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United Nations General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa speaks at U.N. headquarters in New York. United Nations General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa addresses the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 24, 2018 (AP Photo by Richard Drew).

Are We Witnessing the End of Multilateralism?

Friday, Nov. 15, 2019

The United Nations' ability to carry out its mission has been severely constrained in recent years by its member states. And many of its agencies are now facing funding shortages that could severely curtail their work. In fact, multilateralism of all stripes is under strain, from the International Criminal Court to the World Trade Organization.

The United Nations is perhaps the most prominent manifestation of an international order built on balancing sovereign equality with great-power politics in a bid to maintain international peace. But its capacity to do that—and to meet its other objectives, which include protecting human rights and delivering aid—have been severely constrained in recent years by its member states.

The real power in the U.N. lies with the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council—the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France. And they have used their positions to limit the institution’s involvement in major recent conflicts, including civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Meanwhile, peacekeeping operations, one of the U.N.’s critical functions, are in need of significant reform. Blue helmets are ensnared in difficult, unwieldy missions in places like Mali and South Sudan. But Russia and the United States shut down attempts to act on initial reform discussions that began last year.

In the years since its founding in 1945, the U.N. has sprouted additional specialized agencies to address specific issues—health, women’s rights and refugees, among others—that have met with varied degrees of success. In some instances, they have been able to galvanize global action around urgent goals, like UNAIDS’ work curbing the international AIDS crisis. But many of those agencies are now facing funding shortages that could severely curtail their work.

In addition to the U.N. and its agencies, multilateralism of all stripes is under strain, from the International Criminal Court to the World Trade Organization.

WPR has covered the U.N. and multilateral institutions in detail and continues to examine key questions about their future. Will veto-wielding Security Council members continue to curtail U.N. involvement in key geopolitical hotspots, and what will that mean for the legitimacy of the institution? Or will the U.N. and its specialized agencies be undone by threatened funding cuts? Will much-needed reforms to the peacekeeping system be enacted? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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A Tale of Two Paris Treaties

Future historians may well look back on the twin abdications of the Covenant of the League of Nations, in 1919, and President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement as bookends to the “American century.” Those two Paris treaties reveals both how much the global agenda has evolved and how little the U.S. has learned.

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U.N. Politics and Security Council Diplomacy

The Security Council’s activities have always been constrained by the five veto-wielding members, known as the permanent five, or P5. Syria is a prime example of this failure, as Russia has consistently blocked any measures that would work against the interests of the administration of President Bashar al-Assad, with which it is allied. There have regularly been calls to rethink the composition of the permanent members to reflect contemporary geopolitics, but those efforts have made little progress. Meanwhile, as gridlock in the Security Council hampers many diplomatic efforts, the U.N. General Assembly has taken on added significance as a sounding board for multilateral initiatives that lack great-power sponsors.

The U.S. Approach to Multilateralism

U.S. President Donald Trump has consistently criticized multilateral institutions since taking office. He has threatened to cut funding to the U.N. and has waged a largely victorious campaign to sideline the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, he has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris climate change agreement and the multilateral deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

The Liberal International Order

The U.N. heralded the rise of an international order based on collective security, nondiscriminatory commerce and political self-determination. That is now beginning to recede as powerful states like China, Russia and, increasingly, the United States, prefer to oversee spheres of influence and disregard the principles of sovereign independence and nonintervention.

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Peacekeeping

After several high-profile failures of its peacekeeping missions in the 1990s, the U.N. set out to rethink and improve blue-helmet operations at the turn of the millennium. But they continue to be dogged by a number of critical problems, including the intransigence of local leaders and missions that are simultaneously bloated and underfunded. Meanwhile, other actors, including the African Union and the European Union, have raised their profile in peacekeeping efforts, with mixed results.

Crisis Management

One of the strengths of the U.N. and its specialized agencies is their ability to organize relief in the aftermath of a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis. The U.N. and its agencies are currently leading efforts to end the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, organizing the response to the cyclone damage in southern Africa and working to stave off famine in Yemen, even as their ability to participate in the political process there is limited.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.