TOM PLATE WRITES — Maybe the United Nations – fumbling, hopelessly bureaucratic, partly-corrupt – is in fact beyond redemption. Just forget about it: Let it career down the slippery slope of mediocrity and geopolitical irrelevance and splash ignominiously into New York’s East River — like some waterside condo with a shaky foundation. Let’s cut our losses and bail out before its collapse pulls the world into a deep and dark abyss.
Maybe the UN was never going to save the world. Without the U.S. as a member, the League of Nations after World War I flopped; post-World War II, even with the U.S. in the game, the UN is a near-flop. Maybe, as Princeton University Emeritus Professor Richard Falk provocatively and persistently suggests, a new world order cannot be maintained on the ballast of international institutions alone but will require an elevated layer of consciousness: in effect, a transformative global psychological breakthrough elevating the human species into the sphere of a true functional community. But … how long might that take?
Here’s one section in former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s important, realistic and at times riveting memoir, just-published, that makes you wonder. The former South Korean foreign minister (2004-2006) recalls an insider’s moment at the 2015 peacekeeping summit organized by the Obama administration in New York. President Barack Obama, insouciantly ignoring the fact that the U.S. personnel contributions to UN peacekeeping missions are few and far between, was overshadowed by Chairman Xi Jinping, who stood up for China to pledge a trained standing force of 8,000 deployable peacekeepers (mainly medical, engineering and logistics teams) and new funds to train African peacekeepers. The dramatic offer drew applause from the surprised summiteers; Ban writes, “I was overjoyed.”
‘Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World’ is not a joyful book, however. The former two-term SG (2007-2016) – only the UN’s second from Asia (the other was U Thant, 1961-1971) – despairs over the primacy of big-power politics at the Security Council and predictable petty national-interest pettiness in the General Assembly. And tellingly, notwithstanding Xi’s 2015 surprise, China otherwise gets scant mention in ‘Resolved’ (written with skilled American journalist Betsy Pisik), despite its current prominence and permanent, veto-wielding post on the Security Council.
Ban won’t say it of course, but Beijing takes criticism of almost any sort almost as if it were a nuclear missile attack. Instead of rolling with the punches that will always come the way of any rising power, it tends to over-react and sulk for weeks or months on end. Ban, ever the quiet diplomat whose professionalism is well-respected by Beijing, has no appetite for tangling with Xi. But as China’s leader himself demonstrated in 2015, an upgraded PRC involvement in the UN might serve to slow the institution’s decline, if not prove its critical saving grace. And given America’s slide, it could prove the only major pushback to a League of Nations collapse.
The suggestion that Beijing could prove an angelic agent of UN resurrection is, to be sure, the long-shot bet of the year. For anything remotely like it to happen, the PRC itself would have to broaden the bandwidth of its foreign policy. Paradoxically enough, it would need to desire a less conventionally Western construct – in the Kissingerian sense of a ‘Concert of Europe’ – and, overall, less of a Hobbesian traveling circus of hyenas each grabbing the biggest bite it can. The urgent need for an overriding common internationalism could scarcely be more vivid in this age of destructive planetary temperature-rising and pandemic persistence.
But it is not happening. So, perhaps only transcendent leadership from a major power with a deeply embedded worldly culture might raise the bar.
As for the U.S., only an America that allows itself to accept that China, while different and deeply competitive, needs to have a central seat at the reform top table. The U.S. cannot save the world by itself, even as much as it wants to, and might even kill itself and many others by continuing to try. Truly, the American moment, along with the American Century, has passed. The Russian Federation, with President Vladimir Putin in the lead, confronts a Western/NATO containment policy that only sharpens its prickly paranoia. It’s difficult to imagine the big bad bear-warrior as some inspirational Orthodox Sherpa for peace.
And so this brings us back to Beijing. Its UN profile trajectory under the Xi government has been rising, it is true: its prior way was to hope Moscow would exercise its veto so it wouldn’t have to. But ‘increasing assertiveness’ can be a sword with a positive ad well as a negative edge. It can start a war (South China Sea) or, with adept diplomacy, soothe international waters. It could pledge never (or almost never) to play the Security Council veto card. It could continually restate its nuclear no-first use policy — an admirable policy that aligns with that of its blood-enemy neighbor Japan, which remains non-nuclear (so far). Beijing could take an expansive view of its Korean policy and imaginatively work to foster a united non-nuclear Korean Peninsula — no more divisive north and south – and with all U.S. troops and war armaments withdrawn. This alone could yield an additional layer of security to China’s felt need for a Korean buffer to ease the task of dealing with more than a dozen other nations on its border,
But almost nothing transformative will happen unless China weans itself off the sulks of past memory and decides to make humanitarian history. And it doesn’t have an eternity of time in which to prove it is an exceptional nation. Its population is on the decline, albeit slowly; and its miracle economy cannot be expected to remain miraculous forever. On my reading of the Ban Ki-moon memoir, I personally suspect that while the diplomat from Asia doesn’t raise it directly, he might be thought to believe that the key to saving the UN is the People’s Republic of China, if only it is able to rally its better angels and deploy them with all deliberate speed.
Loyola Marymount University Clinical Professor Tom Plate is the author of ‘Conversations with Ban Ki-moon’ (2012) in the ‘Giants of Asia Book Series. In 2016 former UNSG Ban was the recipient of LMU’s honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. An earlier version of this essay was published in the South China Morning Post, where Plate is a regular contributor.