September 21, 2022
JAKARTA – The first in-person United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic kicked off in New York on Tuesday with an air of pessimism over the state of multilateralism at the institution, despite hopes that the end of virtual meetings would reinvigorate global diplomacy.
The funeral of British Monarch Queen Elizabeth II on Monday, attended by at least 500 world leaders and country representatives, has complicated UN organizers’ efforts to secure RSVPs from senior diplomats and world leaders, resulting in a recast of the UNGA schedule of speakers.
But the funeral was not the sole reason for the assembly’s somber atmosphere. In remarks ahead of the general debate, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres lamented the mountain of challenges to be tackled over the next two weeks, including climate change, food crises, economic difficulties and increasing demagoguery worldwide.
He also decried a decline of multilateralism.
“I have the feeling that we are still far away from peace. […] I would be lying if I [said peace] would happen soon,” Guterres told reporters on Saturday. “Geostrategic divides are the wildest they have been since at least the Cold War. […] The solidarity envisioned in the [UN] charter is being devoured by the acids of nationalism and self-interest.”
While Guterres chose the imagery of acidic corrosion, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi has, on some occasions, used the metaphor of a virulent “virus”. She has also suggested that the “vaccine” for this pathogen is “strategic trust”.
Diplomats from the Russian and US embassies in Jakarta told The Jakarta Post that dialogue was becoming increasingly difficult, though US diplomats emphasized that they were trying to maintain communication nonetheless.
“Distrust between states is rising,” international relations analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar told the Post. “To effectively communicate and to go back and forth with each other takes a level of trust, but when the policies taken by countries are too different for any understanding to take hold, diplomacy can crumble rather quickly. Once it does, rebuilding that trust will take a very long time.”
Analyst Riza Noer Arfani said that although Indonesia – unlike Russia, Ukraine and Myanmar – was not one of the chief stakeholders around which the UN’s major disagreements revolved, Jakarta should make bold moves to bridge differences between states, especially considering that it held the Group of 20 presidency this year and the ASEAN chairmanship next year.
Adding to Jakarta’s pressure was Guterres’ statement on Saturday that the G20 could not afford to fail in advancing its agenda. He said the G20 would have to “lead the way” in resolving pressing issues, such as climate change, otherwise “tragedies will simply multiply with devastating consequences for years to come”.
“G20 countries are responsible for 80 percent of [carbon] emissions. […] If one third of G20 countries [were] underwater today, as [the case] could be tomorrow, perhaps they would find it easier to agree on drastic cuts to emissions,” he said.
But, solving a complex problem such as the climate emergency was not an easy undertaking, Riza warned, especially with countries refusing to cooperate for the sake of their self-interest.
Riza said countries had to sit down and hash out a new form of multilateralism – one that denounced zero-sum thinking, “coercive” norm-setting and exclusion as punishment.
“The sovereignty of states must be upheld, and countries must voluntarily adhere to the global norm-setting. They cannot be pressured to follow the rules through coercion and sanctions – that is a realist’s way of thinking,” Riza said. “Realism has never been successful at building political stability.”
But turning over a new diplomatic leaf is no easy task. In March, the UNGA responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a series of condemnations and the exclusion of Moscow from its Human Rights Council. The G7 is also seeking to get as many countries as possible to sanction Russian oil through a price cap.
In his annual report for last year’s UNGA, Guterres called for a “new era of multilateralism” that was more networked, inclusive and effective to address modern challenges.
“Multilateralism has evolved considerably since the UN was founded, and we have shown that we can come together to forge collective solutions. However, this does not happen often, effectively or inclusively enough,” the report said. “We need multilateralism that is more effective in delivering on its promises and consequently is more trusted.”
The secretary general underlined a similar sentiment this year, saying “hope can only come through dialogue and debate”, otherwise people would “lose faith” in the future.
Some observers have taken this statement as a hint that the UN will seek to revamp its norms of multilateralism over the next week.