How the UN Can Make the Most of the New Agenda for Peace
How the UN Can Make the Most of the New Agenda for Peace
"The Knotted Gun" sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward, sits outside the empty North entrance plaza at United Nations headquarters during the 75th annual U.N. General Assembly high-level debate in New York, U.S., September 21, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Commentary / Global 1 minute

How the UN Can Make the Most of the New Agenda for Peace

The UN Secretary-General has encountered resistance to many of the ideas for strengthening international peace and security he laid out in a July policy brief. Achieving consensus on large-scale multilateral reform will be hard, but a summit in 2024 is a focus for limited innovation.

While the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine dominate discussions at the UN, diplomats are preparing for negotiations leading up to a Summit of the Future, which Secretary-General António Guterres will convene in September 2024. Guterres has flagged this special meeting as an opportunity for leaders to take a root-and-branch look at the state of global cooperation and to agree on a Pact for the Future, outlining ways to update international institutions or create new ones. The topics on the table for discussion range from regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) to governance of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Germany and Namibia, which share the daunting task of facilitating pre-summit negotiations, plan to share the “zero draft” of the Pact with member states in January and then to kick off formal negotiations in February. That will leave diplomats with little time to hammer out a text that all can live with by autumn.

After extensive negotiations in the summer, UN member states agreed that the pact should have five chapters, including sections on international peace and security; development; science and technology; future generations; and global governance. All these themes have the potential to be contentious. Developing countries are, in particular, frustrated by shortfalls in financial assistance from richer states. But in light of current conflicts and geopolitical rifts, the chapter on peace and security may be the hardest to negotiate.

The main starting point for negotiations on this theme will be “A New Agenda for Peace”, a policy brief that Guterres released in July. The New Agenda, as Crisis Group noted at the time of its publication, offers a frank appreciation of the bleak state of world affairs and a tentative package of ideas about how to improve matters. The paper opens by analysing the breakdown of the post-Cold War framework for international cooperation, highlighting a loss of trust among the UN’s members. Its overall solution to this problem is to call for states to re-engage in good-faith diplomacy to restore “an effective collective security system” underpinned by principles of trust, solidarity and universality. It then lists potential areas to address, from nuclear disarmament to the security implications of climate change. It gives particular weight to the need for arrangements to manage the risks of new technologies including AI, Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) and new biotechnologies. In addressing these issues, negotiators will also be able to draw upon the work of the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, a blue-ribbon panel of experts convened by Guterres that released a report in April highlighting a similar set of concern and priorities to the New Agenda’s.

UN members have agreed that the Pact [for the Future] needs to be concluded by consensus.

But the Secretary-General’s call for cooperation may get lost as negotiations over the Pact for the Future proceed. UN members have agreed that the Pact needs to be concluded by consensus, making it likely that the text will reflect the lowest common denominator. A bias toward the status quo is a constant characteristic of UN diplomacy. Edward C. Luck, an acute observer of the UN and one-time international official, once noted that multilateral reform initiatives typically begin with Secretaries-General announcing that “profound changes in the global situation demand sweeping renovations”. States may concur, yet once concrete proposals for change are in view, “for most, their conservative instincts and fear of change come to the surface”.

Another major challenge, as the New Agenda makes clear, is that member states are simply not getting along as well as they were 25 or even fifteen years ago. Luck wrote of UN members’ inherent conservatism in advance of the 2005 World Summit, a meeting held in the shadow of the Iraq war that still managed to yield agreement on creation of the Human Rights Council and the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – both major innovations at that moment, even if they have often had a rocky time since. Negotiators warming up for the Summit of the Future do not envisage settling on any comparable agreements, given international tensions. Arguments over the war between Israel and Hamas have deepened divisions throughout the organisation. The Secretary-General proposed the Summit of the Future as an opportunity for governments to search for common ground on revitalising multilateral cooperation. Diplomats worry that it could in fact have the opposite effect, highlighting how far apart member states are on many problems.

