Nothing can be more sobering than to hear an envoy of the eminence and experience of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s former ambassador to the United Nations and special representative in Iraq, warn that there is a pattern of ‘polarisation and miscommunication’ in international affairs similar to a century ago, when the world went to war almost unthinkingly. (See Rita Payne’s article elsewhere in this issue.)
It is not difficult to see the kind of parallels Sir Jeremy might have been envisaging. The ominous build-up of naval power in the South China Sea is reminiscent of the race to build battleships before the outbreak of the First World War. There are echoes too of the events preceding the Second World War in Vladimir Putin’s use of Russian minorities in neighbouring states to destabilise them. One cannot be blamed for seeing parallels in Moscow’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and Nazi Germany’s seizure of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia.
Also in this issue, Luc De Keyser discusses the question of whether the human race is genetically predisposed or culturally conditioned to wage war. Whatever the answer, we know that there is one glaring difference between this century and the world wars of the last: a growing number of states have nuclear weapons, with the capacity to wipe out humankind. They include the dangerously paranoid and aggressive regime in North Korea, which has just demonstrated its ability to reach Japan with a submarine-launched missile. Experts have long concluded that the greatest danger of a nuclear exchange is in Asia, whether caused by Pyongyang or by ‘miscommunication’ between India and Pakistan.
In such times it is all the more essential that the United Nations, the only world body that can contain these risks, has the support and moral authority to carry out its functions effectively. Yet it is hampered in multiple ways: by financial constraints, by an outdated structure, and not least by bad faith among some of its most powerful members – witness Russia’s role in the Syrian bloodbath. The ability of Security Council powers to prevent any action contrary to their own perceived interests is especially shameful when the Council’s composition still reflects the situation at the end of the Second World War. The case for Germany and Japan, along with India, to become permanent members of the Council is all but unanswerable, yet remains in suspense.
These issues are made more acute by the forthcoming selection of a new UN Secretary-General to succeed Ban Ki-moon, who himself was seen as being chosen because he was less outspoken than his predecessor, Kofi Annan. In his memoirs Annan says he wanted a UN that would “step up rather than stand by … and be guided by a purpose greater than protecting the interests of states”. But he offended two of the Security Council’s five permanent members, America and Britain, by describing their 2003 invasion of Iraq as illegal, putting paid to any chance of him serving a third term in charge of the UN, had he wanted to do so.Annan comments that ‘of all the difficulties we confronted during my tenure as Secretary-General, perhaps the most sustained problem was the management of expectations’. But that, he adds, is possibly the fate of the UN, ‘to disappoint the expectations of those who see it as the panacea to the world’s problems, but to succeed, however incompletely, in giving voice to aspirations of individual men and women …’
This time there is at least a little more transparency in the process of choosing the Secretary-General, who could for the first time be female. But what matters above all else is that he or she is given the means to tackle the ‘polarisation and miscommunication’ that Sir Jeremy Greenstock fears. Such is the degree of suspicion and rivalry among many of the world’s most powerful states that the UN Secretary-General is almost the only figure with the profile and prestige to command the attention of their leaders. If they continue to pursue their own narrow interests at the expense of the authority of the United Nations, they will be playing a dangerous game.