Multilateralism - The United Nations
On June 26, 1945, with World War Two in its last throes, representatives from 50 countries signed the ground-breaking Charter of the United Nations. The document itself outlines the rules and procedures of today’s UN. Seventy-five years on the document symbolises much more. The Charter brought to life a longstanding idea that collective security and international cooperation can be sought through an organization that represents all humanity.
The UN is seminal, responsible for a crystallized international rule of law. Hundreds of treaties codified by the UN cover much human interaction, from the environment to aviation, the oceans, trade, human rights, disarmament, outer space and even road rules. A complex network of global standards to inspire the conduct of individual states as never before.
Since the Ditchley Foundation was set up in the late 1950s, the importance of multilateral dialogue has been a cornerstone of its founding mission. Ditchley conferences have maintained long term discussion about the institutions of multilateralism with for example conferences in the 1960s on the future of NATO and the role of force and United Nations peacekeeping. Ditchley has repeatedly questioned how the UN could best navigate the turbulent waves of global discord.
This document draws on the Ditchley archives, notes of the many conferences and Annual Lectures held at Ditchley between the early 1990s and 2020, to summarise how the UN has been discussed at Ditchley. While it can scarcely reflect the richness and diversity of thought contributed by attendees (including Kofi Annan, David Miliband and Margrethe Vestager to name just three), it will offer an assessment of how perceptions of the UN at Ditchley have been reshaped and analysed over the last three decades.
The paper will address three central themes - the structural architecture of the UN, its role, and the UN’s changing agenda. It will reflect the UN within a changing global context and identify key overarching trends that span these three factors.
Each discussion at Ditchley regarding the UN is inevitably complex, prioritising different subjects depending on the global context of the time. A top level overview of the decades reveals the primacy of the Cold War context in the 1970s and 80s; the early 2000s honed in on the ‘War on Terror’; while the 2010s became increasingly concerned with a crisis of multilateralism and a diminishing political will met by the rise of new systemic threats such as climate change and cyber security (threats that by their very nature demand a coordinated multilateral response).
However, there are a series of factors over the last three decades that have been table stakes to discussions at Ditchley. Most, if not all, Ditchley participants deem the following factors key to the functioning of the UN, and its capacity to respond. These factors will be referenced throughout the essay:
Global Power Shifts
From a stagnant Cold War environment to US hegemony in the 1990s, to what some have described as the “messy-lateral” world we live in today, Ditchley conferences have witnessed repeated transformation of the global balance of power. It is impossible to divorce these great power relationships from the effectiveness of multilateral organisations. Decidedly unclear power relations alongside a flare up of Western-Russian and Sino-American tensions have, at times, paralysed the Security Council. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, stressed in his 2015 Ditchley Annual Lecture that opaque power relations directly correlate to high levels of impunity and unpredictability, perhaps explaining the exponential increase in global displacement with migration during that year and since.
Changing Nature of Conflict
Over the past two decades a number of Ditchley conferences including, ‘Can we still intervene for good?’ in 2019 have noted with concern that the character and tactics of armed conflict are changing. With conflict within and not just between states, citizens, including children, have become more vulnerable. The sites of battle have become unclear, the diversification of parties and the deliberate targeting of traditional safe havens such as schools and hospitals has been the result. Technology has opened new battlegrounds while gender-based attacks are increasing globally. Together these factors blur the line between what is legitimate and what is not when states address security threats. The traditional distinction between international conflict, the UN’s business, and domestic disputes is no longer so clear.
Globalisation versus polarisation
A recurring question posed at Ditchley is if and how the UN can reconcile the forces of globalisation and polarisation. Globalisation has distributed economic opportunities, human capabilities and political power in ways that differ markedly from when the UN was first established. We live in a more hyper connected world than ever before, where crises and conflict can afflict global systems. Meanwhile, global economic integration and interdependence are colliding with the rise of nationalism and assertions of sovereignty. A resurgence of regionalism and protectionism is placing pressure on international law.