As negotiations proceed, those states that wish to see concerted multilateral action on some of the issues raised by the New Agenda – such as climate-security linkages or gender and conflict – will likely face a dilemma familiar from past multilateral processes. They can try to find lowest common denominator agreements on sensitive topics in the framework of the Pact. Or they can drop the principle of consensus and push for more ambitious courses of action that UN members can buy into on a voluntary basis. Such “plurilateral” agreements are a common feature of diplomacy in and around international institutions. As the Summit for the Future hoves into view, states will need to decide if, and how, to balance their pursuit of security cooperation within the UN framework with the desire to achieve specific policy goals that may be possible only outside the strictures imposed by consensus decision-making.

Reception of the New Agenda for Peace

At one level, the New Agenda for Peace has been generally well received in UN diplomatic circles, although it does not appear to have had much impact on security discussions outside New York and Geneva, where the main UN bodies and agencies dealing with such matters are located. Its diagnosis of a loss of trust among states resonates with diplomats in New York – not surprisingly, many would add that debates over Ukraine and Gaza have compounded the problems. UN officials are also satisfied that the analytical part of the New Agenda provides common ground for member states to talk about the flaws in international cooperation. But this consensus belies underlying disagreements: in particular, diplomats do not appear to have a shared vision about which, if any, of the New Agenda’s recommendations to champion.

Some recommendations have proven divisive. The report calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons – a goal in line with the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – and many non-nuclear states have welcomed this focus. But it has predictably irritated those powers that maintain atomic arsenals. Russian diplomats have been vocally critical of this recommendation, arguing that the Secretary-General has gone beyond his prerogatives by intervening on the disarmament agenda. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to the UN institutions in Vienna, described the New Agenda on social media as “wishful thinking” reflecting the Secretary-General’s “personal views that don’t necessarily correspond to current realities”. Officials from the Security Council’s other permanent members have not been so negative in public, but they dismiss the notion that the UN can influence their decisions about their strategic arsenals.

African officials have welcomed the [New Agenda for Peace's] emphasis on linkages between development and security.

More broadly, member state diplomats have picked up on elements of the New Agenda relevant to them, rather than treating its ideas as a package. African officials have welcomed the paper’s emphasis on linkages between development and security, as well as its calls upon the UN to give financial support to African-led security initiatives. Ambassadors sitting in the Peacebuilding Commission – a body meant to help member states avoid and recover from conflict – like the fact that the New Agenda prescribes steps toward boosting the Commission’s status, such as creating a way of raising funds to assist countries on its docket.

But if diplomats in Turtle Bay see the New Agenda as an à la carte proposition, member state officials based elsewhere are not necessarily aware that the menu even exists. Several New York-based diplomats admit that it has been hard to get their ministries to focus on the New Agenda at all. The paper is fairly well known in African capitals, reflecting its focus on boosting the continent’s own crisis management capabilities. By contrast, although many Latin American delegations in Turtle Bay have welcomed the paper, it has so far had little impact on policy discussions in the region. In the U.S. and Europe, NGOs and think-tanks that track the UN have studied the report closely, although some activists have groused that it is insufficiently ambitious in proposing global governance reforms. But even in places where the Agenda is getting attention, experts dealing with hard security issues – including arms control – have paid it less heed. Asked for his views on the New Agenda, the defence editor of a British newspaper with global reach responded: “I don’t even know what that is”.

UN officials acknowledge that the organisation needs to raise global awareness of the Summit of the Future as a whole, which would also lift up the New Agenda’s profile. The lack of attention to the Summit could spell trouble for the venture. Guterres’ overarching goal for the Summit has been to create momentum for the leaders who will gather in New York in September 2024 to make broad decisions about the multilateral system that diplomats and technocrats are unable to make on their own. Presidents and prime ministers are unlikely to settle on such bargains unless they sense that there is a domestic political case for doing so. A major challenge for Secretary-General Guterres and those UN members invested in a successful Summit, such as Germany and Namibia, will be to lay the groundwork for building this case. This task will involve attempting to raise the Summit’s media profile, but also using international platforms, such as the African Union summit in February, the 2024 G7 summit in June and ministerial meetings of the G20, to focus leaders’ attention on the UN process.

The Iron Cage

Even if the Secretary-General can raise the profile of the Summit of the Future, diplomats will not be able to escape the iron cage of UN procedure. More specifically, the requirement that the Pact of the Future should be agreed by consensus will loom large over talks. The facilitators of previous UN summits have sometimes been willing to override last-minute objections from one or two small states to achieve “consensus” agreement. But the 2024 pact has to be acceptable to all the key powers at the UN and the main groups of states involved in the negotiations. In 2022, Russia single-handedly blocked the outcome document from the five-year NPT Review Conference because it referenced nuclear security in Ukraine. Negotiators’ latitude to forge substantive agreements on sensitive issues in 2024 will be small.

