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“The New World Disorder: Challenges for the UN in the 21st Century”

Andrew Carnegie Distinguished Lecture on Conflict Prevention in Honour of David Hamburg, New York City


I am delighted to be here this evening to deliver this lecture, which honours David Hamburg.

At the outset of my first term as Secretary General, the Carnegie Commission under David’s leadership published its far-sighted and far-reaching report on Preventing Deadly Conflict.

For me, as I sought out new ideas and ways for the United Nations to better prevent and end violent conflict, the report proved to be both inspirational and instructive.

So thank you David for that work and indeed for your great personal support and encouragement during my tenure as the Secretary General.

I am conscious that many statesmen have taken the time to come and speak to, and dialogue with, the Association.  They did so, I am sure, because they realised what a spirited role the Association plays in shaping American foreign policy debates, and therefore American foreign policy.

As we all recognise, the United States took up the mantle of world leadership from Europe after the Second World War and was the driving force in creating a system that is with us today.

Quite remarkably in the light of world history, at a time when the USA enjoyed unprecedented and unequalled power, its leaders used it to fashion a multilateral order, based on treaties and global institutions.

But today, that multilateral order is increasingly contested or left unused and impotent to deal with the emerging threats to world peace and stability.

The travails of the current world order will be the focus of my speech this evening.

I will outline some of the symptoms of the crisis we face, explore its drivers and, finally, make my case for renewal, without which I fear that our common efforts to prevent conflict will flounder.

During the Cold War, there was a strict limit on what could be agreed by way of action by the UN in the field of conflict prevention and resolution. But there was an understanding with clearly agreed rules of the road.

Those limitations seemed to fall away with the ending of the Cold War, and shortly after, Presidents Gorbatchev and Bush expressed great hopes for the new era in international relations that was dawning.

President Bush captured the Zeitgeist well in his famous 1990 speech before Congress stating that:

“A new world order can emerge: A new era—freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, east and west, north and south, can prosper and live in harmony…A world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”

To recall those words is to measure the distance between the hopes we held then and the grim realities we face today.

Instead of the new world order, we have growing disorder. The international architecture set up after World War II, which received a new lease on life in 1990, is proving unable to cope with the challenges of our time. We are groping with new uncertainty.

Whether it is in peace and security, climate change, international justice or global trade, there has been little progress.

The Security Council is unable to ensure peaceful outcomes to crises like Libya, Syria and Ukraine. On the contrary, we even hear talk of a “new Cold War”.

National borders are being called into question, posing serious threats to international peace and security.

On the economic front, the Doha trade negotiations have stalled due to bickering among states even though it is widely acknowledged that international trade has helped lift hundreds of millions out of poverty over the last few decades.

Although the statements we heard at the UN this year are encouraging, the fact remains that the international community has so far proved unable to reach any binding consensus on how to deal with climate change.

The objectivity and effectiveness of the International Criminal Court, the creation of which was a major milestone in the struggle to end impunity, is being questioned.

More fundamentally, following the end of the Cold War, the norms of the liberal world order are being challenged.

Even as elections have become almost universal since 1990, the failure of elections to resolve deep-seated political and social divisions, from Kenya and Egypt to Afghanistan and Thailand has created doubts about the value of democracy as expressed through the ballot box.

We should be careful not to create the impression that the street is is an alternative to elections, which ensure peaceful, democratic rotation of leadership.

Of course, democracy never was and cannot be a panacea. Democratic discontent is real. But the alternative surely is better democracy and not a retreat into autocracy.

Today, the virtues of an open world, of democracy and the universality of human rights and personal liberties, enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are under threat even in countries that have embraced democratic ideals.

How did we get here just 25 years after that seminal speech by President Bush?

To my mind, three factors stand out.

First, the scale and speed of economic, demographic and technological changes are upending the political status quo.

Everywhere, globalisation has eroded the capacity of states to control their citizens, their territories and the forces determining their future.

Tax avoidance, illicit financial flows, organised crime, cybercrime, terrorism, climate change and migration are disparate phenomena that have in common the fact that they are proving increasingly difficult to manage through the traditional instruments of state sovereignty.

The globalisation of markets creates untold opportunities for savvy entrepreneurs and successful corporations, creating overnight billionaires, and helped lift millions out of poverty.

But it is also generating disquiet among people who fear that their livelihoods are determined, or even destroyed, by forces beyond their control and that of their elected leaders.

I have the impression that many states, the bed rock of the international order, are experiencing extraordinary strains generated by political, economic and social pressures that they cannot wholly channel or control.

Even long-established states are under stress. I need not remind you that the unity of the United Kingdom was called into question this past September.

There are secessionist movements vying for statehood on the march not only in Europe but all over the world.

But what is statehood if the state has no control over the dynamics that are shaping the country and its future?

Sovereignty is not just a legal norm; it also a test of whether a state can hold and exercise a monopoly on the lawful use of force, maintain the control of its territory and the loyalty of its citizens, and, I would add, the ability to craft and implement international agreements.

Many states today fail that test.

The second factor is the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, which has highlighted the limits of what military power can accomplish.

The failure of military solutions has discredited belief in, and the legitimacy of, international action in many Western countries.

Some of the wrong lessons of military engagement have been learnt: it is not the use of force per se that does not work, but rather when it is used in the absence of a coherent political strategy adapted to the realities of deeply fractured societies.

In my view, such a strategy is still to be developed to deal with religious extremism that preaches hatred and practices terror. Air power alone will not suffice. While the extremists may be contained, they will remain a potent force.

Such groups cannot be dismantled in the absence of a concerted effort by regional and international powers to develop the inclusive political settlement and governance structures that will neutralize their appeal.