The Structural Architecture of The UN: “A crisis of representation”
The United Nations (UN) has six main organs. Five of them — the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council and the Secretariat — are based at UN Headquarters in New York. The sixth, the International Court of Justice, is located at The Hague in the Netherlands.
The Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It has 15 members, each with one vote. Under the Charter, all member states are obliged to comply with Council decisions. Five of the Security Council are permanent members and hold a veto vote; the US, UK, France, Russia and China (a reflection of the privileges of the World War Two victors). The remaining ten are elected for two-year terms. A group of members originally intended to be a platform of developing countries on economic and social issues has grown from 77 to 134. Less “developing nations”, many of these countries are now powerful emerging economies.
Today, shifting balances of power have framed debates at Ditchley regarding the structural make-up of the UN. Familiar binaries between the east and west, north and south, developed and developing and development and security, are no longer useful. In this context, discussions at Ditchley have frequently agreed on the need for reform, recognising that current institutions are no longer fully fit for purpose. Rising powers have had little say in their creation, and their voices are still too few.
There are very few Ditchley conferences or annual lectures addressing multilateralism that do not mention a crisis of representation in the UN’s Security Council. In 1945, 22% of the global population was considered European. Today this is thought to be 10%; a figure predicted to drop to 7% by 2050. By then, all Europe, North America and Latin America’s populations will represent a share smaller than the European population did in 1945. Yet, these groups still represent three fifths of the Security Council.
Veto powers motivated by national politics render the Security Council largely ineffectual, especially at times of great power confrontation. In a similar vein, the Permanent Five (P5) garners support for particular policy moves in ways that lower tier members cannot. This was especially prevalent in the aftermath of 9/11 when the US invaded Iraq. A Ditchley conference in 2007, (The role of the United Nations in the 21st Century), noted that some member states felt that the rights of the P5 introduced distortions in the system from the top down.
The dramatic economic rise of Asia over the last decade has injected a level of urgency to debates around Security Council representation and (in)effectiveness. A conference hosted in 2010 (The global implications of the rise of Asia Conference) strongly advised better integration with China, despite concluding that China showed little sign of exerting soft power - something that was to dramatically change over the following years. As early as 2010, the risk of a decoupled multilateralism reminiscent of the Cold War was all too prevalent for attendees of the time. Collaboration and dialogue across all borders has remained a powerful appeal at Ditchley.
At the turn of the century (2000), reform of the Security Council was high on the Ditchley agenda. There was considerable optimism that with the right coordination greater representation could be enacted. However, twenty years later at this year’s Ditchley Summer Project session on the future of multilateralism a markedly different tone was expressed. Reform of the P5 was suggested to be unviable; a “waste of energy” given today’s power politics and the plethora of challenges facing the UN, not least COVID-19. Reform, it was argued, should not take precedence over general UN functionality.
One way to tackle Security Council stagnation most recently posited at Ditchley is the notion of a “great enterprise”. In other words, tackling global challenges on a coordinated front perhaps through plurilateralism instead of multilateralism. Regional and bilateral agreements and helpful unilateral steps in areas like climate change should be pursued where possible, even if they fall short of the ideal. Prioritisation has been repeatedly suggested at Ditchley; rather than attempting to fulfil a universal actor role, the UN could see itself as an instrument for effective action in those areas where it had the human capacity, the expertise and the resources. Essentially, Ditchley discussions had proposed that more countries might enter the UN’s fold, but not necessarily participate in each and every policy debate. As noted in a conference in 2012 on global power shifts:
“We are likely to see a patchwork of cooperation and competition running along bilateral, regional and multicultural axes.”
Reliance on the United States?
A longstanding issue for the United Nations has been its reliance on US involvement. As a founding member, its role as primary financial donor and strong alignment in values, the US has been a key component of UN stability. The extent of such reliance is debated repeatedly at Ditchley but has taken particular prevalence over the last four years.