Exactly how hard it will be to reach agreements will come into focus when the co-facilitators share their zero draft. Some UN members and international officials are already mulling the likelihood that it will not be possible to gain meaningful consensus on many security issues. These include potential reforms to the UN system itself – the most high-profile, and perhaps most aspirational, being reform of the Security Council.

UN officials say it is hard to envisage a Pact for the Future that is supposed to set new agendas for global governance yet is silent about the [Security] Council.

The New Agenda has little to say about major reforms to the Council, although it does call for “urgent” efforts to make the body more “just and representative”. While Security Council reform is an evergreen topic for discussion in New York, there has been a wave of more focused discussion about the need to shake up the Council since Russia used its veto to block criticism of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Biden administration has tried to harness this mood, holding consultations on Council reform in late 2022 and 2023, although the U.S. use of the veto over the war between Hamas and Israel has also inspired considerable criticism. The High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism suggested that the leaders attending the Summit of the Future could launch a further “Charter Review conference” to deliberate on the Council’s future. Members states will be wary of reopening the UN Charter as a whole, but UN officials say it is hard to envisage a Pact for the Future that is supposed to set new agendas for global governance yet is silent about the Council.

Austria and Kuwait, the current chairs of long-running inter-governmental negotiations on Council reform in the General Assembly, have promised to submit a report on the state of the debate in advance of the Summit of the Future. There is no chance that UN members will approach agreement on changes to the Council by September 2024, but members could at least agree to a broad-brush pledge to make progress on the issue sometime soon. Some diplomats have suggested that the UN’s 80th anniversary in 2025 would be an apt moment to overhaul the Council. Yet setting such an artificial deadline could complicate rather than accelerate talks and is not all that much more realistic than aiming for 2024.

A marginally more promising area for institutional reform may be the Peacebuilding Commission, which – as noted – the New Agenda proposes strengthening. The High-Level Advisory Board also flags this goal as worth pursuing alongside Council reform. The New Agenda goes into some detail about how the Commission could establish formal working relations with the World Bank and IMF in order to align international financial support with countries’ peacebuilding priorities. Here again, however, there is already a UN process to work through: the forum’s members are slated to conduct a five-year review of the organisation’s peacebuilding efforts in 2025. The 2024 Summit could give this effort a shove in the right direction by calling for a stronger Commission, in general terms, and leaving the details (which are rather too technical for a leader-level conclave) to diplomats to work out.

The New Agenda also recommends some other institutional innovations that are unlikely to take flight. The paper proposes the creation of a new international body similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency to handle the risks of AI, for example, and this topic is of particular interest to Guterres. But diplomats broadly agree that there is little chance that this notion will advance. Big players in AI, including the U.S. and China, are not interested in such a level of international regulation. Nonetheless, as Crisis Group has noted, the UN could still be a platform for states to exchange information and work on norms around new technologies in conflict. Dialogue processes of this type could be useful platforms not only for those states that are trying to shape norms on new technologies – including leaders in AI development – but also for the sizeable majority of UN members who otherwise have little or no say in how these technologies are developing. The Pact for the Future may not resolve international tensions over such issues, but it could be the basis for “talks about talks” on how to address them.

Parallel Lines of Diplomacy

Ticking through the balance of the New Agenda for Peace it is hard to find items of any significance where it will be possible to achieve even a minimum level of consensus. The paper calls upon the UN to pay more attention to the security implications of climate change, but a number of powerful players – including Russia, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa – have objected to the Security Council discussing this issue. It also calls for an international effort to “dismantle the patriarchy” by investing in women’s participation in peace processes – language that will not win consensus support from conservative member states. Attempting to make serious advances on such touchy topics through the pact is improbable.

Yet all is not necessarily lost. Rather than attempt to advance ideas from the New Agenda for Peace through the Pact for the Future alone, UN members can promote elements of the report through existing UN processes and potential side initiatives in parallel to the Pact.

