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Photo by Leigh Vogel for The New York Times Athens Democracy Forum

A Warning for World Leaders from Kofi Annan

This editorial by Farah Nayeri originally appeared in the New York Times World Review: The State of Democracy special section on 20 September 2017.

Just days before President Trump was scheduled to make his first appearance before the United Nations General Assembly, the former secretary general, Kofi Annan, described the world as a “messy place” where people’s disaffection with their governments had influenced recent elections and would now lead to “divisions at the U.N.”

In the recent past, he said, world leaders “worked with each other” and realized that cross-border cooperation was the only way to solve crises. “But today, we have lots of little men in high places, and they don’t always seem to understand the risks we are all in.”

“All that we need is one miscalculation,” he cautioned, “and all bets are off.”

Mr. Annan made his remarks during a question-and-answer session at the Presidential Palace in Athens. The session was part of the Athens Democracy Forum, which was convened by The New York Times for the fifth year. The forum, which gathers world leaders to discuss international affairs, was endorsed by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.

Mr. Annan recalled that he was secretary general at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “Suddenly, with the end of the Cold War, the U.N. could do what it was set up to do, without one country vetoing the other,” he said. “Today, we seem to be back to where we were in ’89.”

The effectiveness of global institutions became a subject of debate following two decisive votes in 2016. One was Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union 43 years after joining what was then known as the European Economic Community. The other was the election of President Trump, who in December described the United Nations as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”

He has been critical of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for being costly and ineffective.

Also at the conference, which was held last Wednesday through Sunday, Australia’s former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, issued warnings about the future of the United Nations.

Mr. Rudd, now president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, is the author of an August 2016 report that described the 70-year-old United Nations as being “in trouble” and questioned whether it was still “fit for purpose.”

Mr. Rudd told the conference that global institutions were being challenged because they were “not delivering the goods.” He said that the United Nations had to fulfill its Sustainable Development Goals — 17 global targets to stop poverty, combat inequality, foster peace and protect the environment — or face “a ticking time bomb for the legitimacy of the U.N. system.”

“As states increasingly perceive the U.N. as ineffective, it becomes a vicious circle: They fund it less, they provide it with less political support,” he warned. “What I worry about is death by a thousand cuts to the U.N. It won’t disappear tomorrow, but unless we radically turn this around, you will see it slowly drift to occupying the margins of global irrelevance.”

Not everyone at the conference shared that view. Amina Mohamed, minister of foreign affairs and international trade in Kenya, defended the United Nations. She said international organizations were “not the problem per se. The problem is us, the member states, because these organizations can only do as much as we allow them to do.”

She listed all the ways in which she said the United Nations had come to the world’s aid: stamping out piracy in the Horn of Africa, stemming the bird flu pandemic and the spread of the Ebola virus. Without multilateralism, she said, “none of the big challenges” faced by the world “would be resolved.”

Challenges certainly face the European Union as it prepares to see one of its 28 member states depart. After last year’s British referendum, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the union was, “at least in part, in an existential crisis.” In March, he issued a white paper proposing options for the union’s future that involved either deepening or loosening integration.

In a speech last week, Mr. Juncker sounded much more bullish. He said the wind was “back in Europe’s sails,” with growth in the European Union outpacing that of the United States for the last two years, and he pushed for an ever-closer union.

Yet criticism of the union continues, particularly in Britain, even from those who voted to remain in it.

“Of all the democracies in the world, the European Union is the arena where sovereignty is most diluted,” said Paul Mason, a British journalist and filmmaker and a member of Britain’s opposition Labour Party. “Government action is severely constrained by what the European Union will allow you to do.”

Mr. Mason, who was in Greece for The New York Times Democracy & Film Weekend in Costa Navarino, the follow-up event to the Athens Democracy Forum, said the European Union’s “number one problem” was that it had “enshrined neoliberal doctrine” and austerity in its practices at a time when “we’re in the most serious strategic financial and economic crisis we’ve ever faced.”

The solution, he said, was for the European Union to have a “two-tier or multitier membership” system allowing some countries to be more integrated than others. That way, the union would “achieve what is clearly ebbing, which is consent.”

The European Union had its defenders in Athens, chief among them Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, who spent a decade in Brussels as the organization’s environment commissioner, then as the first vice president of the European Commission responsible for institutional relations and communication strategy. She conceded that the European Union had communication problems.

“There is still too much of a distance between citizens in general and the ministers and parliamentarians who make decisions,” she said, adding that the union was “very much a political elitist project.”

But ultimately, Ms. Wallstrom said, the European Union was “a fantastic peace project” that saw ministers and policy makers from 28 countries get together every month, agree, then turn their decisions into national legislation.

She added that Europe’s security order “must and can serve as an example for Asia at the moment” at a time when North Korea, Japan, South Korea, China and other states in that region all had security as “their main concern.”

Resentment of the European Union runs high in the conference’s host country, Greece. The nation is undergoing a painful period of economic austerity after successive bailouts by the organization and the International Monetary Fund. In a poll published in June by the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Greek respondents had an unfavorable view of the European Union, and 89 percent felt that Germany had too much influence on union decision-making.

Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis disagreed. “Without the European Union, we would be lost,” he said in an interview, recalling the union-led bailouts.

Mr. Kaminis, who recently announced his candidacy for the leadership of a new center-left Greek party, noted that in today’s world, big countries such as China, Russia and the United States were becoming “even more important.”

“Imagine how small we would be if we remained isolated states,” he said. “What we need is a very strong E.U.”