US isolationism has occurred in waves and existed long before the election of President Donald Trump. In 1998, William Richardson, US Ambassador to the UN, noted with concern in his Ditchley Annual Lecture that attempts to re-establish the bipartisan consensus that had once dictated the US relationship with the United Nations was “no easy job”.
Since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, there has been tangible unease over the more pronounced retreat by the US from multilateral dialogue. Ditchley’s most recent Summer Project held in July 2020 noted with evident concern that the implicit US guarantee that has stood behind the multilateral system since 1945 might be slipping away. However, participants were also keen to emphasise the importance of multilateralism to the US, especially in the wake of COVID-19. The pandemic has underscored just how important it is for the US to collaborate across borders to protect its own people, economy and trade.
The Role of the UN: “A crisis of legitimacy and effectiveness”
Intervention and Peacekeeping
The 1990s seemed to offer a more clear-cut answer to questions about the role of the UN. In 1998 UN Secretary General of the time, Kofi Annan, delivered Ditchley’s Annual Lecture. He was clear that whilst the nature of conflict was undoubtedly shifting,
“Our job as United Nations is to intervene - to prevent conflict where we can, to put a stop to it when it has broken out, or when neither of those things is possible - at least to contain it and prevent it from spreading.”
The 1990s was considered a ‘golden age’ of UN intervention. Free from the shackles of East-West confrontation, the UN could intervene with relative free will. The institution played a key role in nurturing the reform of states no longer bound to communist regimes, and enjoyed the full support of the US. Between 1990 and 1994 over 78,000 UN troops were scattered across the globe in locales as diverse as Mogadishu and Sarajevo, the Western Sahara and Abkhazia. The UN found itself in more peacekeeping operations in those four years than it had done for the previous forty-four. Additionally, the widely reported tribunals of former leaders of Yugoslavia and review of the Rwandan Genocide meant the UN played a greater role in public consciousness as a beacon of peace.
Kofi Annan (1938-2018) was a Ghanaian diplomat who helped redefine the role of the United Nations. Annan was the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, serving from 1997 to 2006 and was the first to emerge from the ranks of United Nations staff. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for ‘bringing new life to the organisation’ through peacekeeping, the millennium development goals and fighting AIDS. From 2013, he also sat as Chair of The Elders; an international non-governmental organisation of elder statesmen, peace activists, and human rights advocates, who were brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007. In 1998, Annan delivered Ditchley’s Annual Lecture on the UN’s approach to ‘intervention’. In his words, ‘Each one of us - whether as workers in government, in intergovernmental or non-governmental organisations, in business, in the media, or simply as human beings - has an obligation to do whatever he or she can to correct injustice’. A decade on, he attended a Ditchley conference on ‘The impact of population trends on the Millennium Development Goals’.
Conversations at Ditchley over these years tended to draw greater consensus over the role of the UN with regards to intervention than in later years. It was considered somewhat obvious that the UN and coalitions of the willing should intervene to protect human rights. In the words of Annan, “sovereignty implies responsibility, not just power”. A conference on non-violent sanctions held in the same year noted increasing calls for intervention by means other than armed force but concluded the use of intermediary tactics should be viewed with “cautious scepticism”.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, conversations at Ditchley are underwritten by a slightly different tone. An increasingly complicated balance of power stifled unanimous voting, the perceived failures of long wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan cast a long shadow over the confidence of states in decisive intervention. There was evident unease over the UN’s role, or lack thereof, in the build up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Discussion agendas since inevitably discuss the ambiguity surrounding the UN as a legitimator of the use of force. Director’s Notes in 2002 titled ‘The role of the United Nations in the 21st century’ emphasised higher intensity Chapter VII tasks should be left to the US led-coalition of the willing, and less invasive Chapter VI tasks left to the UN. That being said, discussions continued to recognise the UN as an embodiment of international governance, with intervention an important guarantee of its authority - especially in relation to humanitarianism.
