Besides the fact that world leaders participated from a distance because of the coronavirus, the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations did not differ from those that preceded it. The session prompted disagreement and division over how to deal with this pandemic. The positions adopted were as far as can be from the spirit of collaboration and cooperation required to confront a virus that cuts across borders and does not discriminate among people based on their nationalities, loyalties or beliefs.
Instead, the summit seemed more like a platform for exchanging accusations of responsibility for the virus’s spread and boasting about self-sufficient solutions, in which internal assessments were prioritized over international cooperation. This added a new chapter to the United Nations’ failure to develop a joint plan that curtails this emerging danger, demonstrating its failure and inability to assume its supposed health responsibilities, neither at the preventive level, nor at revealing this epidemic’s realities and how to confront it.
Some expected the existential jolt induced by the coronavirus to encourage international cooperation and mutual assistance, invigorate the United Nations and the utilization of its institutions to coordinate the situation where the interests of all the segments of the globe align, solving the crisis with the least possible degree of pain and loss. Regrettably, the complete opposite unfolded, eliciting sharp criticism and divergent explanations of the reasons for this international organization’s chronic inability to build a spirit of global consensus and manage the planet to all of our benefit.
Some believe that this can be explained by the foundational structure of the United Nations, which was established after the Second World War to prevent the outbreak of a third war, granting the victorious countries privileges in its management, and made the Security Council - which is the dominant authority - akin to an instrument for crises management building consensuses and settling disputes, often at the expense of the interests of the weaker peoples and generally in line with the policies of Washington, the most potent economic and military power.
However, the scene changed with the United States’ retreat and reluctance to play its former role of the engine that drives the world. It has been gradually abandoning, since Obama came to power, its pioneering role, as a reaction to the disappointing results of the President Bush’s interventionist policies. The scene has become clearer in recent years, as it withdrew from several international organizations and treaties, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement, the United Nations Human Rights Council, UNESCO, the nuclear agreement with Iran, and, most recently, the World Health Organization, which President Trump accused of working for China.
On the other hand, there are those who link the failure to the sudden changes in the international balance of power after the US had been the single great power. Factions whose interests are no longer served by a unipolar world arose, and among the development’s manifestations are that Moscow is coming back to play the role of a competitor for global control and influence and the economic growth that China has achieved, impelling it to seek a more prominent international role.
This has undermined the US ability to impose its will and made the contrasts of its positions and its competition with Moscow and Beijing a significant driver of the United Nations’ failure. The variety of political system aggravates the problem further and the divergent degrees to which they are tied to universal concerns, leading, in many countries, to the dominance of factional groups that do not care for collective action and the global institutional dimension, as much as their narrow interests and calculations of authoritarianism and hegemony are concerned with them.
A third group believes that the United Nations would not have been in the state it is in if weren’t for the gradual growth of phenomenon that indicate a decline in global humanitarian solidary and nations’ apprehension about coexisting with the “other”, spurring the advance of populism and isolationism and granted the extremist far-right greater weight. From this angle, we can look into the growth of racial prejudice in several Western countries, overriding the values of equality and citizenship, as well as Britain’s exit from the European Union, the increasing prevalence of calls in Israel for a state that separates its Jews from its Arab Christians and Muslims and the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiites in the Arab world and the region.
Those who hold this opinion link the aforementioned with permissibility toward violence being carried out against entire nations and the refugees and victims it left behind, the deterioration of many peoples’ lives as a result development plans’ failure, exploitation going unchecked, greed, corruption and the escalation of economic crises in various countries, which has weakened their capacity to provide for humanity as a whole. These phenomena were exacerbated by the failure to spread a global culture that entrenches the values of equality and human rights, which is linked to the failure of the project to reform and democratize the UN. That initiative, announced in the late 1990s, was deliberately obstructed by the major powers.
However, whatever the reasons, we cannot but admit that the coronavirus epidemic was a historical milestone that exposed the United Nations’ indolence and reveal the selfish motives of those who utilize the organization to further their narrow interests, disregarding the people’s lives and rights. Thus, its structural ills have become apparent, as have the roots of the ideologies with which the great powers weave their global hegemony.
We must also acknowledge that this pandemic has strengthened the moral and legal incentives for improving the UN’s structure and role, given the urgency of the need for concerted collective efforts to face up to the serious global challenges ahead. They have imposed themselves on us over the past decades and have come to threaten humanity’s future. Natural disasters, global warming, desertification, the spread of regressive and destructive conflicts, the consequences of social justice’s disruption, the exacerbation of poverty, unemployment, migration and spread of epidemics, the latest of which is the coronavirus pandemic, all demonstrate the need for building broad public support for fortifying the role of forces and actors that share a belief in humanitarian values and have a genuine interest in building a world order, one in which the international organization and its institutions come to have a significant presence, curtail global problems and back the oppressed and victimized.
So, should we adopt the optimistic predictions of new developments that build a resolute international will, induced by grave economic and social difficulties awaiting the world due to the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic? Or does pessimism impose itself, alerting us to many governments’ focus on protecting their internal regimes, preferring the principles of self-sufficiency and protectionism over their international ties and using the resurrection of nationalist and racist inclinations and the emergency powers they have been granted to confront the epidemic to tighten their grip and control over their people, making it apparent that we are before a world, with all its diversity and differences, that is not ready - let us say: too immature - to collectively face the challenges and danger it encounters?