United Nations struggles in a leaderless world

Tunisia, which has a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, put forward a resolution expressing concern about the outbreak.
Sunday 12/04/2020
A file photo shows a N Security Council meeting at the UN headquarters in New York. (AFP)
Struggling to agree. A file photo shows a N Security Council meeting at the UN headquarters in New York. (AFP)

It is sobering to think that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held its first meeting on COVID-19 only on April 9, nearly a month after a pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO). That the world’s most powerful multilateral instrument has been ineffective so far, despite a global crisis of unprecedented magnitude, underlines the true state of affairs today: we live in a leaderless world.

Never mind the United Nations, this is the first global crisis in more than 50 years where no country is looking towards the US for leadership.

If there’s anything that’s needed in a global pandemic it is a vaccine and leadership. A vaccine is not expected for at least a year, but what about leadership?

Trump-led America is an empire in decline and it can do little to help itself or anyone else. In the end, it will matter little whether Donald Trump is a symptom or the cause of America’s loss of moral clarity, executive efficiency and the will to lead. What may be clear with the hindsight of history is that when the US elected Trump its 45th president, it was sealing its fate as a waning power with neither the ability nor the authority to lead the world.

America’s abdication of the leadership role it solidly assumed for nearly 80 years has been startlingly complete in the pandemic. Not only has the Trump administration stymied any chance of strong collective action from the Group of Seven industrialised countries, it did the same for the G20 and even for something so anodyne as a UN Security Council joint resolution on the pandemic. It’s all part of the Trump administration’s propaganda battle to force China to take responsibility for the viral outbreak.

That the US thinks it more important to wage this particular war with China, while the world fights a pandemic, is further evidence it is unfit and unwilling to even participate in, let alone lead, a joint global collaborative vision and programme to deal with massive economic and political upheaval. While a ceasefire has been called by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the five-year war in Yemen, and rebel groups from Columbia to Cameroon have laid down their arms in response to the gravity of the global situation, America’s president continues to pick petty fights at home and abroad.

The hubris of the Trump administration’s vision is apparent from its request to Congress in recent weeks — while the pandemic rages — for billions of dollars to develop a Pacific Deterrence Initiative that would signal a broader shift in security focus away from the Middle East and towards China and Russia.

Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state and one of the giants of America’s years of global pre-eminence, recently wrote that “no country, not even the US, can in a purely national effort overcome the virus.” And he suggested the US undertake “a major effort in three domains.” He listed these efforts as follows: Shoring up global resilience to infectious disease, striving to heal the wounds to the world economy and safeguarding the principles of the liberal world order.

It sounds like an eminently sensible plan — if there were someone, anyone, to lead it. The UN would be a suitable candidate for the job, first by passing a declaration similar to the one six years ago during the Ebola outbreak, that the coronavirus pandemic represents a threat to peace and security. Such a designation carries the force of international law and would allow for collective effort as well as a nodal organisational point.

The UNSC’s paralysis over the coronavirus until now has clearly shaken many countries, so much so that the ambassadors of Ghana, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland sought a UN General Assembly resolution on a strong and unified response to the pandemic. The 193-member body subsequently called for “international cooperation” and “multilateralism” in this extraordinary moment in history. Then, Tunisia, which has a non-permanent seat on the UNSC, put forward a  resolution expressing concern about the outbreak, supporting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s appeal for a global ceasefire to all armed conflicts and for the UN to declare the pandemic “a threat to humanity.”

It’s obvious that the gap in enlightened global leadership and shared resolve is uniting the world in a remarkable way. But it may not be enough to fill the void.

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