Humanitarianism and its role within the UN has been a common thread through debates at Ditchley. While it is understood the human rights agenda is sometimes superseded by various economic narratives and the rise of a nation-state agenda, Ditchley discussions have emphasised a responsibility of the UN to aid failing states and its citizens.
The absence of intervention when overtly demanded can be devastating. An Annual Lecture in 2017 delivered by the David Miliband, and a conference on multilateral intervention in 2019 both emphasised that UN Security Council paralysis has allowed governments or their opponents to kill or terrorise their own people without effective reproach. Both discussions also emphasised the economic and political case for multilateral work against gender-based violence and for the empowerment of women; a central tenet of humanitarian work today.
Ditchley conference discussions reiterate time and again that the UN Charter protects the sovereignty of peoples; not governments. But, in a more interconnected and interdependent world, ‘intervention for good’ is harder to define; it is also more complicated to do. Ditchley’s answer to these complicated challenges is intervention with caution and a deep understanding of the complexities of competing interest groups. Intervention ambitions should focus on what is essential, and local conditions and capacities always used as the starting points. Knowledge of local history, ethnography and language should be a central focus.
António Guterres is currently serving as the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations. Before his election as premier of the globally renowned institution, Mr Guterres served as United Nations Commissioner for Refugees. For ten years, he coordinated responses to some of the most serious displacement crises over the last two decades. Guterres spent more than 20 years in government and public service. He served as Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002, during which time he was heavily involved in the international effort to resolve the crisis in East Timor.
The Ditchley Foundation hosted Antonio Guterres in 2015 when he delivered Ditchley’s 51st Annual Lecture titled ‘Global conflicts and human displacement: 21st Century challenges’. He unpicked the complicated array of challenges facing the UN;
“not only is displacement growing, not only are the causes of displacement multiplying, but we have more and more difficulties to find solutions for the people displaced.”
Rules and Regulations
Conferences over the last five years have emphasised the UN’s significance as an institution of common law. Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s Competition Commissioner in the 54th Ditchley Annual Lecture in 2019, described the empowerment and feeling of protection an international rules system invokes.
She argued this fundamental role of multilateral systems could be a means of reconciling the current tug of war between polarisation and globalisation. The rules and regulations codified in UN treaties (covering all aspects of life from oceans to roads), allow for a level of common protection, including of our different identities. Human rights are there to protect people’s sovereignty, not take it away. She explained,
“Living in a society and a Union based on the rule of law doesn't change us to become the same. The fact that we live in a rules-based world gives us equal rights as citizens, but still has plenty of room for our identity as Danish, English, European, men, women or whoever we are. That is so good: we can have different identities and yet share the fundamentals of being equal as citizens when living in societies based on the rule of law.”
Margarethe Vestager is a renowned Danish social liberal politician. Since first entering professional politics aged 21, she has led the Social Liberal Party of Denmark for seven years, served as the European competition commissioner and today sits as Vice-President of the European Commission of ‘Europe Fit for the Digital Age’. In her various roles, she has worked to tackle illegal cartels and competitive action by business giants while also working closely with Jean-Claude Juncker to salvage Europe's financial sector and forge a better regulated European Banking Union.
In 2018, Vestager delivered Ditchley’s Annual Lecture titled ‘Playing by the rules in a globalised world’. She spoke on the importance of empowering and protecting citizens through a respected international rules system.
This was a repeated theme at Ditchley’s latest virtual discussion titled ‘Multilateralism’s failure or its rebirth?’. It was noted this basic security the UN provides perhaps goes unnoticed;
“The reality is that multilateralism and particularly the UN continues to be the invisible infrastructure within which we all live our lives”
A further area of concern was the inability to enforce such rules. For example, climate change demands open and honest reporting obligations but it’s evident some countries fail to comply with little repercussion. Weakening faith in the UN’s ability to call out those who do not live up to the basic rule of international law risks undermining the institution.
A Changing UN Agenda
As the UN faces questioning over its role in global society and structural make up, new systemic threats stretch UN resources to capacity. The rise of issues apparently global in nature that demand a coordinated international response may now be more likely to be addressed at different more regional scales.
