Saving the UN from the John Boltons

John Bolton doesn’t like the UN

In a week when John Bolton has revealed the ‘true’ workings of US diplomacy, North Korea cut its border infrastructure with South Korea, Israel prepared to annexe part of the West Bank and when at least twenty troops died in a high altitude confrontation between India and China (regular readers might recall my May 16th post ‘Shemozzle’ on this), one of the few pieces of geopolitical good news last week was the election of Ireland and Norway to the UN Security Council (they take their places in 2021).

Regular readers will also know that I have a bias to small, advanced states in general, and to Ireland in particular, and I am particularly proud of this news and the efforts of our ambassador to the UN, diplomats and politicians.

I am tempted to reflect however, that in the next few years, there will be few places as charged, and as tested, as the Security Council. Indeed, that John Bolton was previously as US ambassador to the UN and wants to abolish it (he declared that if it ‘lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference’) highlights the strains on the organisation. Indeed, as the sands of world power shift, it is not inconceivable that the UK be asked to give up its permanent Security Council seat in favour of India and that France is similarly requested to surrender its seat in favour of the EU.

The tenor of the events debated at the Security Council in coming months will depend heavily on the flashpoints mentioned above, the outlook for Taiwan, and whether Donald Trump manages to stay in power. The addition of Ireland and Norway to the Security Council is novel, and newsworthy in that in a world of mind-numbing policy uncertainty, they are positive contributors to the UN (i.e. peacekeeping) and good examples of policy resilience, especially so in the context of COVID-19.

While it is not the job of members of the Security Council to reform the UN itself, there is a need for this world institution to be enlivened. The ongoing debate on this might focus on the following points.

The first point concerns organisations under the UN umbrella such as the WHO (World Health Organisation) and World Bank. Here, one suggestion is to physically relocate bodies like the World Bank to Africa, which is the continent that needs it most. In addition, some of the research efforts of the World Bank, IMF and WHO should be repurposed and focused on a handful of larger emerging countries with positive demographics, emerging consumer tastes and yet underdeveloped financial and social welfare systems. These countries collectively (e.g. Indonesia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Bangladesh) constitute the next wave in human development and wealth creation, and need careful, practical policy advice on the path ahead.

Then the UN will have to deal with new forms of war, one of which is cyberwarfare and where there is a need for a credible, coherent set of ‘rules of the game’ that encompasses governments, technology companies and private contractors. In the past week there have been cyber-attacks on financial institutions in the US, and a large scale one on institutions across Australia, and in the recent past the UN has suffered severe cyber-attacks.

There is already a policy discussion on cyberwarfare at the UN, and its Secretary General spoke publicly on the topic last November. There is room for the UN to think more clearly about ‘cyber peacekeeping’ in the sense of adapting its current peacekeeping framework to the internet.

The UN may also have to deal with the side-effects of new forms of military tactics. In his excellent book ‘The Dragons and the Snakes’ David Kilcullen describes in detail the tactics used by the likes of Russia for testing and agitating the borders of neighbouring ‘Western’ countries, like Norway. It strikes me that, in the light of India’s closer ties to the US and ambitions to host global supply chains, this is also China’s tactic. It is not war but controlled, thinly disguised, conflict, that in the case of the two most populous countries in the world could have adverse consequences.

A further challenge, that has become more evident in the fallout from the coronavirus crisis, is what are international public goods (the UN debated this back in 2006) and how are they best built and allocated. We could argue that in a hyper financialised world, cheap money is a global public good though I suspect this argument will not find much favour.

A better starting point, especially in the light of the debate on the future of the WHO, is to ask whether clear healthcare advice and health related education are public goods (I think so) and whether vaccines for pandemics like the coronavirus should be global public goods (which if this is to be the case would drastically change the way they are researched, produced and manufactured).

A final thought for the UN, and a provocative one, is to return to another quote from John Bolton that ‘There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along’. How will the UN cope with the demise of US foreign policy?

Have a great week ahead,


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