The U.N. and Multilateralism Made It Through 2022 in Pretty Good Shape
The U.N. and Multilateralism Made It Through 2022 in Pretty Good Shape
Op-Ed / Global 4 minutes

The U.N. and Multilateralism Made It Through 2022 in Pretty Good Shape

After an inauspicious beginning, 2022 has been a year of low-key but sometimes surprisingly successful muddling through for multilateralism. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February had the potential to throw many international institutions into disarray. Diplomats worried that Russia could use its veto to block routine business in the United Nations Security Council, or else that Western powers might boycott international gatherings, like the annual G-20 Summit in November, if Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to show up.

But if—as Kenya’s ambassador to the U.N., Martin Kimani, memorably warned on the eve of Russia’s offensive—multilateralism was “on its deathbed,” the patient has made it through the year alive.

To date, the Security Council has not ground to a halt. Despite constant and toxic bickering over Ukraine, council members have managed to continue renewing the mandates for U.N. peace efforts and sanctions in trouble spots such as Afghanistan and Haiti. Negotiations have frequently been hard. Non-Western diplomats grumble that discussions of Ukraine have made it harder to devote time and thought to other problems, such as the worsening security situation in the Sahel. But the council has maintained a reasonable basic level of functionality.

The war has undercut some other U.N. processes. This August, diplomats reviewing the Non-Proliferation Treaty failed to agree on a final communique because Russia objected to proposed references to the embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine. In other forums, Western states have devoted considerable energy to excluding their Russian counterparts from discussions. At times this has seemed compelling, as when the U.S. led a push to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. But diplomats wonder whether efforts to limit Moscow’s influence over U.N. talks on more neutral topics like road safety and the preservation of wetlands have really been worthwhile.

The U.N. has come through the year in better shape than seemed likely in March.

Overall, however, the U.N. has come through the year in better shape than seemed likely in March. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who initially seemed uncertain about how to handle the crisis in Ukraine, has carved out some diplomatic space since the war began as one of the architects of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which has allowed Ukraine to export food to needy countries.

If Guterres is thus one of the few international figures to have gained in diplomatic credibility this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has been another. As rotating president of the G-20 this year, Widodo faced a very real risk that the group’s annual leaders’ summit could fall apart because of disputes over Ukraine. Western finance ministers walked out of one G-20 meeting in April when Russia spoke. In July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stalked out of another G-20 conference when his Western counterparts began to criticize Moscow’s actions.

Nonetheless, having shuttled between Kyiv and Moscow this summer, Widodo and his team managed to nudge G-20 leaders not only to meet as planned in Bali in November—with Putin conspicuous by his absence—but also to agree on a solid joint declaration highlighting common concerns such as global food price rises. Although the statement frankly acknowledged splits among G-20 members over Ukraine, it also had pointed language—aimed at Russia—about the need to avoid nuclear weapons use, which U.S. officials had been keen to see included.

Summit participants have given the Indonesian presidency credit for nudging all the factions in the G-20 toward common positions and for urging all sides to respect the concerns of developing countries. Nobody imagines that the resulting statement will decisively affect Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine. But the summit was a timely display of continued commitment to international consultation and, when and where possible, cooperation.

It is still not clear that all multilateral institutions will bump through the crisis without incurring serious harm. As my colleagues at the International Crisis Group pointed out in a report this week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, is already experiencing “tremendous strain” because of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The pan-European body, which has continued to play a useful role in dealing with simmering conflicts in Eurasia beyond Ukraine, could “drift into irrelevance or disintegrate altogether” in the coming years if its Western members and Russia cannot find some sort of modus vivendi. For the time being, Crisis Group argues, the OSCE’s members should at least “aim to keeping the organization functional,” renewing its budget and supporting its field missions. That may not sound very ambitious, but it is better than organizational collapse.

The fact that bodies like the Security Council and G-20 have managed to keep going this year is a tribute to diplomats’ innate capacity to muddle through crises.

Ultimately, the fact that bodies like the Security Council and G-20 have managed to keep going this year is a tribute to diplomats’ innate capacity to muddle through crises. This is not a new phenomenon. As I noted on U.S. election day in 2020, multilateral institutions survived President Donald Trump’s term in office better than expected because diplomats and leaders worked hard to keep multilateral processes and talks alive despite U.S. opposition. In such moments, friends of multilateralism need to push for compromise, duck pointless arguments and accept second-best outcomes to preserve institutions, even if the results are imperfect.

This sort of muddling through can incur criticism. Many leaders and commentators have stepped up this year to argue that Russia’s war on Ukraine, combined with other recent shocks such as the COVID-19 crisis, show that multilateral institutions need fundamental reforms. There is no shortage of proposals for changes to the Security Councilinternational financial institutions and other parts of the global system. Diplomats are divided over whether some of the more ambitious ideas, such as expanding the Security Council to include new permanent members, are viable options or will simply fade away amid global bickering.

But even if talk of multilateral reform attracts the most attention in diplomatic conclaves and academic seminars, we should pause to celebrate those officials who concentrate on making sure the international system we currently have continues functioning. While a more inclusive and effective Security Council would be very nice to have, an imperfect but partially functional Security Council can still save a lot of lives. Similarly, G-20 communiques come and go, but the alternative—a decline in communication and consultation among major powers about economic and global issues—would be worse.

Muddling through is a messy business, but it is also an essential diplomatic virtue.

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