How have Ditchley discussions understood displacement in relation to the UN? Antonio Guterres in 2015 honed in on the importance of fundamental grassroots causes. He suggested increasing a global humanitarian and development budget within countries of origin and countries of transit to ease flows and absorption capacity, while also increasing comprehensive protective measures for economic migrants around the world. This year, the concept of ‘great enterprise’ was reiterated by the Ditchley Summer Project discussion as one approach to refugee distribution.
Globally, the absolute number of war deaths has been in decline since 1946. Yet, conflict and violence are currently on the rise. Today we face an unprecedented era of social dislocation. In 2010, 11,000 new people were displaced by conflict per day, jumping to 42,500 in 2014. Since 2014, the EU has grappled with a migrant crisis on an unprecedented scale with more than one million migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.
Several major crises and their long term social and economic effects have contributed to the massive displacement over the past decade, including the outbreak of Syrian conflict early in the decade, South Sudan’s displacement crisis, conflict in Ukraine, the outflow of Venezuelans across South America and a large humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The fact so many more people are being displaced each day perhaps reinforces a growing public disbelief in a world capacity to tackle conflict. There are crises that simply never die; take Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Discussions at Ditchley have suggested that technology has accelerated the interplay of human conflict. Technological advances brought cyberattacks, the weaponization of bots and drones, and the livestreaming of extremist attacks to audiences online. There has also been a very significant rise in criminal activity involving data hacks and ransomware.
Global interconnectedness, where nearly half of the world’s population is connected by social media, is both a strength and a weakness. Over the last ten years, social media has created “a cacophony of communications” as noted by chair of the 2017 ‘Non state actors and changing nature of conflict’ conference, Dr David Malone, Under-Secretary-General of the UN. It was explained how this was particularly challenging given that we now live in a period when the information operation had to precede the kinetic operation.
Technology has transformed the nature of the conflict but also enhanced the UN’s capacity to respond. The lightning speed that information is disseminated out of warzones and natural disasters allows greater international adjudication on humanitarian matters. Ditchley discussions have long highlighted the fundamental role of technology, particularly over the last 5 years. The 2017 conference, for example, strongly advised that the UN should work with states and large tech corporations to deliver better analytical capabilities for multilateral institutions. Today, technology is considered the essential means of advancing UN capability.
By 2007, climate change was emerging as integral to the Ditchley agenda, with the UN considered a key means of spearheading change. While the ‘Future of The United Nations’ conference in 2007 described climate change “less a movement of comprehensive action, more a problem of politics”, there was an overall sense of optimism regarding the future protection of the environment.
The 2010 conference on the other hand, “Can the multilateral system manage climate change?” expressed a markedly different tone. The conference was held in the wake of the UN’s Copenhagen Summit held a few months before; a summit widely considered a failure. Granted, public concern for the environment had been placed under the UN’s powerful spotlight, however Ditchley attendees were frustrated by the summit’s inability to reconcile national policy choices with the global imperative. No comprehensive policy action was taken due in part to rising concerns over nation-state sovereignty.
Later conferences recognised the need for change regarding the UN and climate change. Futile legally binding agreements and “continuing the ‘circus’ of more international meetings” without visible results were “in danger of breeding cynicism” according to a 2012 conference. There was an appetite for something new. But ambiguity at Ditchley over what form ‘something new’ should take.
Data in particular was noted as an opportunity for tangible steps forward. The 2012, Ditchley conference on the international challenge of sustainability recommended “authoritative data capture for each country in an open and accessible form, a sort of country ‘dashboard’ that would enable people to monitor the performance of their governments and countries.” ‘Pledges’ with open exchange of data was seen as a more realistic vehicle for change and hopefully create a degree of transparency about emissions control around the world. At this juncture, Ditchley participants were sceptical over the UN’s ability to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals given their concern for common goods, not country-specific ones. The SDG launch in 2015 is testament to the enduring ability of the UN to speak to higher standards and rally support when it truly matters.