A third element which is threatening the established order is the failure to modernise the institutional architecture of world order to reflect the changing balance of power.

Many developing countries have experienced unprecedented growth over the last decade and a half, which we should welcome.

At the same time, because of demographic trends, the countries that dominate the world’s institutions represent an increasingly small minority of the world’s population.

But the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions – IMF and World Bank -still have the governance mechanisms created in the aftermath of World War II.

As a result of this failure to accommodate change, the emerging powers do not feel sufficiently represented. As they gain in wealth and influence, they are increasingly contesting the international system.

When the whole world is changing, you cannot have static institutions.

Perhaps Antonio Gramsci described this dilemma well when he said, “crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

Whilst the failings of the current world order are evident, I do not see convincing alternatives on offer.

On the contrary, what I see trying to take its place is a dangerous retreat into unilateralism, ultra-nationalism and the politics of identity.

The trend to larger and more integrated entities such as the EU, seems to have stimulated a corresponding dynamic to wards a smaller and more local entities. Bigger also means smaller, perhaps illustrating Newton’s ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction!’

When will we learn that identity is not monolithic or exclusive, but multiple and overlapping?

We must reject those siren calls that would reduce us to only one identity, whether national, religious or ethnic, and use that identity to exclude others. Or, worse still, unleash violence against them.

The politics of identity are undermining both states and the inter-state system through populism, sectarianism and separatism, and offering nothing but a bitter, fragmented, parochial and dangerous world.

Many things are not going well. Nevertheless, we should not give into despondency.

Whatever the shortcomings of the international state system as we know it, never before in human history have proportionally so few people died from armed conflict.

Today, cancer, heart disease and traffic accidents are far bigger threats to humanity than war.

That is because the international system, composed of rules and institutions, does allow most states to settle most of their disputes peacefully, most of the time.

At the heart of the rules-based system stands the United Nations.

I know it is not the most popular institution in this country, but let me just say that “With all its defects, with all the failures that we can check up against it, the UN still represents man’s best-organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield.”

Those are not the words of a former Secretary-General, but those of a great American, who knew a thing or two about the battlefield: President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

They remind us that we should not lose sight of the UN’s core responsibilities for international peace and security.

We often talk about the UN’s shortcomings in that area and not enough is said about its achievements and successes of which there have been many.

We need to recall that the world’s states, despite their many differences, do gather to try to address the world’s challenges peacefully, which is a huge achievement in human history.

So instead of trying to start all over again, dismantling institutions and laws painstakingly crafted over the decades, we have to see the current global context as an opportunity to improve the existing world order.

Regrettably, established powers have not always lived up to President H.W. Bush’s hope that they create “A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”

They have ridden roughshod over international law, and refused to share the privileges – and responsibilities – of global governance with rising powers.

But at times states have risen to meet their responsibilities.

At the 2005 World Summit, the United Nations’ member states recognized a Responsibility to Protect, declaring that all states must protect their own populations from war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide.  And if they fail to do so, the Security Council has a residual responsibility to step in to provide that protection.

RtoP was a defining moment for the United Nations and the international community it represents.  But we are not living up to that responsibility.

The responsibility inspired the intervention in Libya to rescue the Libyan people, but the authorization to intervene failed to establish an effective government or sustainable peace.

And the international community has failed to provide consistent and effective pressure to bring the parties to the Syrian conflict to a negotiated outcome and the people of Syria are paying the terrible price.

We now need to strengthen the tools of prevention to make RtoP effective.  This is the message off David Hamburg’s life work in the cause of prevention.

Unfortunately, too often early warning does not translate into early action.

States that are threatened by strife should know and be firmly encouraged to call on the United Nations for mediation and timely assistance before it is too late.

When coupled with timely mediation, prevention can head off escalating social violence.  To cite just two examples, prevention worked in Kenya in 2008 and in Guinea in 2009 and again in 2013 without which those crises could have deteriorated into a full scale ethnic cleansing and civil war.

For all this to happen, the world needs brave leaders, leaders who put the next generation ahead of the next elections.

Addressing climate change, for example, might not be a vote-winner, but it is absolutely essential for the future of humanity.

Fuelling the flames of identity politics for electoral gain might be a good career move for ambitious politicians, but it is disastrous policy in a world of increasingly mixed identities and unprecedented human mobility.

Another of the contributory factors to the lack of international coherence is the vastly increased velocity of events, to which leaders feel they have to respond immediately.

Indeed, they are expected to respond immediately to the 24 hour news cycle.

Who could imagine international statesmen spending months in San Francisco as in 1945? The pressure for quick results and ‘successful’ outcomes of summits all too often means that deep differences are papered over only to reappear when it comes to implementation.

The leaders of established powers have to take the long view and recognise that they too have to follow rules, and not just set them.

They also have to share power with rising states. As I have often argued, this implies enlarging the Security Council and giving more voting rights to developing countries in the Bretton Woods Institutions.

But leaders of rising powers have to be willing to take on a greater share of responsibility for the global order upon which their success depends too. They cannot stand on the side-lines, just criticising the injustices of the past.

To lead means to take responsibility, to set the example and to step up to the plate.

All states have to recognise that, since power ebbs and flows, it is in everyone’s interest to shore up a fair, rules-based system that respects not only national sovereignty, but also the rights of individuals.

In conclusion, allow me to reiterate my conviction, acquired over the decades, that no society can enjoy enduring success without peace and security, sustainable development and the respect for human rights and the rule of law.

In those principles lie the essence of conflict prevention and the assurance of a more secure and fairer world order, an aspiration to which David Hamburg has devoted so much of his life.