In any normal year, I would be in New York City now for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The event represents the greatest concentration of global policymakers in one place and is the high point on the diplomatic calendar. But this year is far from normal, and “UNGA week” is going virtual with events held online – a familiar format for us all in recent months. This is unfortunate for several reasons.
It is the UN’s 75th anniversary, and one would have wished for a better way to mark the occasion. Moreover, the state of the world is such that the multilateral system, with the UN at its core, is being challenged like never before – and just when we need it the most.
Indeed, never has the supply of multilateral solutions been so scarce, and demand for them so high. Every day we see how narrow nationalism and strategic rivalries, especially between the United States (US) and China, are paralyzing the UN Security Council and the wider international system. From climate change and arms control to maritime security, human rights, and beyond, global cooperation has been weakened, international agreements abandoned, and international law undermined or selectively applied.
For Europeans, this is deeply unsettling. But the unfolding crisis of multilateralism is not a problem only for Europeans: everyone’s security and rights are in jeopardy. Phrases like the “multilateral system” and “the rules-based international order” seem vague and lack the ring of “America First” or “Take Back Control.” But they stand for something very concrete and real: the choice between peace and war, free societies and closed ones, and an economy built on sustainable development and one that fuels widening inequalities and runaway climate change.
A world governed by agreed rules is the very basis of our shared security, freedoms, and prosperity. A rule-based international order makes states secure, keeps people free and companies willing to invest, and ensures that the Earth’s environment is protected. The alternative – “might makes right” – has been tried for most of human history, and its horrific record is the best argument for the multilateral system. Unfortunately, it is increasingly being tried again, with the results visible to all.
This is not the approach of the European Union (EU). We will continue to believe in and support the UN. We do so not just rhetorically, but also politically and financially, as well as diplomatically, by trying to act as a bridge-builder in the Security Council. When others were trying to pull apart the World Health Organization (WHO) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the EU that led the negotiations resulting in an agreement to set up an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
We are also the biggest donor to the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), established to ensure that the world gets a reliable vaccine as soon as possible and that it is treated as a global public good.
The EU pays one-quarter of the UN budget. It is often said that Europe punches below its weight geopolitically. But in terms of multilateral engagement, it finances well above its weight.
With our crisis management operations, we operate hand in hand with the UN on stabilisation and reconstruction in many conflict zones, from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, and from to the Balkans to the Middle East. In the toughest war zones and humanitarian crises, you will find the EU and the UN working together.
Europeans have pushed hard for an international climate agreement and do our best to keep it alive. We are relentless in trying to protect biodiversity, access to clean water, and other natural resources.
For us, these contributions are investments in global security and prosperity – and thus in our own security and prosperity. We know that we can be safe, healthy, and secure only if our neighbours are, too. What is true of individuals is also true of countries.
Even if we face strong headwinds, the EU will stay the course in support of finding common solutions. This if often difficult and tiring, but we are always ready to discuss how to make the system more effective, more legitimate, and more fit for purpose; both with like-minded partners and those with whom we disagree. Multilateralism today must be different from that of the 20th century: power has shifted and the challenges are no longer the same.
Much of what will shape our future – cyberspace data analytics, artificial intelligence, biogenetics, autonomous vehicles, and much else – is emerging in a regulatory vacuum. We must fill it with agreed rules, norms, and standards, and ensure they are applied – including in contexts where the major stakeholders are not governments.
The EU’s bottom line is this: reform should take place by design, not by destruction. We must revitalise the system, not abandon it. So, this week and beyond, we will uphold the spirit of the UNGA and defend multilateralism, which all countries so badly need. A world without the UN would endanger us all.