A Call for Peaceful Multilateralism

Austin Tam-George

The world is in turmoil, and there is a stark absence of strategic and moral leadership on the global stage. Indeed, there are three types of wars going on simultaneously in the world today. The first is the proxy war between Russia and the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with Ukraine as the battlefield.

The second is the trade war between the United States of America and China – with punitive tariffs, unilateral trade restrictions, covert operations in the Taiwan Straits, and protectionist manoeuvres used as the tools of war. 

The third, of course, is the hot war in the Middle East between Israel, Palestine, Iran, and other regional actors.

In Africa, beneath the gloss of “liberal democracy,” we have seen the resurgence of totalitarian regimes and tribal demagogues, riding to political power on the coat tails of identity politics and electoral fraud. 

In Sudan, to take one example, the tussle for illicit power between the country’s military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has displaced millions of people.

The question asked around the world is: for how long will the United Nations – the global body formed to foster diplomacy between nations and prevent war – watch in helpless horror as cluster bombs and other deadly munitions rain down on innocent men, women and children in these theatres of war? 

The paralysis of the United Nations Security Council in the face of the ongoing global carnage is proof that we must rethink the existing structures of global governance.

Everywhere in the world – in university classrooms, foreign policy think-tank sessions, media editorials and podcasts, even on the floor of the UN General Assembly – there are animated conversations about the need for a new paradigm in international relations, and what the features of the new epoch might be. 

The ongoing protests in college campuses in the United States against the carnage in the Gaza Strip, in Palestine, are part of a growing global argument for a new global order.

I joined this debate at Harvard Kennedy School in the fall of 2022, during our Senior Executive Fellows dinner sessions on the state of global governance in the 21st Century. The conversations were led by Secretary Ash Carter, former Defence Secretary of the United States, and Joseph Nye, a Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard Kennedy School. Joseph Nye is often rated as the most influential scholar in American foreign policy.

My suggestions on the re-framing of international relations are along the lines of what I might call ” Peaceful multilateralism”. 

Simply put, peaceful multilateralism refers to the ability and willingness of sovereign nations to work together to solve the toughest challenges facing humanity, such as global hunger, pandemics, nuclear non-proliferation, global child trafficking and war.

 Rather than the vicious zero-sum rivalry between nations, peaceful multilateralism challenges countries of the world to collaborate and work towards extending the frontiers of peace, security, and the creation of a more just world.

The notion of collaboration or cooperation between nations of the world is hardly new. After the first and second world wars, the nations of the world came together to form the United Nations Organization in 1945. 

 Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations upholds the need for collaboration between nations. The Article states that one of the founding principles of the United Nations was “To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion…”

However, 79 years after its founding, the United Nations appears to be at a crossroads, with nuclear-armed countries locked in a proxy war in the heart of Europe. 

Below are three ways to achieve peaceful multilateralism through structural reform of the United Nations and respect for international law by all nations of the world.

1. Democratize Decision-Making at the United Nations: For decades, questions have been raised about the ‘tyranny’ of the United Nations Security Council, where five permanent members namely, the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China wield veto powers that override the views of the rest of the 185 member states of the global body. 

This arrangement is not only seen to be undemocratic, but it is believed to be a major impediment to multilateral consensus building for global problem solving by the United Nations. 

The latest iteration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing proxy war in Ukraine have shown how the conflicting interests of veto-wielding security council members in regional wars could paralyse the Security Council and impede the conflict resolution efforts by the members of the United Nations General Assembly.

Therefore, in reforming the decision-making mechanism of the United Nations, it may be critical to roll back the veto powers of the Security Council and vest the final decision-making authority on the United Nations General Assembly. The UN General Assembly should be the bastion of peaceful multilateralism and the centre of decision-making on global affairs.

2. Respect for International Law: Relations between nations may be fraught with disagreements or a clash of interests. But a resort to war or unilateral actions may degrade relations further and create a climate of lawlessness and impunity on the global scene. Peaceful multilateralism can only thrive when nations engage in dialogue, diplomacy, and respect the adjudicatory supremacy of international law.

3. Commitment to Diplomacy: Finally, in an era dominated by the rhetoric of war and a “show of force” in international relations, it may seem naive to restate the importance of diplomacy in resolving conflicts between nations. 

But it is the ability to disagree, engage, re-engage, and resolve conflicts diplomatically that sets us apart as humans. A world where “might is right”, and diplomacy is seen as a flag of surrender, would be a chaotic, barbarous, and an incredibly unhappy place to live in – for everyone. Nations that prioritize diplomacy in their relations with other nations are more likely to collaborate to solve the most pressing problems that confront humanity.

– Dr Austin Tam-George is a former Senior Executive Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Email: attamgeorge@gmail.com

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