On 24 October 1945, the world’s most inclusive multilateral institution, the United Nations, was born to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, … reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, … establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom” (UN Charter: Preamble).
Thus, one major purpose of the UN is to foster international cooperation to resolve the world’s socio-economic problems and to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms (UN Charter: Article 1.3).
Hence, all Members are obliged to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Article 1.4), and to give the UN “every assistance in any action it takes in accordance with [its] Charter” (Article 1.5).
For many, however, the world today is increasingly at odds with the ideals of the UN Charter. Wars and conflicts are causing unprecedented humanitarian crises, worsened by rising intolerance and xenophobia.
Important international organizations and treaties are being threatened by unilateral withdrawals, non-payment of dues, virtual vetoes and threats of worse. Meanwhile, bilateral and plurilateral trade and other agreements are undermining crucial features of the post-Second World War order.
Little incentive to cooperate
Before the opening of the General Debate of the UN General Assembly, Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “multilateralism is under attack from many different directions precisely when we need it most.”‘
Pundits have identified many causes such as the proliferation of multilateral institutions, often with overlapping mandates, undermining one another, sometimes inadvertently, but nonetheless effectively. Institutional resistance to reform has also frequently made them unfit for purpose.
While design of the post-war order at Bretton Woods, Yalta and San Francisco envisaged a post-colonial multilateral order, it was not long before new arrangements for hegemony, if not outright dominance prevailed as the old imperial powers reluctantly retreated from their colonies, often with privileges largely intact.
Without Roosevelt, the World War Two Allies were soon engaged in a bipolar ‘Cold War’, demanding the loyalty of others. By the 1960s, many ‘emerging countries’ sought national political and policy space through ‘non-alignment’ and the emerging bloc of developing countries called the Group of 77 (G77).
By the 1980s, the Thatcher-Reagan-led ‘neoliberal’ counter-revolution against Keynesian and development economics seized upon Soviet economic decline under Brezhnev to strengthen private corporate interests, by extending property rights, privatization, liberalization and globalization.
The new patterns of international economic specialization saw significant industrialization and growth, especially where governments pro-actively made the most of the new opportunities available to them, especially in East and South Asia.
Much of the new prosperity in the North was neither inclusive nor shared, resulting in new economic polarization unseen since the 1920s. Much of this was easily blamed on the ‘other’, with immigrants and cheap foreign imports blamed for stealing good jobs.
Meanwhile, a new generation of social democrats in the West embraced much of the neo-liberal agenda, even rejecting Keynesian counter-cyclical fiscal policies after failing to check the libertarian revolt against progressive taxation.
Successful in achieving their political ambitions, the ‘new social democrats’ offered a culturally alien, new ‘identity politics’ as ideological surrogate. This, in turn, later served to fuel the reactionary ascendance of ‘ethno-populism’ by the ‘new right’.
Thus, neoliberalism’s triumph – with enhanced corporate prerogatives, privatization, economic liberalization and globalization, in the embrace of Western social democratic leaders’ abandonment of their own purported class base – led to corporatist populist reactions, reminiscent of earlier fascist resurgences.
International solidarity undermined
Narrow reactionary ethno-nationalisms are rarely conducive to international cooperation, often depicted as a variant of their ostensible enemy – (neoliberal) globalism! This has not only weakened international solidarity, but also undermined multilateral engagement, let alone cooperation.
Roosevelt’s protracted leadership of the ascendant post-WW2 US and recognition of the urgent need to transcend the limited imperialist multilateralism of the League of Nations were crucial. Thus, despite its limitations, the UN system met the need for an inclusive post-colonial multilateralism after WW2.
Ironically, the ongoing undermining of multilateralism, especially with the rise of US ‘sovereigntism’ after the end of the Cold War, has gained new momentum as backlashes to globalization and its pitfalls have spread from developing countries to transition economies and declining industrial powers.
(This article was originally published in Inter Press service (IPS) news on November 28, 2018.)