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The Ukraine War and UN Reform
The Ukraine War and UN Reform
The San Francisco Conference, 25 April - 26 June 1945. Representatives of the "Big 3" (USSR, U.S. and UK) in discussion during the May 1st Plenary Session. UN Photo/Rosenberg
Speech / Global

The Ukraine War and UN Reform

The text below is an extended version of a lecture given to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy on 3 May 2022.

The war in Ukraine has led diplomats, UN officials and pundits to ask if we are approaching a “new San Francisco moment”: an historical juncture like 1945, when it is possible for states to rewrite the rules of global governance from scratch. There is little doubt that we will hear a great deal about the need to reform – or replace – the UN in the coming months and years, with an emphasis on making changes to the Security Council to avoid the sort of deadlock we have seen over Ukraine. But there are reasons to be sceptical about what this talk will achieve.

Instead, I will suggest that today’s major power tensions (not only between the West and Russia, but also with China) mean that only limited reforms to global governance are possible at the present time. Nonetheless, COVID-19 and the Ukraine war have highlighted some significant gaps in the international system that need urgent attention, including:

  • Mechanisms for managing the global effects of unexpected shocks – whether pandemics, classical wars or natural disasters – on the international economy;
     
  • Mechanisms for countering misinformation and disinformation (especially in cyberspace) that exacerbate crises of all types and may drive new conflicts;
     
  • Mechanisms for arms control and confidence building in an increasingly confrontational international environment.
     

In outlining these three areas for reform, I will refer to “Our Common Agenda”, a report that UN Secretary-General António Guterres released in September 2021 on the future of multilateralism. The report highlighted the lessons of international cooperation – and failures to cooperate – during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was notably less focused on international peace and security issues. But it also highlighted some issues – such as the vulnerabilities of the global economy – that are even more relevant in light of the effects of the Ukraine war.

The UN Secretariat is now working on developing policy responses to the problems set out in the Common Agenda in advance of a Summit for the Future planned for September 2023. As part of this process, it is meant to deliver a New Agenda for Peace focusing on peace and security. In parallel, a High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism chaired by former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and former Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is mulling over how to reshape the structures of global governance.

Before turning to these issues, I will briefly talk about how wars and crises have shaped thinking on global governance historically, and why I don’t think we are at a “San Francisco moment” now. I will then turn to the three issue areas I have identified in more detail.

Wars, Crises and Thinking about Global Governance

Wars and crises make people think about global governance. Major wars create openings for major innovations in the international system. World War I gave rise to the League of Nations. The failure of the League and reaction to the horrors of World War II gave us the basic structure of the UN. In fundamental ways, the UN continues to function within the parameters set in San Francisco in 1945, not least thanks to the Security Council veto.

The spate of civil wars that followed the end of the Cold War led UN leaders to re-evaluate peace operations and the protection of civilians.

Smaller wars and crises may not have quite the same impact on the international system, but they can still force multilateral organisations and their member states to rethink how they cooperate. The UN Charter famously does not reference peacekeeping. Yet the Suez crisis and other Cold War conflicts led the UN’s early leaders to develop blue helmet operations as one of the organisation’s best-known tools. The spate of civil wars that followed the end of the Cold War – culminating in the Srebrenica and Rwanda catastrophes – led UN leaders to re-evaluate peace operations and the protection of civilians, launching a new generation of blue helmet missions in cases such as Liberia.

In some cases, a war or crisis can seem to presage major reforms to the international system, but this impression can prove misleading. An obvious example is the 2003 Iraq war, which inspired an enormous amount of soul searching at the UN. In 2004 and 2005, Secretary-General Kofi Annan oversaw a series of discussions about the multilateral system’s flaws that did lead to significant institutional innovations at the UN (such as the creation of the Human Rights Council and a new Peacebuilding Commission). It also led the General Assembly to adopt the idea of a “Responsibility to Protect”, belatedly responding to the organisation’s failure to save lives in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s.

