It is 75 years since 50 countries had signed a Charter on 26 June 1945 at San Francisco to establish the United Nations (UN). Today it has 193 members. Quoting Dag Hammarskjoeld, its second Secretary- General, that the UN “was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell”, The Economist observed that the UN may not have been able to ensure peace, but certainly did contain wars in a strife-ridden world, despite all its flaws.
It has many successes and also many glaring failures, but by and large it has shaped a rule-based global order on the basis of collective security, open markets and human rights. However, as it steps into its 75th year, it finds itself surrounded by the devastation wrought by an unyielding pandemic in a chaotic world, in which it has not been able to forge a consensus for containing and fighting the virus that has spread like wildfire across the globe, mutilating landscapes, economies, lives and livelihood.
Each country is using its own strategies defined by its own capacities and resources, and the poorer countries that badly need international support have been left high and dry. Neither has the UN been able to unite nations on the issues of terrorism or refuge to millions of hapless refugees displaced by civil wars across the globe. For the eighth time, India will be seated at the high table of the UN Security Council (UNSC) for two years from January 2021, after winning the votes of 184 nations for a non-permanent seat.
Ten years have passed since the last time India was there during 2011-12. The intervening years were marked by the unprecedented rise of China, concomitantly with the waning of American influence and the emergence of a new world order. The murky US entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 economic meltdown and finally the Trumpian dystopia of “America First” have seen increasing US disinterest in global affairs and its withdrawal from international covenants like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Paris climate deal, made worse by Mr Trump’s repeated public diatribes against NATO.
The last decade witnessed China’s steady ascendance and unconcealed ambition to supplant the US as the global superpower, backed by the use of aggressively brazen economic and military strategies to achieve that goal, whether by debt-trapping poor nations or by bullying the feebler ones. The global arena vacated by the US is increasingly being occupied by a determined China. Chinese diplomats today head 15 of the UN’s specialised agencies, while the US heads only one.
It commands 16 per cent of the global GDP, being the world’s largest exporter. It has entwined the world with its digital infrastructure through its tech-giants like Alibaba, Tencent or Huawei, and physical infrastructure through its Belt and Road Initiative. Its currency Yuan has started to slowly displace the Dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The new world order is being shaped by China, in Chinese terms to serve Chinese interests ~ to mould international opinion according to the Chinese worldview.
Any challenger to that worldview, any critic of its appalling human rights abuses in Tibet or Xinjiang or of its bungled coverup attempts in respect of the Covid-19 pandemic is intimidated into silence by a combination of strategies ranging from naked territorial aggression, as it is trying with India, to economic intimidation, as with Australia. China is positioning itself as the defender of the global trading system while rubbishing international law, as seen in its contemptuous disregard of the UNCLOS ruling over disputed areas in the South China Sea.
Though it has very few friends and faces many internal threats and deep-seated challenges, it is steadfast in its ambition in a leaderless and rudderless world. Historically, international orders have always been fragile. Many international institutions and charters that emerged after the Second World War have since become redundant, from the Bretton Woods to Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty to WTO, and WHO may be the next if it fails to reform itself structurally.
The Security Council still continues to reflect the realities of a postwar world of 1945 while the configuration of global power distribution has since changed radically. The list of P-5 with veto powers have not been enlarged to include the emergent economic powerhouses like Japan, India, Brazil, Germany or any African country, while the economic and military might of some P-5 members have diminished considerably. Given China’s intransigence, any reform of the UNSC to expand the P-5 group will remain a chimera, rendering the UN practically unreformable and hence irrelevant, which will encourage alternative organisations to emerge.
Though there has been no rival institution as yet to challenge the UN’s authority, in 2019, France and Germany created an “Alliance for Multilateralism” with Canada, Mexico, Chile, Singapore and Ghana, which has attracted favourable responses from many countries. Last month, Mr Trump had suggested an expansion of the group of G-7 free market democracies that includes the USA, Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Canada ~ to G-11 by including Australia, India, South Korea and, possibly, Russia.
Britain has proposed a list of 10 Democracies (D-10) by excluding Russia from the above list. Earlier in 2018, the perception of American abdication of global leadership among its allies had led to a grouping of nine democracies, a “Committee to Save the World Order” including Japan, South Korea, European Union, Australia and Canada which together generate a third of the world GDP and account for 30 per cent of global trade; they can also form a strong military alliance through coordinated defence planning and operations.
In 2017, threatened by Chinese belligerence in South China Sea, India, Australia, Japan and USA had agreed to revive the idea of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) which is gaining increasing traction and eliciting closer cooperation among its members. But none of these groups is as yet a threat to the UN. The P-5 can still tweak the rules according to their wishes, as seen in the annexation of Crimea by Russia or seizure of the South China Sea areas by China.
Big powers have indulged in irresponsible behaviour many a time in altering the global balance of power in potentially dangerous ways. China in particular has been responsible for weaponisation of some of the rogue states which have consistently defied an international rulebased order. As Samuel Huntington has written in The Clash of Civilisations and Remaking of World Order, China had played a central role in the transfer of both conventional and non-conventional weapons to North Korea, Pakistan, Libya, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
China today has very few trusted friends among the international community other than these countries. It is the “most reliable and extensive supplier of military hardware to Pakistan” for every branch of its military. Despite the theft of nuclear technology through A Q Khan, without China’s help, Pakistan could not possibly have developed nuclear capabilities. China has repeatedly violated international commitments and obligations, the most recent instance being in curbing the autonomy of Hong Kong through a national security law to stifle democratic protests by penalising the protesters with draconian punishments, in gross violation of the commitments given under the Sino-British joint declaration in 1985 to preserve Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.
As Huntington says, as the Middle Kingdom, the central power it aspires to be, China does not need alliances; it only expects other countries to fall in line. As articulated by our Foreign Minister, during its next two-year tenure at the UNSC, India would follow the five principles ~ samman (respect), samvad (dialogue), sahayog (cooperation), shanti (peace) and samriddhi (prosperity) to promote order in a world being torn asunder by conflict and strife.
It needs to remind the world ever more forcefully that the failure to reform the UNSC by accommodating the current global realities will render the UN progressively weaker while making the alternative alliances stronger and ever more relevant. If it cannot reform itself, the UN runs the risk of fading into “history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society” as President George Bush had said.
When liberal democracy and liberal norms are increasingly being threatened by inward looking policies of nationalist governments, when authoritarian countries like China are becoming ever more belligerent while claiming others’ territories as its own and challenging the rule-based global order, India must work closely with the international community to reassert the principles on which the UN was founded 75 years ago, which, as the UN Charter had stated, are to maintain international peace and security, and to settle all international disputes only through peaceful means in accordance with the principles of justice and international law.
(The writer is a commentator. Opinions are personal)