, says António Guterres, the UN secretary general. “When two diplomats meet”, he says, “there are at least six perceptions to manage: how the two perceive themselves, how they perceive each other – and how they think the other perceives them”.
Four months into the coronavirus epidemic and it is the worst of times – and the opportunities for misperception have multiplied. The virus has left the UN members talking past one another, and advocates of multilateralism increasingly looking anywhere but the security council to promote liberal democracy, seek compromise or campaign for accountability.
For Guterres, this is deeply frustrating. He was one of the first world leaders to grasp the seriousness of the pandemic, and saw an opportunity for the 15-strong UN security council to play a convening role.
He tried, for instance, to make the UN relevant back in late March by calling for a worldwide ceasefire to give the doctors space and time to save lives. It was unashamedly idealistic, but some militias in Cameroon, Thailand and the Philippines, agreed to time out.
But then arguments between China and the US over Covid-19 held up the resolution for months. The US objected to any positive reference to the UN World Health Organization in the text. The only body to be demobilised, Guterres discovered, was the UN itself.
Three months later, the resolution was finally agreed, excluding any direct reference to the WHO. In the meantime, 12 million people had been infected by the virus and 500,000 had died – and momentum on the ceasefire had been lost. By contrast, in 2014 the security council had passed a resolution on Ebola in one day.
Similarly, a declaration drafted to mark the UN’s 75th birthday, due to be adopted at the September general assembly, led to long disagreements in the security council. The US opposed references to the climate change. The west, including Britain, also suspected China was trying to slip some Chinese communist thinking into the resolution, and objected. Agreement was finally reached, but for most people it was a theological dispute comprehensible to a handful of diplomats
Guterres admits the security council at this supremely global moment had offered little but paralysis. “Relations between the most important powers, the USA, China and Russia, are more dysfunctional than ever. Unfortunately, where there is power, there is no leadership, and where there is leadership, there is lack of power. Furthermore, when we look at multilateral institutions, we have to recognise that they have no teeth. Or, when they do, they don’t have much of an appetite. They don’t want to bite”.
This degree of gridlock has had consequences way beyond the loss of an abstract concept – the liberal rules-based order. We are, in the words of David Miliband, CEO of the international rescue committee and a former Labour foreign secretary, “living through the age of impunity”.
“Anything goes. And the law is for suckers. A time where war crimes go unpunished and the laws of war become optional. A time when militaries, militias, and mercenaries in conflicts around the world believe they can get away with anything, and because they can get away with anything, they do everything,” he said.
Syria acts as exhibit A to illustrate Miliband’s point. Geir Pedersen, the fourth UN special envoy since the civil war started in 2011, already questions his value. “When I asked friends and colleagues should I take on this job, they said you must be crazy, I thought maybe after eight years of conflict the time was getting more ripe for settling the conflict,” he says. “What I expected was the lack of trust between the parties, but not the deep distrust between the international parties and that is something I am struggling with”.
Russia has used its veto power an astonishing 16 times in Syria, twice in the last month to block humanitarian aid into the country.
Pedersen says: “I brief the council every month and sometimes I think there is not much new to say. There is a deep frustration that after nine and a half years the political process has not been able to deliver any progress. No progress on the economy, detainees or what you can do for the dignified return for refugees.
“I told the UN security council ‘I need your help if we are to make progress’. With a conflict that has been going on for so long, I worry it becomes part of the normal scenery. I struggle with this. We have thousands of people killed and it is not even close to headlines anymore.”
Libya could act as exhibit B. It, too, has been locked in an on-off civil war since 2011, while the UN watches its own arms embargo openly flouted.
Ghassan Salamé, the former UN special envoy for Libya, makes a brutal wider analysis of what is going wrong. “In the cold war, the security council was blocked by the mutual veto. Nowadays we are blocked by the disintegration of the idea of collective security. It is not there in the council. We went in the 80s through a period of financial deregulation, what is called neo-liberalism … We are now going through a period of de-regulation of force. Now everybody who has the means to do something – and a lack of internal constraints, such as a parliament – has the means to act and there is no one to tell them ‘you cannot do that’. Let’s face it, it makes democracies weaker. Why do we not say that publicly?
“It is not because democracies produce weak regimes, but democracy needs multilateralism. It needs everyone to have domestic and internal constraints, to put limits to behaviour. If you can ignore your constitution, your parliament and public opinion and you do not have an external power constraint, whether it is the security council or the great powers, then it is a free-for-all.
“As a result, the constraints on external meddling by medium-rank powers no longer exist.”
Europe, he confides, is powerless, and has been reduced to the role of the peace banker, offering to finance reconstruction once others finish the fighting.
Harold Koh, legal adviser to the State Department under Barack Obama and professor of international law at Yale University, argues that we are living through a pivotal moment, second only to the second world war. “Back in the 1790s Immanuel Kant made a very simple argument. He said we do not need world government. What we need is democratic nations committed to human rights and the rule of law cooperating for shared ends.
“Essentially he was calling for a United Nations system. The alternative, less clearly expressed, is Orwell’s 1984 – spheres of superpower influence where there are no values, people lie, change enemies and friends day to day. Leaders are authoritarian at home, and pat dictators on the back abroad.”
Most believe that the Orwellians are winning – if only because China and the US’s visions of the post-imperial world order appear so incompatible.
