IN his opening address to the UN General Assembly, Secretary General António Guterres issued a stark warning about the troubled state of the world.
“We are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction”, as a result of geopolitical divides, turmoil, deadly conflicts, climate catastrophes, food crisis, rising inequality and poverty. This dire situation held great peril, especially with trust declining in democratic institutions, respect eroding for international law and faith diminishing in international solidarity. Despite “the logic of cooperation” there was no “collective problem solving”.
The UN chief called for “a coalition of the world” to redress this alarming situation. Warning of a “winter of global discontent” he said a splintering world needed hope and action. And above all, “common solutions to common problems”.
It was but obvious that Guterres would mention the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the devastation caused by the war. But any expectation that his words would calm the situation was quickly dashed.
A day after his speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a further escalation of the seven-month crisis. He said hundreds of thousands of army reservists would be deployed in Ukraine in a partial mobilisation of Russian forces. He also threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia. This followed his plan unveiled earlier to hold ‘referendums’ in Ukraine’s four regions under Russian control in a bid to ‘formally’ integrate them into Russia. Voting on this has already begun.
These moves came on the heels of a series of military and diplomatic reversals for Moscow.
Militarily, a counteroffensive by Western-backed Ukrainian forces resulted in seizing a significant chunk of territory back from the Russians. Diplomatically, meetings on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit laid bare the limits of support for Russian actions from even its closest allies.
In the first in-person meeting between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping after the invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese leader conveyed his misgivings over escalation of the crisis. Putin later acknowledged that “concerns and questions” were raised by the Chinese president.
Similarly, during Putin’s meeting with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi is reported to have voiced concern and convey that this was “not an era of war”.
The Ukraine crisis isn’t the only challenge to international peace and stability. The world is also being destabilised by the fallout from the US-China confrontation, which is a defining feature of the global landscape today.
Unprecedented tensions between the two global powers have ensued in most part from America’s policy to contain China which is being met by an assertive response from Beijing.
At UNGA, President Joe Biden said he wanted to be “direct about the competition between the United States and China”. He said, “We do not seek conflict. We do not seek a Cold War. We do not ask any nation to choose between the United States or any other partner.” He also reaffirmed his country’s commitment to a ‘One China’ policy and promised the US would “conduct itself as a reasonable leader” in “managing shifting geopolitical trends”.
But this measured tone on China has not been reflected in recent US actions. They include the announcement of a billion-dollar arms package for Taiwan and fresh curbs on US exports of chip technology to Chinese companies. Both were roundly denounced by Beijing.
Also, just days before his UNGA address, Biden reiterated that the US would defend Taiwan “militarily” if it was attacked. This too provoked a furious Chinese response.
The resurgence of East-West tensions and intensifying US-China confrontation have further shrunk the space for multilateral cooperation. But multilateralism has been in retreat for well over a decade and much before the Ukraine conflict.
The undermining of multilateralism emerged as a dominant trend in the last decade with the rise of hyper-nationalism and right-wing populism. Right-wing populist leaders have shown a propensity to act unilaterally in defiance of international law and norms.
This has been evidenced in our neighbourhood by the Modi government’s illegal annexation of occupied Jammu and Kashmir three years ago, and subsequent actions in blatant violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
It was also reflected in the contempt with which former president Donald Trump treated multilateral institutions, his ‘America first’ policy and renunciation of international treaties and agreements.
The pandemic saw a telling lack of global solidarity. The cooperation deficit on such shared challenges and other key areas further weakened multilateralism.
Tensions between big powers and the conduct of so-called regional ‘strongmen’ have contributed to a fractured global community and fragmentation of the international system. Indeed, a rules-based order is under unprecedented stress due to the qualified support of big powers. Geopolitics, not solidarity, is now the dominant dynamic.
The UN secretary general’s emphasis on the impact of climate change on vulnerable countries — with Pakistan as the case in point — and what to do about it represented a key part of his speech.
Lashing out at the West’s fossil fuels industry for making windfall profits, he called for these profits to be taxed and funds from them directed to afflicted countries to address losses caused to them by the climate crisis. Guterres squarely placed the issue of justice at the centre of the global debate on the climate crisis.
He pointed out that the G20 emits 80 per cent of all carbon emissions. On the other hand, Pakistan’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is under 1pc but it is the world’s seventh most vulnerable country to climate change and is reeling today from its ravages. That is why Pakistan is leading a developing country effort to establish a global fund to help states afflicted by climate-induced disasters.
Whether Western countries, long sceptical about this, can be persuaded to change their mind is unclear. But protesters across the world are now demanding climate justice, urging developed countries to compensate poorer states for the damage climate change is inflicting on them.
Faced with a world in peril, the bigger question is whether developed states and big powers can transcend their divisions and rivalries to deal with shared challenges. In spite of Guterres’ clarion call to “act as one”, it is hard to be hopeful on that count.