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Opinion

Is the United Nations fading into irrelevance?

In an everyone first world, intergovernmental body looks increasingly out of step

| East Asia
The United Nations Security Council meets on Feb. 28: the UN is serving as a mirror on our world.   © Reuters

Andrew North has reported widely from across the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia. He is a regular commentator on Asian affairs.

As the closest thing we have to a world government, the United Nations should have been tailor-made to handle a pandemic which has affected virtually all 7.8 billion of us at some point over the past year.

But as the UN marks its 75th birthday with the opening of the annual General Assembly meeting this Tuesday -- virtually this time -- the world body has never seemed less involved, not just tackling in COVID-19, but in world affairs in general.

True, the World Health Organization has been providing global guidance and assistance in dealing with COVID-19, even as it faces the loss of U.S. funding after it became a deflection target for U.S. President Donald Trump. But there has been no sign of the world government's de facto cabinet or executive -- the UN Security Council -- taking a lead role in coordinating the global response. In the media, at least, it's been more noticeable by its absence. So too has UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres.

Television footage of solemn-faced diplomats gathering round the signature horseshoe table at the Security Council in New York used to be a fixture of any major global crisis. From Javier Perez de Cuellar, to Boutros Boutros Ghali, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, past UN Secretaries-General became household names. Guterres is a much less prominent figure by comparison.

And it's not just COVID-19. When the armies of nuclear-armed China and India entered hand-to-hand combat this summer in the Himalayas -- with the death of up to 60 soldiers depending on whose accounts you believe -- where was the UN? When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and forced the Taliban from power, the UN was central to creating an interim government to take its place.

But nearly two decades later, as the warring sides have been meeting in Qatar to come up with a new peace plan, the UN has been reduced to observer status. Its legitimacy has also been questioned by its frequent focus on Israel over the years while turning a blind eye to abuses in countries such as China. Mismanagement and sexual abuse scandals involving UN peacekeepers have also dented its reputation.

It's true that the UN did advocate a global approach to COVID-19 from early on, including calling for a cease-fire in conflict zones worldwide. Last week, Guterres denounced the nationalistic nature of the race to find a vaccine, with countries competing rather than cooperating to produce an affordable version for all. And among the UN's many different specialist agencies, it is not just the WHO that has been praised for its work helping victims of the pandemic, especially the many millions of migrant workers forced to return home.

It's also true that neither India or China were going to let the UN get involved in their recent high-altitude clashes, because of the precedents it could set in relation to outside intervention in other sensitive territories, such as Kashmir or Tibet.

The UN has always had its flaws. Member states -- especially the most powerful countries -- have always treated it as an a la carte service, calling for its involvement only when their national interests are on the menu. Wielding their veto powers, the five permanent Security Council members -- particularly Russia and the U.S. -- have often shut the service down.

What has changed, though, is the global political climate -- with the UN's principles of multilateral cooperation and universal human rights in direct conflict with the nation-first populism of a growing roster of member governments. In some ways, the UN is serving as a mirror on our world, showing how we are moving away from those principles. From Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to India's Narendra Modi, several elected leaders are helping stoke this surge in Asia.

But it is President Trump who is doing most to undermine the world body, both with his rhetoric and plans to slash U.S. contributions -- tapping into long-held antipathy among many Americans toward the world body. The process of pulling out of the WHO is already underway. Talk is cheap though. The $10 billion the U.S. gives each year is little more than a rounding error in its annual $4.7 trillion federal budget -- but it's a sum that buys unquantifiable dividends in terms of power and influence.

It is President Trump who is doing most to undermine the world body.   © Getty Images

As you would expect, an official at UN headquarters in New York insisted that it remains as relevant as ever to today's world -- and still value for money. But there is deep trepidation about the global impact of Trump winning a second term. "We have to get past these difficulties," was all the official would say.

There are two dangers here. First, that budget cuts will make criticisms of the UN's flaws a self-fulfilling prophecy as it struggles to deliver. Second -- and most importantly -- that it will then be unable to deal with the even bigger global crisis coming our way, for which international cooperation will be essential. And that's climate change.

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