But Mary Robinson, the chair of the Elders, the group of senior former UN leaders, says it is too soon to read the last rites for multilateralism. The movement has gone through a bumpy undefended period, she recently told Chatham House, the non-profit organisation that aims to analyse and promote the understanding of major international issues. But as recently as 2015 the world came together on climate change and global development goals, she said.
“No event could have more clearly made the case for multilateralism – the simple idea of cooperation between countries to solve problems that are too big for one country,” she says. Populists, salesmen of distrust and nationalism have been found wanting faced by a pandemic without a passport. Even in America, Trump’s familiar tunes play to emptying stadiums.
But what would renewal of multilateralism look like?
If Joe Biden wins the US election this November, probably the most pro-Atlanticist politician in America will enter the White House. He has already said he will review Donald Trump’s troop withdrawal from Germany and promised to hold a summit of democracies, a proposal that might dovetail with the UK’s plans to create a democratic 10 group of nations. Above all, the whole tone of transatlantic discussion would change.
But a Biden White House would not end the trade or political rivalry with China and Russia, or restore the rare period of American hegemonic power at the end of the cold war.
Nor would it lift the roadblocks to reform at the UN and its subsidiary bodies such as the WHO. All sides agree the 15-strong security council is a museum piece built to reward the winners of the second world war, and does not reflect the modern balance of power. Most people, including Ban Ki-Moon, the previous UN secretary general, agree there is no point relaunching efforts to reform the security council or the veto.
But a widening of security council membership was proposed by another former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, in 2003-2005. Annan thought he could catch a wave and seize the opportunity to rush through change of the security council, but his vision was crushed by the entrenched interests of security council members unwilling to cede any power to the likes of India or Nigeria.
Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the UN, told the UK foreign affairs select committee that if the main multilateral institutions could not be reformed, the task would be to find “workarounds”, or what she described as hustling for liberal democracy outside the UN security council.
And progress can be made outside the framework of the council, argues Stephen Rapp, former US ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, and the chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone from 2007 to 2009.
The wider general assembly voted by 105 to 15 to set up the international independent mechanism to look into war crimes in Syria. And despite frantic Russian objections last year, the UN chemical weapons watchdog, the OPCW, was given powers to investigate and attribute responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. It has started doing so.
The UN human rights council – where the debilitating veto does not exist – has launched an investigation into war crimes in Libya, as well as in Venezuela. The president of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi, has felt obliged to attend a special war crimes court. In April in Germany Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib, two Assad regime torturers, were put on trial for war crimes.
Mitchell says Scotland Yard can do the same with five Rwandans accused of mass genocide living in the UK. London has signed up to the new breed of Magnitsky human rights sanctions, already pioneered in the US, and the EU is following suit.
Joseph Nye, the first exponent of “soft power” and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy school of government, has developed such examples into the outline of a new order. Writing in Project Syndicate, he said: “If Joe Biden is elected, the question he will face is not whether to restore the liberal international order. It is whether the US can work with an inner core of allies to promote democracy and human rights while cooperating with a broader set of states to manage the rules-based international institutions needed to face transnational threats such as climate change, pandemics, cyber-attacks, terrorism, and economic instability.”
Such a new order would involve two tiers of multilateralism for the US, one with allies and the other with rivals. China and Russia would have to be treated as revisionist participants in the existing international order, not solely as enemies standing outside of it.
This may require some decoupling economically, but not politically. Instead, in the view of the former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, it will require the same level of political engagement with China, but operating with clearer guide rails.
America has to move from unpredictable episodic strategic competition with China, the custom under Trump, to systematic strategic competition. Clearer red lines between China and the west would paradoxically allow multilateralism to thrive.
Europe is desperate for a new world order. “If we want to be seen and respected by China as an equal partner we need to organise ourselves,” Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has said.
In 2019 France and Germany formed the alliance for multilateralism, an informal ad hoc grouping of 50 or so members (though not the UK) that was instrumental in ensuring the WHO passed a resolution backing a review of its handling of Covid-19.
The UK talks of a D10 – the G7 democracies plus Australia, Korea and India. It is a version of an idea first proposed at the end of 2018 by James Lindsay, the director of studies at the council on foreign relations, in what he described as “the committee to save the world order” .
In Europe, there is a surprising optimism bubbling under the surface. Arancha González, the Spanish foreign minister, said: “We are at an incredible moment in Europe deciding whether we want to make a huge investment in EU institutions to protect our citizens.”
She describes it as the invention of a new social contract between government and people. “I do not see a world that is de-globalising. It is re-globalising but we do not yet have a system of governance for this re-globalised world. There is an absence of global rules.”
Similarly, the EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, feels Europe is ready to step up to the plate. “We need to reset our mind to stop being the nice guy in all circumstances and learn to say ‘no’,” he recently told the European council on foreign relations.
“Europe has to learn the language of power. If you have to learn it means at present we do not know. Other actors know how to use not just the language of power, but power itself. In Libya and Syria, Turkey and Russia have been using power and not the language of power. Like it not, they have become the masters of the game.”
Remarkably, one of the optimistic views on the future of international co-operation comes from the man who oversaw the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian former general and senator who served as force commander for UNAMIR, the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, between 1993-1994, said: “I think we are in a revolutionary time … The under-25s are going to start to be very active and they are going to start demanding that humanity is treated as one.
“They are a generation without borders. This generation will have the means through the incredible weapons of social media. They have the power to push aside the leaders that hold them back.”