Conclusions to Ditchley conferences on the UN typically emphasise the value of the UN to the global order. The UN, whilst flawed and often paralysed, is often described as the best mechanism the world has to mediate breaches of international law; to halt mass atrocities; to respond to natural disasters; or to restore order post-conflict or crisis.
There is always praise for the United Nations as having achieved more than any other supranational institution in history as a setter of norms, a source of legitimisation and a forum for political exchange. But, at the macro level, the intergovernmental system at the UN has not adjusted far or quickly enough to absorb the real political changes generated by the redistribution of economic and political power. Usually, this latter point is the crux of Ditchley’s ambiguity over the effectiveness and legitimacy of the UN.
However, as Ditchley’s most recent assessment of multilateralism indicated, multilateral perfection cannot be a goal rather the aim should be to maximise what can be achieved through these organisations. Multilateralism is a tool, not a goal, and it is useful to remember that the geopolitics that tends to affect how much gets done in an organisation are not typically existential in character. Where there has been failure is in communicating the value of multilateralism to citizens around the world.
Timeline: Ditchley conferences and Annual Lectures (in bold) and key dates in the development of multilateralism
The UN Charter was signed in June and came into force in October
End of the World War 2: Victory in Europe Day is May 8th.
UN agrees to the partitioning of Palestine and the formation of Israel
Universal Declaration of Human Rights – 30 rights and freedoms
Seventeen newly-independent states join the UN – sixteen were newly independent African countries
Cuban missile crisis – the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union
The role of force in international order and United Nations peacekeeping May 1969 (archive access)
US withdraw from Vietnam – peace agreement signed in Paris ends US involvement in the Vietnam War
First UN conference on the status of women
A UN office for Emergency Operations is set up in Africa to help coordinate famine relief efforts
Fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union
Iraq invades Kuwait, starting the Gulf War. (UN calls for Iraqi ejection ignored -– allied attack starts in Feb 1991)
UN hosts first ever Earth Summit – a conference on environment and development
UN supervises elections in Cambodia, EU and European Citizenship established by the Maastricht Treaty
Security Council passes Resolution 1035, which establishes the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The UN General Assembly adopts the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty
The United Nations Regionalism and the Future of International Peace and Security, Ditchley Annual Lecture delivered by Ambassador William Richardson
Intervention (Annual Lecture: Kofi Annan)
International Criminal Court established
Non-Violent Sanctions In The International System
Millennium Development Goals established
The UN in the 21st Century (Part 1)
The role of the United Nations in the 21st century: Peacekeeping and the Security Council (Part 2)
The UN Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 1441, drafted by the US and UK. (US claims this granted Iraq invasion), Sierra Leone and Angola Civil Wars quelled by UN
UN passes resolution recognising US/UK occupation of Iraq. The resolution assigned the UN only a limited role in a transition to democratic government
A suicide attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad
The Future of the United Nations
iPhone invented – a turning point in mobile communications
The Global Financial Crash (2012)
The impact of population trends on the Millennium Development Goals
Copenhagen Sustainability Summit (considered failure for the UN)
Can The Multilateral System manage climate change?
The global implications of the rise of Asia
UN passes resolution 64/211: Creation of a global culture of cybersecurity and taking stock of national efforts to protect critical information infrastructures
Global Power Shifts What Do The New Players Want?
Egyptian military coup
The UN: protecting civilians in armed conflict
After A Decade Of War Ditchley Annual Lecture Rt Hon David Milliband
Russian Annexation of Crimea
Sustainable Development Goals established
Changing Power Relations (Annual Lecture: Antonio Guterres)
Trump elected, Britain leaves EU, US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Chemical weapons attack in Syria
Non-State actors and changing nature of conflict
Ditchley Annual Lecture, Playing by the rules in a globalised world, Margrethe Vestager, EU Commissioner
Ditchley Annual Lecture, The Future of Multilateralism: Lessons from Finance, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England