For many states, the main lesson of the Iraq war was that the Security Council should be reformed and there was a lot of discussion of UN Charter reform in 2005. But the U.S., China and Russia had no interest in reform and killed this initiative. The Security Council has functioned without significant alteration for two decades since the Iraq crisis.

So, in simplistic terms: 1) major wars involving the superpowers can lead to fundamental change in the international system; 2) lower-level crises can lead to technical and operational changes in how international institutions work; and 3) some crises turn out to be wasted opportunities for reform. Where does the current Ukraine crisis fall on this spectrum and could it lead to a major renegotiation of the UN Charter, potentially including alterations to the Security Council’s rules and composition?

The Ukraine War: A New San Francisco Moment?

The honest answer is that we don’t know. The war looks like it may drag on for a prolonged period. Even if a cessation of hostilities proves possible in the coming months, we may face a lengthy standoff between Russia and Ukraine, and more broadly between Russia and the West. The longer this crisis goes on, the bigger its potential effects on international cooperation will become. Russian media are already framing the conflict as a proxy war with NATO. The U.S. has declared that its goal is to weaken Russia by supplying Ukraine with weapons and EU members are working on decoupling themselves economically from Moscow, while also arming Ukraine. There is a risk that the war could escalate into a much broader and deeper confrontation (although if it climaxes in a nuclear exchange, debates about global governance reform will not be anyone’s top priority).

Yet it is also worth noting that – contrary to some of my own pessimistic predictions earlier in the course of the hostilities – the war has not completely disrupted the UN and international cooperation more generally. The UN Security Council has, for example, actually managed to keep passing resolutions on crises other than Ukraine, even though tensions between Russian and Western diplomats are high. The Council has passed a significant new mandate for the UN to engage with the Taliban, for example, as well as for a new African Union force in Somalia. Russia has sometimes hinted at using its veto on issues other than Ukraine, but it has not yet done so. Nobody is sure that the Council can keep up this sort of “business as usual” indefinitely in parallel with a long war in Ukraine. But the UN system may be more resilient than we sometimes give it credit for, perhaps because powerful member states genuinely believe it serves their interests. Attempting to introduce controversial reforms now might do more harm than good.

It is also noteworthy that many observers outside Europe remain sceptical that this war is really a global rather than regional concern. Some major G20 members, such as China and India, have chosen to adopt a passive approach to the war at the UN – calling for peace while abstaining on most UN resolutions on the war – while maintaining cordial relations with Russia. Others, such as Brazil and Mexico, have condemned Russia’s aggression but not supported efforts to sanction Moscow or impose diplomatic penalties on the Russians. In their view, isolating Russia entirely will make a diplomatic solution to the conflict harder.

Ukraine and some of its allies have called for reforms of the UN Charter and system ... but these measures are unlikely to succeed.

So, while the U.S. and European leaders have often framed the war as a fundamental, even existential, test of the international order, this framing of the crisis is not universally accepted. Ukraine and some of its allies have called for reforms of the UN Charter and system to deter Russia from further aggression (including excluding Russia from the Security Council), but these measures are unlikely to succeed. China, meanwhile, has floated a new Global Security Initiative prompted in part by the war, but it largely consists of well-known talking points from Beijing, including about the importance of state sovereignty, plus opposition to Western sanctions and “bloc politics” (a shot at the U.S. alliance system).

There have already been some attempts to harness the war as an opportunity for UN reform. Last month, Liechtenstein (which punches above its weight on matters of international law in New York, thanks to an activist ambassador) successfully tabled a General Assembly resolution insisting that, when the P5 use their vetoes in the Security Council, the Assembly should then hold a debate on their blocking action. This is a good initiative that may raise the reputational cost of P5 vetoes. But in the grand scheme of things, it is a tweak to the existing UN system rather than a major reform. It is still very unlikely – almost impossible – that the P5 will accept real limits on their vetoes.

