New Approaches to UN in a Changing International System

Viewpoint by Franz Baumann*

Note: This is a slightly abridged version of Franz Baumann’s Keynote Address at the Bonn International Model UN titled ‘Transformation in the midst of Crisis: New approaches in a changing International System’ on November 30. Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, hosts 19 UN organizations and secretariats in the UN Campus.

NEW YORK (IDN) – There has been a momentous transformation in the past seventy years since the end of WWII and the founding of the United Nations. The UN, to recall, was born out of the second cataclysmic catastrophe of the 20th century.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the opportunity was missed to organize peace: Japan invaded Manchuria, Italy invaded Abyssinia, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, started WWII and carried out the genocide against the Jews.

Thus, the United Nations is in the first instance dedicated to maintaining or restoring peace.(1) Other mandates followed later, such as development, human rights, peacekeeping, environment and more.

To begin at the beginning: The organizing principle of both the international system and the UN is the nation state, even if developments have gone far beyond it, and even if many of today’s problems originate precisely in the incongruity between many states’ responsibilities and capacities.

It will be useful to recall the genesis of the modern state, a core element in much of the social sciences. Its concept goes back to the Peace of Westphalia, concluded at the end of the Thirty Years’ war in 1648 that established a European system of secular authority and thus laid the foundation of the modern state.

The next iteration, at the Congress of Vienna (in 1815, after the Napoleonic wars), begot the Concert of Europe, a club of great powers dedicated to preventing the emergence of revolutionary states and popular uprisings.

After the catastrophe of WWI, the League of Nations upheld state-centrism. Its elusive purpose was to prevent or at least to regulate conflict. At the San Francisco conference in the autumn of 1945, once more, only representatives of states – politicians and diplomats – were present. Not surprisingly, therefore, the United Nations, as a global club of nation-states, is a misnomer in a dual sense:

– not nations are represented, but governments (perhaps even only foreign offices);

– and there is precious little which unites these governments.(2)

The core principles of the United Nations

Universality and sovereign equality are the UN’s core principles. Universality means that all states are members of the UN, which is a global as opposed to a regional or functional organization.(3) Sovereign equality means that all member states, regardless of their size or wealth, have one vote in the General Assembly.(4) Universality and sovereign equality account for the Organization’s strengths, but also for its weaknesses; for its stirring vision, but also for the resulting paradox.

The vision holds the United Nations to be the Organization that deals with global issues and has the preservation of the common heritage of humanity at its heart. The paradox is that many challenges are global – environment, pandemics, terrorism, mass migration, trafficking in humans and drugs, organized crime – and require global responses.

Unfortunately, however, global responses are not easy to organize because there is no identifiable ownership for matters that affect everyone. The temptation of free-riding is strong. Ownership is important (has anyone ever washed a rental car?) but in matters transcending borders not easily obtained.

This is particularly so as regards the most critical global challenge – climate change – and the twin fact that one quarter of the world’s population uses three quarters of its non-renewable resources, yet that there is only one world. The powerful demonstrations in New York and many other cities in September 2015 were under the motto: “There is no Plan B, because there is no Planet B.”

Politicians are elected locally, and national electorates are rather disinterested in international affairs, especially if sacrifices are involved. As (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel learned painfully, a government can do only as much good as it can sustain politically.

So, the first and critically important question is if a state-centric system, conceived for entities with borders, can solve the problems of a world without borders. The answer is: only with great difficulty. But this is what we have.

Hoping for a world government, or wishing away the nation state – either at the European level and even more fancifully at the global level – will not make it go away (or make it fade away, as Karl Marx predicted). Globalization – the mobility of people, capital as well as ideas and accelerated by the phenomenal development of information and communications technologies – has impacted states everywhere and weakened many of them. And this is concerning.

Decent, competent and effective states are the very foundation of a sound international order, yet they are today more the exception than the rule. In many situations, the state is now as much part of the problem as it is of the solution.

In the South, many states are under pressure from environmental degradation, population growth, unemployment and conflict. In the North, strains resulting from anaemic economic growth, joblessness, income disparities, immigration and terrorism have led to the rise of populist, isolationist and xenophobic movements.

States that are weak or corrupt or militaristic or predatory or isolationist or unilateralist – or any combination of these syndromes – do not make for a sound international order. Nor do failed states, i.e. states that exist in name only.(5)

Even functioning states are no longer in charge as they used to be. They are weaker and not as central, because the significance of other actors – civil society, private businesses, NGOs, but also criminal syndicates and terrorists – has increased. The state, thus, is no longer the actor, but one of several. For many states, their role and nature, both domestically and internationally, has changed. But, not only states have transformed since 1945, the entire world has, too. Consider the following:

The World has changed in major ways since 1945

1) The world population more than trebled (from 2.2 to 7.5 billion)(6) and will grow by another 50 per cent this century.