Guterres ... despite his outspoken stance on Gaza in recent weeks, has a reputation for caution.

Perhaps counterintuitively, many of the ideas included in the New Agenda do not need to be channelled through a new inter-governmental pact to work. Some are explicitly linked to existing UN organs and processes unrelated to the Summit of the Future. A few require no inter-governmental consultations at all. For example, in the New Agenda, the Secretary-General offers to use his good offices to address crises, reduce geopolitical tensions and even “maintain a free, open and secure internet”. Many diplomats welcome these pledges from Guterres who, despite his outspoken stance on Gaza in recent weeks, has a reputation for caution. But they also point out that there is no need for a Summit to authorise the Secretary-General to play this role, which is rooted in the UN Charter.

The New Agenda also highlights areas where the Security Council and other UN forums have the power to act – or lead discussions – regardless of the Summit process. It endorses, for example, the idea that the UN should offer financial support to peace operations led by African organisations, potentially using “assessed contributions” (obligatory financial levies on UN members) to do so, which is a topic of live debate in the Council.

In other areas, UN members may be able to launch new initiatives outside the framework of the pact that nonetheless advance themes in the New Agenda. UN members already participate in a wide range of Groups of Friends, voluntary clubs of countries that support innovation on security-related issues ranging from cybersecurity to the demobilisation of child soldiers and countering violent extremism. Indeed, the UN currently counts over one hundred such groups, although some are semi-dormant. (Others such as the Cypriot-led Friends of the Mediterranean Diet, are less pertinent to the New Agenda for Peace.)

There is already talk among diplomats of working through these informal frameworks to promote side initiatives in parallel with the Pact of the Future. The Friends of Climate and Security, which is chaired by Germany and Nauru and boasts over 60 members, is especially active and may step forward with proposals to compensate for gaps in the Pact on this theme. Crisis Group has also noted that small-group initiatives could help productively flesh out some of the ideas in the New Agenda for Peace. For example, under the banner of “dismantling the patriarchy”, states could invest in practical steps – such as funnelling financing to the UN’s fund for addressing gender in peacebuilding – independent of negotiations on the Pact.

Pathway to the Summit of the Future

The risk here is that negotiations around the Summit of the Future could turn into something of a free-for-all, with differing groups of states tabling declarations and initiatives at will. These would not all necessarily point in the same direction. China and Russia lead a coalition of Friends of the UN Charter – participants include Syria and Belarus – that generally calls for a minimalist interpretation of the organisation’s principles, rejecting more progressive agendas. While Western diplomats dismiss this group’s premise, pointing to Russia’s own violation of the Charter in Ukraine and China’s refusal to condemn Moscow, the two powers could well use the opportunity of the Summit to create momentum for their critique of non-UN-endorsed sanctions – a tool often used by the U.S. and European governments.

If clubs of states use the Summit of the Future as an opportunity to convene issue-based coalitions, some may object that it is against the spirit of the process. They would have a point: Secretary-General Guterres proposed the Summit as a chance to address core questions of global governance in the spirit of solidarity, not as an opportunity for countries to set up mechanisms outside UN frameworks. He has assured Security Council members that the New Agenda for Peace “applies to everyone, in all countries, at all times”.

Yet, for better or worse, the most promising way to make concrete progress on the New Agenda may be to stretch this vision to meet certain difficult realities. Ultimately, the Summit of the Future’s outputs will be limited – at best – to narrow declarations of support for major changes to the international security architecture. As noted, some of the areas that the New Agenda for Peace identifies as ripe for more formal international regulation – such as AI – will almost certainly remain ungoverned. Under the circumstances, it is hard to see what choice states have if they want to use this moment to advance inter-governmental discussions on the future of global governance: smaller groups are likely the only vehicle for making progress. Of course, the smaller and more like-minded these groups are, the less useful they will be for capturing a global perspective. Therefore, organisers should work to make them as inclusive as possible.

It is not a perfect option, and the resulting process or processes will at times seem somewhat haphazard. But the ideas that Secretary-General Guterres set out in the New Agenda for Peace are worth developing, and the time is ripe to do just that. If states recognise the limits of the Pact for the Future, and prepare for the likelihood that they will need to pursue other peace and security topics through side channels, the New Agenda for Peace may yet stimulate some useful diplomacy at the UN.

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