A bugle call for sleepy ears

Khakispecs Blog. No 179. 8/11/2019

Colin Keating was New Zealand’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) between 1993 and 1996, and represented New Zealand on the UN Security Council between 1993 and 1994. He was a diplomat for most of his working life, but served as Secretary for Justice and Chief Executive of the Ministry of Justice, under both the Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark administrations.

On 24th of October he addressed a gathering of the NZ branch of the United Nations Association (a civil society, UN supporters club, open to the general public.) His address is worth quoting (and reading) in full.

The sad fact is that, as we enter the pyrocene age, even those most alert to the approaching danger, though busy planting forests, in general, appear unconcerned by the need to neutralise the pyromaniacs outside NZ’s jurisdiction.


Thank you

I also extend my welcome to you all. And I thank you for coming to support UNANZ and to mark United Nations Day

It would be very nice to be able to stand here tonight and simply propose a toast to the United Nations, confident that all was well, confident that our multilateral institutions were in good heart and that we could therefore relax and enjoy a celebration.

But this is 2019. All is far from well. The United Nations, and all of our multilateral institutions, are facing serious threats. The short-term outlook is bleak.  Current trends are reminiscent of the behaviours in the 1930s that destabilised and ultimately destroyed the League of Nations.

Over the past 70 years there have always been a few regimes that have cynically sought the benefits of UN membership while rejecting the fundamental principles of the UN system. Typically, these have been corrupt and cruel dictatorships, espousing toxic versions of personal power and unconstrained sovereignty. Such leaders have fought tooth and nail against UN norms, against international law, against human rights and against multilaterally agreed principles of good governance and environmental sustainability.

Today we are in an era where this mantra seems to have infected the political discourse and the leadership of a much wider group, including some important democratic states. Until recently, these were strong supporters of multilateralism and the shared values of the United Nations system.

This infection is spreading. Even in New Zealand. Listen to talk back radio. Read what the internet and social media trolls are writing. Some really despise the UN. Others project hatred of the values it stands for.

There used to be a political consensus in New Zealand to support multilateral institutions and the UN in particular. But it is of real concern that all of our political parties in New Zealand seem to have drifted away from that. It is not that our current politicians are rejecting the UN. But they are essentially silent, focusing on policy priorities elsewhere and allocating resources elsewhere.  I think it is time to recall a famous quotation. There is debate about its origin. But on this subject, it stands true today. ‘All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to stand by and do nothing.’

So tonight, I think it is important to briefly explain why the multilateral system is under threat, why the current trends are so dangerous and what you can do to make a difference.

We hear demands for states to have the freedom go their own way. Even in the UN General Assembly, we hear demands that states be able to exercise sovereignty unencumbered by international law or the Charter. In decision making on war and peace, unilateralism seems to be prevailing over collective security and international law. Long term alliances and partnerships are seen as trifling and sometimes as problematic hindrances. The UN Security Council is being undermined. Permanent Members flagrantly ignore its binding decisions. The Council is rapidly being rendered into a toothless talking shop. And bilateralism seems to be rearing its ugly head, with some world leaders trumpeting their demands for bilateral outcomes at the expense of collective ones.

It has been clear for over a hundred years that bilateralism leads, ultimately, to diminished outcomes for everyone.  We have also learned that it can create conditions that lead to war.

Bilateralism, because of its binary nature, incentivises outcomes with one winner and one loser.  Short term, this is politically attractive to leaders of large countries. Large countries almost always prevail in these contests. It is therefore a disastrous model for New Zealand and for the 150 or so other small or medium size countries, whose economies will inevitably falter if this thinking prevails. But over time the model becomes disastrous also for everyone, even the large. Global trade shrinks as the number of losers grows. Eventually a point is reached when even the economies of the few remaining winners begin to contract. And that is assuming that there is a long term at all. Bilateralism can breed desperation, as happened with Japan in the early 1940s. Bilateralism comes to be perceived by the losers as predatory. And, all-out warfare can be the result.

Multilateralism was not invented as a result of some “do gooder” mentality. To the contrary, it was created out of a very hard-headed conclusion that the world needed an alternative to the binary win/lose dynamic of bilateralism. 

Multilateralism incentives win/win outcomes across multiple players. It also incentivises a rules-based system with independent mechanisms to ensure that agreements are implemented fairly and honestly. Multilateralism is hard work. It takes time and patience. It does not have flashy short-term political appeal. But long term, it is the only safe and sustainable mechanism for managing modern international relations.

This is true for international trade, for preventing conflict, for protecting the environment and ultimately for ensuring our very survival on this planet. The risks of catastrophic climate change and nuclear annihilation cannot be managed bilaterally. The awful situation in Syria is a clear example of total failure to properly use multilateral conflict prevention machinery. 

But, let us be clear. The multilateral machinery is not perfect. After 70 years the UN machinery set up in 1945 is not a good fit with the world of today. It requires major reform. The multilateral trade machinery is much newer. But it too needs some reform.

I also want to be quite clear that I am not saying that building bilateral relationships is bad. At the personal level we all need one to one relationships. They enrich our lives. And the same is true for states. But modern governance and modern economies cannot work based on one to one relationships. And we also know very well that the moment we start to transactionalise our friendships or personal relationships, that is when things fall apart.

And things falling apart is exactly what we are seeing at the moment in international relations.

Let me finish with some thoughts about what you can do to help?

First, when you hear people flaying the UN or multilateralism for its failings, push back. Remind them of why bilateralism and unilateralism are doomed to fail. Explain why, in the interconnected modern world, we cannot solve big complex problems without a system for agreeing rules and fairly enforcing them. Recall Dag Hammarskjold’s words in 1954 that the UN was not invented as a path to heaven but to save us from hell.

Secondly, whatever political party you support, advocate strongly to politicians to lift their game with respect to New Zealand’s leadership in restoring multilateralism. It is time to stop the drift into indifference about the UN. It is time to reverse the drift of resources away from multilateralism. On trade, on peace and security, on the environment, on peacekeeping, we need all the political parties speaking up for reengagement in the multilateral arena. They all know that this is in New Zealand interests. It is time to prioritise efforts to shore up those interests.

Thirdly, don’t be naïve about the UN. Frankly, I think that one of the reasons why support for the UN is waning in New Zealand is because too many of its supporters in the past have sought to oversell its role and been slow to face up to its limitations and failings. It is time to be much more upfront about the need for reform.

Reform can be a great focus for lobbying politicians. There is a problem. The UN needs reform. New Zealand is ideally placed to be able to contribute hugely to a transformation. So, as a fourth challenge to you all, why not demand that New Zealand set up and properly resource a six-month project involving politicians from all parties, officials, the defence force and civil society to make recommendations on a role for New Zealand to take a lead in restoring the credibility and effectiveness of multilateralism.

Fifthly, reach out to the media. They are also missing in action when it comes to the big picture about multilateralism and the UN. This is not a new problem.

Sixthly, it is great that you are all here tonight. But effective change in New Zealand’s commitment to the multilateral system will take more than just turning up on UN Day. Please be ready to give ongoing practical support organisations such as UNANZ.

And lastly, to UNANZ, thank you for what you do. In particular I thank you for what you do to encourage students and young people to better understand the UN system. But today that system is facing existential challenges. So, now is the time to strengthen and refocus your efforts so that New Zealand can do more to ensure that the multilateral system will survive.

Or snorted they in the Seven sleepers’ den.

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