My overall reading of the situation is therefore that – absent a huge and probably catastrophic escalation of the war – this is not a “new San Francisco moment” allowing for major reforms to the UN Charter or Security Council. To summarise my reasoning again: 1) The UN security architecture, despite failing Ukraine, is still functioning in a way that the League of Nations Council did not in the later 1930s; 2) a lot of non-Western countries do not see the war as an existential crisis that demands reform of the UN system; and 3) China, a major stakeholder in the UN, is adopting a conservative tone.

Nevertheless, my guess is that – as in the wake of the Iraq war – we will now see a prolonged set of debates about how the UN should be reformed. Unlike in the post-Iraq period, the U.S. may be a more progressive voice in favour of reform, at least on the surface, as such an approach is a good way to embarrass Russia and China. As in 2005, really major changes to the global security system will almost certainly prove impossible. But that does not mean global governance will stay static.

Possibilities for Reform: Shock-proofing the International Economy

If deep UN reform remains improbable, what sort of improvements to the international system are conceivable at present? To answer this question, it is useful to step back from the immediate problem of the war in Ukraine and take some other recent shocks into account.

The most obvious of these shocks is COVID-19. It is, after all, only two years since the pandemic wreaked havoc on the international economy. COVID-19 highlighted many of the vulnerabilities of the interconnected global economy. The disease had major knock-on effects on economic growth, supply chains and food security worldwide. This experience shaped the thinking of the UN team that in 2021 drafted the “Our Common Agenda” report, arguing that:

The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us that we are more interconnected and interdependent than ever before in human history. International cooperation mitigated some of the harms caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the response to the pandemic also exposed serious gaps in the effectiveness of multilateral action when it is needed most. We cannot afford to ignore the gaps if we are to be ready for the potentially more extreme, or even existential, threats that may lie ahead of us.


The Ukraine war, although a very different type of shock from COVID-19, underlined many of the same themes. Once again, food supplies are under strain and the economic knock-on effects of the war will hit many non-Western states that have no direct involvement in the conflict. The back-to-back experiences of COVID-19 and the war make a strong case for – as Our Common Agenda argued – better international mechanisms for managing the effects of both man-made and natural shocks to the interconnected economy.

One idea ... would be a grouping of leaders ... that could convene and coordinate efforts to respond to unforeseen shocks to the international system.

Our Common Agenda only started to sketch out what such mechanisms might look like (although naturally it went into more detail on the specific problem of global health). It included one idea that at first struck many as vague, but may be worth developing, for an Emergency Platform to address such global crises. This Platform would be a grouping of leaders “from Member States, the United Nations System key country groupings, international financial institutions” and other actors that could convene and coordinate efforts to respond to unforeseen shocks to the international system. There is a parallel here with the G20, which first met at the leader level to coordinate a response to the 2008 financial crisis.

Despite the G20 precedent, it is easy to be cynical about calls for “better coordination” in major crises. Multilateral organisations such as the UN do love to coordinate. The exact modalities, composition and goals of the proposed new Platform are all a little nebulous.

But over the coming months, a variety of international bodies – including the G7, a divided G20 and the UN itself – will have to cobble together a response to global food price rises, energy issues and other economic effects of the Ukraine war. This exercise will reinforce the case for the sort of “emergency platform” envisaged in the Common Agenda, or at least for international institutions to improve their protocols for crisis response and coordination. While the UN Secretary-General might like to be at the centre of such a process (and his office has been doing good work on assessing the global effects of the Ukraine war), it is also possible that the U.S., or a consortium of major financial powers, could take the lead.

I think this route may also be appealing for global governance reform, precisely because, as “Our Common Agenda” notes, it would not involve creating “a new permanent or standing body or institution”. Instead, it would involve networking existing institutions and governments better. If the rules of the UN Charter make Security Council reform impossible – and P5 relations in the Council remain frigid – then Western governments in particular will look for non-institutional ways to manage the effects of crises, just as they reached for the G20 rather than a UN-led economic response in 2008.

