UN at 75: How to Renovate the “Global Political House”?

Andrea Cofelice
Mario Albertini Fellow at the Centre for Studies on Federalism, Torino, Italy

Last September, the UN celebrated its 75th anniversary: over 120 heads of state and government took part (mainly through pre-recorded messages) in a high-level event promoted by the General Assembly, to take stock of the work of the Organization and reaffirm its centrality in the international relations system.

In its 75 years of history, the UN has displayed a remarkable degree of resilience, managing to survive the crises and changes of the international system (a different fate occurred to the previous League of Nations), without showing, however, a comparable ability to reform its own governance system, to put it in tune with a globalized and interdependent world. The internal power structure, including the right of veto by the five Security Council’s permanent members, still reflects the international balance that emerged at the end of the Second World War. Some UN bodies have lost their relevance, while others, although provided for by the Charter, have never been implemented; at the operational level, the problems of duplication and institutional redundancy, bureaucratic inertia and chronic underfunding are well known. Above all, the UN has not been able to accommodate the qualitative change of the international system: the UN continues to be mainly an intergovernmental organization, while current international relations are marked by the presence of new centres of power (regional organizations), private actors (civil society, multinational firms and financial companies) and public institutions different than governments (i.e. parliaments, local authorities, judicial bodies).

The issues of legitimacy, effectiveness, representativeness and democratization of the UN, which were already raised in the past, are all still on the table. What, then, is new about the current anniversary? First of all, the international context: as recalled by the Secretary General Antonio Guterres, today we live in an era characterized by “a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions”. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the current international system, but the list of challenges is much longer: growing geopolitical tensions; the erosion of the international liberal order and of democratic values at national level; an increase in armed conflicts, especially civil ones; increasingly complex threats to human security; an increase in poverty and inequality; climate change and biodiversity collapse; risks of a new nuclear proliferation.

The urgent need to address these challenges with a renewed vision of multilateral cooperation led member States to adopt, after months of negotiations, a political declaration[i] to strengthen the role of the UN in global decision-making processes. The declaration, after recalling the results (but also the failures) in its 75-year history, identifies 12 priorities for the years to come. In addition to issues that have traditionally characterized the work of the UN, but on which “ranks must be closed up” (such as sustainable development goals, gender equality, climate change, reform of the General Assembly and the Security Council) new commitments have been raised, such as the need to improve cooperation in the field of pandemics, digital technologies and artificial intelligence.

These commitments are formulated broadly enough so that the declaration was adopted by consensus (also with the surprising support of the United States). At the same time (and this is perhaps the most innovative element), the Secretary General received the mandate to formulate, by September 2021, guidelines and recommendations on how to advance the common agenda. The Secretary General has proved to be able to combine vision and pragmatism: given the impracticability, in the current phase, of a grand bargain on the reform of UN political bodies – due to the lack of any consensus among member states on the reform of the Security Council –, he managed to get the reform of the UN development system approved, as well as to reorganize the “peace and security” pillar and the management of the Secretariat.

The Secretary General will need adequate political support to carry out this effort; however, this support is unlikely to come from the most influential members of the Security Council: with current leaderships, the Council appears to be an obstacle rather than an enhancer on the reform path. The United States, once supporter and “architect” of the United Nations project, under the Trump presidency not only withdrew from the main multilateral forums (UNESCO, WHO, Human Rights Council), but seemed committed to deconstructing the liberal global governance system that emerged in the second post-war period; the UK is largely absorbed by the consequences of Brexit; Russia and China are exploiting the power vacuum to seek to reshape whole categories of global norms.

Consequently, the EU can take this opportunity to assert its leadership in the reform process. Support for multilateralism is a beacon of the EU’s foreign policy, as reiterated by President von der Leyen in her last State of the Union address, and reaffirmed in the Council Conclusions setting out the EU’s priorities at the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations (September 2020 – September 2021), under the theme “Championing multilateralism and a strong and effective UN that delivers for all”. The challenge, then, is to identify viable proposals and solutions to promote change “by design – not by destruction”.

How to formulate a European response to the multilateralism crisis? Anticipating a Commission communication on the subject (expected by the first months of 2021), in a recent public debate the High Representative Josep Borrell foreshadowed European action on three levels. First: investing political and diplomatic capital in all human rights forums, to continue affirming universal principles and norms and countering any attempt, fuelled by instrumental arguments on respect for sovereignty or cultural and political diversity, to re-establish a “relativism of rights”. Secondly: promoting the formation of coalitions of states (and regional actors) who share concerns with the EU about the stability of the international system, which is undermined by the growing tensions between the US and China. The recent launch at the UN of the “Alliance for Multilateralism”, a Franco-German initiative that has received the support of the entire EU, is a step in this direction. Finally: promoting a flexible multilateralism, with the possibility of differentiated regulatory regimes and alliances with variable geometries according to different issue-areas, on the model of plurilateral agreements in the WTO.

The EU is a driving force of multilateralism: today it is necessary to pursue this commitment with greater unity, ambition and a sense of urgency, inspired by the values set out 75 years ago in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


[i] UN General Assembly, “Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations”, doc. A/75/L.1, 16 September 2020.

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