As the world's problems grow more challenging, the head of the United Nations gets bleaker

At the annual meeting of world leaders last year, the United Nations chief sounded a global alarm about the survival of humanity and the planet

Edith M. Lederer
Saturday 23 September 2023 05:06 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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At the annual meeting of world leaders last year, the U.N. chief sounded a global alarm about the survival of humanity and the planet. This year, the alarm rang louder and more ominously, and the message was even more pressing: Wake up and take action — right now.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ assessment, delivered in his no-nonsense style, aimed to shock. We are becoming “unhinged,” he said. We are inching closer to “a great fracture.” Conflicts, coups and chaos are surging. The climate crisis is growing. Divides are deepening between military and economic powers, the richer North and poorer South, East and West. “A new Rubicon” has been crossed in artificial intelligence.

Guterres has spoken often on all these issues. But this year, which he called “a time of chaotic transition,” his address to leaders was tougher and even more urgent. And looking at his previous state-of-the-world speeches, it seems clear he has been headed in this direction for quite some time.

In his first address to world leaders in 2017 after taking the helm of the 193-member United Nations, Guterres cited “nuclear peril” as the leading global threat. Two years later, he was warning of the world splitting in two, with the United States and China creating rival internets, currency, trade, financial rules “and their own zero-sum geopolitical and military strategies." He urged vigorous action “to avert the great fracture.”

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. The global response Guterres called for never happened; richer countries got vaccines and poorer ones were left waiting. At last year’s leaders' gathering, his message was almost as dire as this week's: “Our world is in peril and paralyzed,” Guterres said. “We are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction.”

This year, his message to the presidents and prime ministers, monarchs and ministers gathered in the vast General Assembly hall was unambiguous and stark.

“We seem incapable," Guterres said, "of coming together to respond.”

THE WORLD'S FUTURE, AND THE UN'S

At the heart of Guterres’ many speeches this week is the very future of the United Nations, an institution formed immediately after World War II to bring nations together and save future generations from war. But in a 21st-century world that is far more interconnected and also more bitterly divided, can it remain relevant?

For Guterres, the answer is clear: It must.

The Cold War featured two superpowers — the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. When it ended, there was a brief period of U.S.-dominated unipolarity after the breakup of the Soviet Union and its dissolution into a dominant Russia and smaller former republics. Now it is moving to a more chaotic “multipolar world" — and creating, Guterres says, new opportunities for different countries to lead.

But Guterres’ key argument is rooted in history. He says it teaches that a world with many power centers and small groups of nations can’t solve the challenges that affect all countries. That’s why strong global institutions are needed, he told leaders on Thursday, and “the United Nations is the only forum where this can happen.”

The big question, upon which Guterres is now laser-focused, is whether an institution born in 1945 — a time when the tools to address chaos and fragmentation were more rudimentary — can be retooled and updated to tackle today’s challenges.

“I have no illusions,” he said. “Reforms are a question of power. I know there are many competing interests and agendas. But the alternative to reform is not the status quo. The alternative to reform is further fragmentation. It’s reform or rupture.”

That is the conundrum sitting in the U.N. chief's lap: Can 193 nations with competing agendas undertake major reforms?

To meet the challenge, Guterres has called on world leaders to attend a “Summit of the Future” at next September’s U.N. global gathering, and in the coming, year to negotiate a “Pact for the Future.” At a meeting Thursday to prepare, he told ministers that the pact “represents your pledge to use all the tools at your disposal at the global level to solve problems – before those problems overwhelm us.”

The secretary-general said he knows reaching agreement will be difficult. “But,” he said, "it is possible.”

A SENSE THAT THINGS ARE ‘FUNDAMENTALLY BROKEN’

Time, Guterres says, is against the United Nations and countries that support the return of united global action. Perhaps that is why his words grow more dire each year.

He points to new conflicts like Ukraine, more intense geopolitical tensions, signs of “climate breakdown,” a cost-of-living crisis and the debt distress and default that is bedeviling more countries than ever.

“We cannot inch towards agreement while the world races towards a precipice,” Guterres said. “We must bring a new urgency to our efforts, and a shared sense of common purpose.”

That's easier said than done, as this week's high-level meetings — and the priorities and problems they raise — make clear.

Can all the U.N.'s far-flung nations unite behind a common purpose? Whether that happens in the next 12 months remains to be seen. Certainly there is support. Consider Bahamas Foreign Minister Frederick Audley Mitchell, addressing the global gathering Friday night. "Now, more than ever, we need the United Nations,” he said.

Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, said Guterres’ state-of-the-world speech spoke “truth to power” and was an especially blunt and bleak assessment.

“He really seems to think that the multilateral system is fundamentally broken,” Gowan said. The secretary-general seems frustrated after years of difficult dealings with the divided U.N. Security Council, Gowan said, alluding to the United States and its Western allies increasingly clashing with Russia and China.

“Sometimes it feels like Guterres no longer believes in the institution he leads,” Gowan said.

For Guterres, then, the Summit of the Future presents an opportunity but also a possible demarcation point — between a brighter future and a more desolate one, between a chance at progress and the prospect of a closing door. To Gowan, it will be “a last chance for U.N. members to get their act together and rethink how the multilateral system could work.”

And that could present a potentially insurmountable peak for the world’s most senior diplomat to scale. Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations and a former U.N. deputy secretary-general, pronounced Guterres’ keynote speech to world leaders “a brave and frank admission that the U.N. is broken — no longer fit for purpose.”

“The problem is that precisely because of that, nobody may hear him,” Malloch-Brown said. “He may be speaking to an empty room.”

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Edith M. Lederer, chief U.N. correspondent for The Associated Press, has been covering international affairs for more than 50 years.

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