In summary, my instinct is that the combined lessons of COVID-19 and Ukraine will create momentum for innovations around managing shocks related to conflicts and crises, rather than preventing or ending crises themselves. This may sound like a failure to address the core challenges to the international system, but it may be what is politically feasible at present.

Tackling Misinformation and Disinformation

Having highlighted some of the parallels between the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and the Ukraine war, we can also look at one further specific parallel: the flood of misinformation and disinformation associated with both crises. In 2020, false claims and quack cures for COVID-19 spread fast through cyberspace, making it harder for governments and international bodies to respond effectively. Our Common Agenda lamented the “crisis of trust” resulting from “a loss of shared truth and understanding”. During the Ukraine war, we have seen an all-out information war, with each side using social media to project its version of the conflict to international audiences.

Russia has used the Security Council itself as part of its information campaign, hosting meetings about alleged U.S. bioweapons labs in Ukraine. This tack has left many diplomats bemused, but as I warned before the war, the point of such meetings is to score points on the internet, not in New York:

Aficionados of UN history often hark back to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson brutally dismantled his Soviet counterpart’s arguments in a televised debate. Yet, in today’s fragmented media environment, neither the Americans nor the Russians are likely to score such a decisive victory. Ukrainian, Western, and Russian media and social media channels will all publish their sides’ preferred versions of the outcomes of Council debates.


But, if the UN is currently a victim (or sometimes even an amplifier) of misinformation and disinformation, it is possible that the institution could also play a role in mitigating the malign effects of false information. The UN launched a series of online initiatives to combat misinformation during the pandemic and “Our Common Agenda” repeatedly emphasises the need to promote “facts, science and knowledge” in an era of rumours, conspiracy theories and falsehoods.

The UN is, as an avowedly impartial international body that still enjoys high opinion ratings in many parts of the world, potentially well placed to play a role in promoting verified information about both conflict and non-conflict related issues. Last year, reflecting on the lessons of COVID-19, Crisis Group suggested that the experience “could open up a new space for the UN in conflict management at a time when its more traditional tools, such as peacekeeping, appear to be on the wane”. We said the UN Secretariat should set up a dedicated cell focusing on countering conflict-related disinformation and misinformation. Given the scale of the problem, a mere UN Secretariat cell is unlikely to have all the answers. As my colleague Jane Esberg has noted, “the UN will need to develop cross-sector partnerships, collaboration with local civil society and influencers, improved monitoring of online content across regions, and proactive efforts to offer factual messaging [to] mitigate the impacts of misinformation”. But this project could be a valuable area for UN engagement.

Arms Control and Confidence Building after Ukraine

So, there are potential paths forward for the UN (and concerned UN member states) to address the knock-on effects of future conflicts and to act as an arbiter in information wars. Yet, given the improbability of Security Council reform, is there a role for the organisation in dealing with the core business of peace and security in a highly divided world? If we look back to “Our Common Agenda”, we may think not. The report – while full of good things to say about inequality, climate change and other global ills – is notably scanty on peace and security matters. This appears to have been a deliberate choice: the UN Secretary-General believed he had little political space to address security matters.

This calculation may have been sensible in light of COVID-19. But, in the wake of the Ukraine war, any discussion of global governance reform has to come back to peace and security issues. It is also necessary to recognise that many of the existing conflict management tools at the UN’s disposal – mediation, peacekeeping and so forth – are not of much use when one of the P5 goes to war. Over the last 30 years, the UN has prioritised resolving civil wars – of late, primarily in Africa – and it has neither the expertise nor the strategic toolbox to respond to a war in Europe that has split the Security Council’s veto-wielding members. It is possible, as I have noted elsewhere, that a settlement between Russia and Ukraine might involve a UN peace observation mission. But such a mission would only be a minor part of the deal.

