Can leadership change revive the UN?



The United Nations Security Council is in the process of selecting the next secretary-general after Ban Ki-Moon. With any luck, the five nations that hold veto — the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China — can agree on a candidate to recommend to the General Assembly by October.

Helen ClarkThere is intense interest not least because the GA has made efforts to make it more transparent via an open nomination process and televised debates among candidates. There is also an appetite for electing the first woman to the office in UN history. Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark (pictured) is one of a handful of women who are regarded as strong contenders.

The robust competition may come as a surprise, given that the UN has lost its shine, seen in some parts as an edifice to bureaucratic ineptitude. But this is not just about the UN.

The internationalism that stitched the world back together after two calamitous wars has frayed. Perhaps it began when the US and UK bypassed the Security Council after 9/11 in order to invade Iraq.

The function of the UN as a civilising restraint was rendered farcical as two major western powers gave themselves license to mount a military offensive on dubious grounds against a sovereign nation. The cascade of violence that followed across the Middle East has left the UN unable to deal adequately with the humanitarian fallout, further eroding its stature as a mechanism for global order.

The European Union, which was also a response to the nationalist-fascist movements that had wrecked the regional economy in the first half of the previous century, is being challenged by ascendant right-wing populism. Despite the established benefits of the single market, labour mobility and bloc trading, not to mention access to a suite of agricultural subsidies, reactionaries continue to press for insularity — an untenably selective one. They succeeded at the recent British referendum.

NATO, the military alliance forged in the embers of World War II, faces the prospect of a US president that would dispense with it. Republican candidate Donald Trump has reduced mutual protection as a conditional transaction, suggesting that NATO allies cannot count on the US unless they have 'fulfilled their obligations to us' (whatever that means).

The 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, as well as ongoing Chinese disregard for international maritime law in the South China Sea despite a tribunal determination at The Hague, add to an unsettling contemporary picture. It seems that it is every country for itself.


"The internationalism that stitched the world back together after two calamitous wars has frayed. Perhaps it began when the US and UK bypassed the Security Council after 9/11 in order to invade Iraq."


Sovereignty — expressed crudely as 'taking our country back' — has become code for the very things that once sundered a continent: authoritarianism, unilateralism and supremacy. The balance of power that more or less shapes our foreign policies is under pressure. Climate change and associated resource instabilities, particularly water, will add to that pressure. It could well make a mockery of protectionism. The survival of developing nations will depend more than ever on the geopolitical interests of their larger, well-armed allies.

In other words, the apparent retreat from multilateralism comes at a time when our political, economic and security interests are more enmeshed than ever. Isolationism is an anachronistic fantasy, not least because technology has permeated every aspect of our lives, communities, industries and governments.

In this light, perhaps it makes sense to be somewhat invested in the change in leadership at the United Nations. It is an occasion that may yet revive it — ballast that we need against future instability. Whatever we may think of the UN, we don't know what it would be like to go completely without it, and we may not afford the cost of finding out.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, United Nations, Nationalism, 9-11, Helen Clark



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Existing comments

"against a sovereign nation" .For a 'United Nations of the World' to be effective, the concept of a Sovereign Nation needs to be curtailed. Leaders of Nations should not be allowed to persecute and kill minority citizens. Each Nation needs to realise that collective selfish is destructive. The resources of planet Earth are limited, and unless they are shared equitably there will be troubles. The 'Haves' want to assign the tensions to 'Envy' rather than Injustice. Australia has the greatest per capita amount of territory and resources in the world, and we seem to think it is just and reasonable that this should be so. Other people disagree. No doubt the Wisdom of Solomon is needed to find a peaceful solution. Perhaps if the secret of Nuclear Fusion is discovered and cheap clean Energy for everyone becomes available, the problem will vanish. But in the meantime we need to give some thought to 'Plan B'.
Robert Liddy | 01 August 2016

I imagine it will have to be a 'grass-roots' movement, as 'Leaders' are notoriously unwilling to give up whatever power they have managed to grasp.
Robert Liddy | 01 August 2016

'Can leadership change revive the UN?' One might ask the same question of the Church. Can Francis, or Helen Clark per chance, by themselves, in the short time available to them, change their organisations? The answer is emphatically no. They may be the titular Leaders, but unless a substantial proportion of the many other influential leaders are willing to follow, then whatever they say or achieve will come to nought. Surely it's leadership, rather than a leader that we need (in both organisations)?
Ginger Meggs | 01 August 2016

Ginger Meggs shows the answer - to the NT’s problem aboriginal children. It's time, if not for their families, then (as Noel Pearson says) for the aboriginal community as a whole, to show leadership. Actually, Ginger Meggs shows the answer to another problem also, that being the problem of Muslim youth who go off the rails. Perhaps the ummah in Australia could show the necessary leadership? A leader is successful when the individuals in the communities s/he leads are proactive and self-governing (are leaders in and of themselves), instead of being rent-seekers of whatever largesse the titular leader can find for them. As with the aborigines and Muslims of Australia, so too the member nations of the UN. Of course, as will no doubt be expressed by some aborigines and Muslims, a nation might ask, "Why am I supposed to be my brother's keeper?", which either means why doesn't the miscreant bear the consequences of his own failings or why can't everyone else but me support the miscreant? The answer is there is no choice. As could be implied from Donne, living in society carries the concreted-in blackmail that your dysfunctional neighbour’s rubbish will inevitably wash up on your shore.
Roy Chen Yee | 03 August 2016

Please, oh please, may it be Helen Clarke. I reckon she'd make a difference for the better.
Louw | 05 August 2016

It is not that we seek to be our brother's keeper. Rather it is how we might be our brother's brother.
Fiona Winn | 22 August 2016


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