U.N. General Assembly: Can It Provide the Needed Global Leadership?
27 Sep 2019 – The international relations specialist Stanley Hoffmann once quipped “Goals are easy to describe. What matters more is a strategy for reaching them.” The United Nations through its annual debates in the General Assembly; its special world conferences such as those devoted to the environment, population, food, women, urbanization, and within the Specialized Agencies have created goals for a world public policy in the interests of all humanity. There are three important phases of this world public policy: formulation, implementation and evaluation.
Thus; this September the UNGA began with a “Climate Action Summit” to evaluate governmental efforts to meet the challenges of climate change. Government leaders set out what they have done, or plan to do; at the national level but they said relatively little on what they could do together.
The Climate Action Summit was followed by the policy statements of national governments: Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, Recep Tajyip Erdogan, Emmanuel Macron, Hassan Rauhani, Angela Merkel, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi and Abdel Fatth al Sisi. All except al Sisi came to national power through elections and not military coups. Thus in some way; they represent the degree of awareness of world issues and the priorities of their electors.
The question asked many years ago by the world citizen Norman Cousins.
“Who Speaks for Man”?
To meet the major challenges of world-wide issues; strong leadership is necessary. Yet the avenues for leadership at the world level are difficult to trace. Leadership at the national level is usually clearly structured in a pyramid; with the office of President at the top; with Cabinet Ministers; the higher ranks of the military just below. There may be a vast informal network of influential advisors; business leaders, the press – all with leadership roles; but the formal structure of governance is hierarchical and clearly defined. People generally expect the Prime Minister or the President to lead. In fact; he is judged on whether or not he provides such leadership.
At the world level; there is no world government as such, and a strong leader at the national level may play little role on the world level. What the Commission on Global Governance wrote in 1994 remains true today:
“At the moment; political caution, national concerns, short-term problems, and a certain fatigue with international causes have combined to produce a dearth of leadership on major international issues. The very magnitude of global problems such as poverty; population or consumerism seems to have daunted potential international leaders. And yet without courageous; long-term leadership at every level – international and national – it is impossible to create and sustain constituencies powerful and reliable enough to make an impact on problems that will determine; one way or another; the future of the human race on this planet.” (1)
The United Nations is the only universal organization at the world level …
Thus; there is a need for constant leadership and direction at the world level. There is a need to maintain and rebuild enthusiasm; to reset the course when policies do not work out as expected; to keep up a momentum and an enthusiasm. The United Nations is the only universal organization at the world level; and thus it is from within the United Nations that leadership at the world level must come. Leaders within the U.N. system must be able to reach beyond the member governments – at times over the heads of current government office holders – to the people of the world.
There are two positions of authority in the ill-defined pyramid structure of the United Nations. One is the Secretary-General; the other is the President of the General Assembly; who is elected for one year at a time. The President of the current; 74th session is Tijjani Muhammed-Bande of Nigeria. There have been times when the head of one of the Specialized Agencies of the U.N. or the financial institutions or U.N. programs have provided leadership; but usually on only one or two subjects.
The Secretary-General for Leadership.
Especially on the resolution of armed conflicts; people look to the Secretary-General for leadership. In some cases; the Secretary-General has been able to play a central role. As the servant of the Security Council; the Secretary-General has been able to play a mobilizing role in times of conflict; and political crisis in those cases when the Security Council has been unified behind a decision. Since the chairman of the Security Council is a national diplomat and serves on a rotating basis only for one month; he cannot play a real mobilizing role nor is he perceived as a world leader.
Some hope that the President of the U.N. General Assembly; who is in post for a full year; could play a leadership role. So far such hopes have not been realized in practice. It would be difficult to find many people; who can name the last five Presidents of the General Assembly; or to cite much of what they have done other than presiding over meetings.
Today; with real challenges to humanity; with a reform-minded Secretary-General, who for a decade faced refugee issues; we may see some of the marks of strong world leadership.
1) The Commission on Global Governance. Our Global Neighbourhood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC; the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.