We need to think further about what sort of peace and security functions the UN can play in an era of major power competition and inter-state warfare. In a paper for the Council on Foreign Relations last December, I argued that some elements of the existing UN system can still play a useful role at a time of major power rivalry, mainly on humanitarian matters:

Ambitions for international conflict management will be low: given the overall drift toward conflict mitigation and conflict containment described in this paper, most major power diplomacy around future conflicts will likely focus on minimising the harm caused (whether in humanitarian terms or with regard to terrorist threats, WMDs and other risk factors) rather than deeper efforts to identify political resolutions.
 

Humanitarian agencies will bear the brunt of conflict management efforts: given this likely emphasis on conflict mitigation and containment, international humanitarian agencies, such as the WFP and UNHCR, will be at the forefront of conflict management efforts. This will put these agencies under further financial and operational strain.


Despite the shock of the war in Ukraine, I think this analysis stands – Secretary-General Guterres has after all concentrated on humanitarian issues in Ukraine to date.

But, while conflict mitigation and containment are valuable services, the UN cannot ignore more fundamental strategic challenges. Despite saying relatively little about security matters, “Our Common Agenda” does call for a second report (“A New Agenda for Peace”), with a focus on strategic affairs, including non-proliferation, effective control of conventional weapons and regulation of “new weapons of technology”. It emphasises, inter alia, the need to de-escalate cyber risks and place “internationally agreed limits on lethal autonomous weapons systems”. These tasks are difficult, however, and it is not clear that major powers want the UN to play a more active role in dealing with such sensitive points.

Nonetheless, the Ukraine war has shown how fragile our current mechanisms for arms control can be (just as the Syrian war showed the limits of the norm against the use of chemical weapons). If the UN is to carry any weight in peace and security discussions going forward, it needs to at least address these strategic concerns. That does not mean trying to set up new institutions and treaty bodies. For now, the UN can:

  • Convene and encourage discussions of new mechanisms for managing strategic risks and new technologies (starting with Track 1.5- and Track 2-type talks);
     
  • Provide a space where small and medium-sized states can build coalitions promoting norms of responsible use for new weapons systems, while reinforcing faltering existing arms control agreements on weapons like landmines and poison gas;
     
  • Look for ways to reverse a recent decline in both UN-based and non-UN-based mechanisms for promoting transparency around military affairs and arms flows;
     
  • Develop UN capacities for de-escalation in cyberspace – or in incidents involving other new weapon technologies – through specialised mediation and fact-finding;
     
  • Encouraging UN research institutes, such as the well-respected UN Institute for Disarmament Research, to engage in research and advocacy for new cooperative arms control mechanisms, at a time when many UN states will focus hard on deterrence.
     

In addition, the UN may have a role to play in promoting confidence building measures on a regional basis in some areas. The Secretary-General, for example, has a longstanding mandate to promote security cooperation in the Middle East. In a 2020 report, Crisis Group recommended a phased approach to building trust, starting with the creation of military hotlines and (after further steps) culminating in gestures, including “prior notification of troop movements and military exercises, allowing adversaries to send military experts to observe such manoeuvres”.

These are only very initial ideas on what a “New Agenda for Peace” might look like. The UN needs the help of security experts with technical expertise on fast-evolving issues like artificial intelligence – as well as the classic UN tasks, such as mediation – to help flesh out what a realistic agenda in this field might look like over the coming year.

Summary

In summary, there is a lot of work to do thinking about the future of global governance after the pandemic and the Ukraine war. We are unlikely to have a full picture of the way forward, even by the next year’s Summit of the Future. Everything I have said here should be taken as tentative. But, to summarise, I believe that 1) we are unlikely to see fundamental reforms to the UN Charter and Security Council in the near future; 2) we are more likely to see reforms to the mechanisms states can use to cooperate in response to future wars and associated shocks by economic, humanitarian and other means; 3) the UN may have a useful niche role in dealing with misinformation and disinformation; and 4) the UN’s new security agenda remains opaque, but must reflect a profoundly challenging international environment. The UN is at a perilous moment – but peril can help one think harder.