Right-wing extremists and combative administrations see its weak international governance as a threat to sovereignty
The UN is in more precarious shape today than ever before
Once again, the leaders of the world are gathering in Manhattan, making already bad traffic impossible to get through. New Yorkers' tempers are flaring, and by the time the United Nations General Assembly meetings end in a few days, they will be cursing every black SUV and motorcade that passes them as they are trapped on gridlocked streets.
Most New Yorkers won’t attend the UN meetings or even pay attention to reports about them in the news. To them, the UN is an impediment to their commute, a tourist site and little else. If the institution closed down tomorrow, they would probably celebrate – until the consequences of its loss came home to roost in the form of increasing global conflicts, deepening political, economic and social crises and the erosion of the international order.
For most of the 73-year history of the UN, however, the fantasy of making it disappear was primarily one held by right-wing extremists, who see the weak international governance the UN provides as a threat to national sovereignty.
Today, however, the UN might be in more precarious shape than it has been in its history. There are several reasons for this. Notable among them is that the US, the nation that was the driving force behind its establishment at the end of Second World War, is now led by the most fiercely and irrationally anti-UN administration in modern history. (And that is saying something as past administrations, such as that of Ronald Reagan, for example, withheld dues, condemned the UN and impeded much of its work. George W Bush’s administration even had a UN ambassador who actively promoted shutting the organisation down.)
The problem is, that same ambassador, John Bolton, is now the US national security adviser and in a much more powerful position. Worse, his boss, the president of the United States, is much more open to condemning the UN and much more hostile to the international system at large than any of his predecessors.
Hence the US has cut funding for major UN programmes, pulled out of others and has threatened even more extreme actions in the future (even as it has also denigrated international alliances such as Nato, pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, withdrawn from the largest trade deal the world has seen in more than two decades, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and generally waged war on multilateralism).
Donald Trump has also surrounded himself with such anti-globalists as former adviser Steve Bannon and the ethno-nationalist architect of the administration’s anti-refugee policies, Stephen Miller.
Worse for the prognosis for the international system is that Mr Bannon is now seeking to assist nationalists in Europe. They are gaining ground wherever you look, from Italy to Hungary and Austria to Germany (where the far right is gaining popularity), from Britain’s UKIP to the National Rally in France. Meanwhile other leaders such as Vladimir Putin continue longstanding campaigns to weaken, undermine or circumvent the international system.
This week will see ministers and heads of state stand up and give speeches as they always do. Important issues will be discussed on the margins of the meeting. North Korea, the China-US trade impasse, the future of Nafta, US-EU trade tensions, Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria and a host of regional crises will be on the agenda. On several of these, the US is now actively working against existing agreements, contrary to multilateral norms or outside multilateral organisations.
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One in particular will be important to watch. Mr Trump will chair a meeting of the UN Security Council intended to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme. This will be headline-grabbing – not only because the last major public meeting on this scale chaired by him was on his television show The Apprentice – but also because Mr Trump decided to unilaterally pull out of the nuclear agreement consented to with Iran by his predecessor Barack Obama.
The growing concerns about what happens next are therefore largely triggered by the actions of Mr Trump. Further, his views on Iran are to add pressure but not to offer, as is needed, a meaningful diplomatic avenue for a better deal.
In an extraordinary development last week, Mr Trump's lawyer and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani made remarks at an Iran Uprising Summit publicly promoting regime change, although the US administration was quick to distance itself from his comments. However, it is concerning that one of the most sensitive discussions at this session will be handled by one of the most insensitive leaders and that one of the areas where high-level diplomacy would be most useful will see it either downplayed or not deployed by the world’s most important power.
The reality is that some close to Mr Trump would like to see the meeting go nowhere so that they might pursue more vigorously their hawkish opposition to both Iran and the UN (look for Mr Bolton’s fingerprints on this).
The result is that it will not just be the traffic that is a source of frustration this week and that some of those who would wish the UN away will be in positions of great power. That might make New York cab drivers happy, but for the rest of the world it should be a source of genuine concern.
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow