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In 2020, the United Nations completes seven and half decades since its inauguration and since its Charter came into operation on October 24, 1945. Following the brutality of war and the misery it left in its wake, the words of American President Harry Truman remain relevant. In addressing delegates to the opening conference in April 1945, in San Francisco, Truman noted that humanity had learned long ago that it was impossible to survive alone. He stressed that “This same basic principle applies today to nations. We were not isolated during the war. We dare are not become isolated in peace.”

This was a warning. A warning that unless countries realised the potential of collective action, they would toil in vain in their attempts to overcome challenges they face. The clarion call on the need for uniting and progressing under a common banner remains relevant 75 years later, and would certainly remain so in the future.

Sitting at the apex of leadership in multilateralism with numerous agencies and organisations under its umbrella, the United Nations is today faced with countless challenges. It is however through those challenges that the organisation has been able to rise further, and ensure that we, the human race lives a relatively peaceful life. It is owing to the promotion of multilateral engagement and cooperative action at the international and regional levels, that world wars have been averted, disease eradicated and violence reduced.

Countries, their leaders and peoples have been made to realise, especially in the context of the pandemic sweeping the world, that cooperative action is mandatory for survival and progression. Not just survival of peoples in countries, but the survival of the whole of humanity. For those who opt to go it alone and use unilateral action, as some do, the consequences remain harsh.

Why multilateralism?

Various concerns have been expressed about the effectiveness of multilateral interaction, especially in the 21st century. Whilst a world war hasn’t broken out, several conflicts rage in different neighbourhoods of the world. Whilst deadly diseases like small pox have been eradicated numerous others pervade the planet. Whilst attempts are being made to eradicate hunger, there are still people who fall asleep hungry. So has multilateralism and collective action failed?

At the political level, it is alleged that through multilateral engagement, countries are called upon at times, to dilute strong positions in a bid to build consensus. Also through such engagement, there is it is argued, an apparent loss or a reduction of sovereignty, which is a hindrance for countries in their forward march as they are required to conform to that which is acceptable for the greater good of all, as opposed to one’s own people. So has multilateralism and collective action failed?

If a listing of grievances that exist in the world were done, the list would undoubtedly be endless, with problems and challenges in abundance. Yet of importance at this juncture is a reversal in the understanding of that which occurs around us, and the manner in which we look at it. It is the potential and not the problem that needs to be comprehended.

Yes, wars rage in different corners but a world war hasn’t broken out. Yes, numerous diseases, like Covid-19 and many others are around but other deadly ones like small pox are not. Yes, people still fall asleep hungry but that number has drastically reduced owing to efforts, which were even recently recognised in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme.

In relation to challenges at the political level, yes, multilateralism results in the need to dilute positions to build consensus. Yet of importance is that the consensus that is built is for the benefit of all stakeholders, and not to the detriment of some, as might occur if an issue is resolved through a vote or war. The UN and many other multilateral bodies always explore the potential of building consensus first and leave the option of voting to the last, as voting divides. It creates camps of those in support of a resolution, or those against one. Instead, the process of building consensus generates mutual benefits and collective responsibility in the final result.

Yes, sovereignty gets reduced when countries join international organisations and are called upon to accept binding treaties or adapt domestic policy in accordance with that which is agreed to at the multilateral level. However there isn’t a single country on the planet that hasn’t had its sovereignty compromised. Even the most powerful country, the United States of America cannot lay claim to having its sovereignty completely intact.

When trading internationally there is reliance on outside entities. To purchase goods or services that are required within a country, it is necessary to engage overseas and provide finance in return for that which is being purchased. That makes a country reliant on the country from which it is purchasing. It is the same when selling products of a country internationally. The seller and buyer need to enter into an agreement which is mutually beneficial, and not in favour only of one and to the detriment of the other.

When countries want to generate finances, bonds are sold internationally, making that country reliant on external actors, who have a stake in that country thereafter. When countries want to ensure development occurs, they look to the international community to provide investments. This is reliance once again. Where then is the country that is entirely in charge of its affairs, and is wholly competent and self reliant, and which has its sovereignty completely intact?

The era in which sovereignty was touted as the most sacrosanct aspect of a state has passed. In the 21st century, more than ever before, countries and their leaders are realizing that without the other, their own existence is compromised. It is here that the United Nations has been a beacon of hope in a world often viewed through a lense of gloom.

With its involvement in every imaginable aspect of life on the planet, the UN is today the crucible of change. From its inception, the organisation at the centre and its agencies at the periphery have striven amidst numerous obstacles to overcome, and remain relevant through a process of evolution. Polices are formulated to suit the present, and they are implemented in a concerted manner. Thereafter reviews are conducted and necessary adjustments made as required. As such the UN has been able to do what Charles Darwin remarked was necessary for the human species to continue – to adapt.

The UN has and continues to endeavour to adapt. In the last few decades alone, the UN identified the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and thereafter the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as objectives of where humanity should progress. These objectives are relevant to all peoples irrespective of where they are located on the planet. It is in and through the realization of such aspirations that we as a people will make a degree of progress along each of these roads.

In a world of corruption and greed, the achievement of noble goals, in their entirety, is not always feasible, but what is possible is the ability to make considerable progress towards their achievement, which wouldn’t have happened if the goals were not set up at all.

It is here that countries, leaders and individuals can, and must make a difference. For too long those in positions of leadership have endeavoured to consolidate power for themselves, and those around them, and acted in a manner that they felt would suit them alone. The realisation that they too would pass, and others would occupy such positions is not realised when one is at the zenith of power. The need to implement policies that are for the benefit and betterment of all, and for the long-term, and not just a select few, at the present moment, are sometimes conveniently bypassed.

The failure to realise the need to engage far and wide creates a situation in which, owing to rising nationalism and the tacit support given to it, leaders attempt to portray the ability to survive without the support of the outside world. Or on the other hand attempting to pick some over others proves futile as countries require deep forms of exchange with added frequency, if they are to reap the benefits of cooperative action.

Trickling into society too, individuals sometimes prefer to remain silent, ignorant and nonchalant in the face of adversity, exploring instead only that which would benefit oneself. This has resulted in the creation and propagation of a corrupt and greedy society. The inability to ascertain that which occurs around us, or the disinterest in affairs of state and the world, and the impact these developments continue to have on individuals, results in a serious lack of support or appreciation for that which is done for all, by some.

At the individual level it is easy to condemn. It is the same at the international level. Until and unless perceptions change at the individual level and at the level of leadership, the manner in which some view the UN in particular and multilateralism in general, won’t change. It is only with this change the real potential of the UN and multilateralism will be realised.

The synergic effect of international cooperation, especially through multilateralism and its institutions is, it can be argued, the future. As countries collaborate, explore mutually beneficial outcomes and implement policies for all, it will be possible to realise the objectives for which the UN was first established. Whilst all peoples everywhere are not encountering war and violence, starvation or famines, there are some amongst us who are. It is for them that collective action is required. It is for them, who although seen as another in the present context, could well be ourselves in the future, that the UN strives.

In looking back at the last 75 years of its existence, it is opportune to also look ahead to the coming decades. The UN has much to offer, through its consolidated structure, overarching mandate, abundant resources and unique outreach. It remains the main form of hope for humanity as all other multilateral bodies augment the action of the UN, and attempt to enhance that which is done through this global body. At the institution level, the UN and regional organisations have evolved. At the theoretical level, multilateralism and regionalism as concepts have also evolved. It is now time for individuals and those in decision making positions to evolve too.

Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon would often state that “there is no plan B, because we have no planet B.” At this juncture of the 75th anniversary of the UN, it is relevant to reflect on the need to change perceptions, and realise the potential of the world body if effective engagement and outcomes are to be achieved.

2020 marks a century since multilateralism was introduced through the League of Nations. From then to date, countries have learnt the hard way that cooperation at the international level is the only means through which existence on the planet can be guaranteed, as we have only one planet to live on, at present.

Lest we forget Truman’s words: “We were not isolated during the war. We dare are not become isolated in peace.” The 75th milestone is yet another reminder that collective action was, is and will be the way forward.