2) The number of UN member states nearly quadrupled from 51 to 193 (7) – a quantitative change, which lead to a qualitative change in the Organization’s focus, functions and governance.

3) There are more than 240 million international migrants today.(8) In addition, there are 65 million forcibly displaced people(9), of whom some 18 million are climate refugees. The UK House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations notes with concern that this figure is set to rise with “projections of an increase in the intensity and frequency of weather related disasters”.(10)

4) Technological progress in communication, health, transportation and materials has transformed the world, as has productivity and economic growth; not everywhere, to be sure, but in many parts.(11)

5) Non-state actors have emerged: NGOs, multinational corporations, global banks, software platforms (Facebook has nearly 2 billion users), the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate Change & Energy – but also narco traffickers, criminal syndicates and terrorists. For good or ill, non-state actors operate across borders and often bypass states.

6) Climate change is real. Human activity is putting an end to the Holocene Epoch (which began about 12,000 years ago). The Anthropocene Epoch has begun, and containing the damage done to the world’s climate by the burning of fossil fuels is the most pressing challenge.(12)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) endorsed a carbon budget, i.e. that to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius – the largest increase possible without incurring catastrophe – humanity must burn less than 270 billion more tons of fossil fuels. Current annual consumption is about 10 billion tons, and proven reserves around 760 billion tons, which means three times the amount the world can afford to burn.(13)

Much of the investment in new oil capacity is in danger of being stranded by the 2 degree Celsius scenario, namely “$1.3 trillion on new projects and $124 billion on existing projects”(14), which explains the ferocious opposition to any climate action as well as the strenuous denial of the scientific evidence on the part of those whose financial interests militate in favour of business as usual.

Clairvoyance is not needed to predict that the undoing of restrictions on drilling and fracking for oil or the mining for coal will carry a heavy price for humanity.

Even the U.S. military, an institution entirely unsuspected of any leftist sentiments, understands that conditions in already fragile countries will deteriorate further as food production declines, water becomes scarce, diseases spread, and populations move in search of resources. Governments will weaken, radicalization will increase and conflicts will spread.(15)

7) Unilateralism, authoritarianism, fence-building and the violation of legal norms, both domestic and international, are becoming more frequent and are occurring in more parts of the world, even in those hitherto immune to xenophobic or autocratic temptations. Populist regimes may well turn out to be undertakers of the norm-based liberal international order so painstakingly established after World War II. Danger signs are everywhere.(16)

8) While World War III has not happened, the promise of the UN Charter – effective collective measures to maintain peace – remains elusive. The Security Council is unable to end the wars raging in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. Conflicts in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Mali and Somalia are frozen, yet can flare up any moment.

The Global Order is fraying

The world has moved away from the idealistic origins of the United Nations and the post-war liberal order is under severe strain. Some of these forces threaten to pull the world apart. As problems mount, deep fissures in the project of globalization have emerged. Shared perspectives of global challenges are receding and predictable, enforceable norms, rules and expectations for all states, great and small, are becoming rarer.(17) The very instruments established to bring the world together through cooperative forms of global governance have become weaker – and partially superseded by other actors.

A system based on power-maximizing states cannot, even in theory, realise global goods, and the danger is that the international system will, perhaps not collapse as the Soviet Union did, but slowly disintegrate. The former German President, Horst Köhler, in his speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the UN’s founding, recalled that multilateralism “can work only within a logical system of cooperation and self-imposed limitations. This applies most particularly to powerful states, which must not do everything they are capable of doing”.(18) Powerful states – especially the permanent members of the Security Council – should be paragons of virtue and act as guardians of global interests.

Sadly, this is not what is going on these days, and the state-sponsored doping scandal engulfing Russian sports is emblematic for the brazen flouting of rules to gain advantage at any cost.

Instead of nurturing rule-based conduct, all too many countries are withdrawing from the world, from institutions of global cooperation, and from the premise of win-win solutions attained through cooperation. As the result, the crisis of governability is growing. Precisely because global problems cannot be solved unilaterally, it is so important to have sensible debates on how to manage a runaway world.

Owing to the temporal distance from 1945, the high value of order in the world is discounted. Instead, the temptation for states to seek unilateral advantages has increased. However, if this worrisome trend continues, in the offing is a fragmented, ungovernable, multipolar world. Perhaps even a return to the world of the middle ages, which would be a frightening prospect indeed.(19)

Today’s challenges (climate degradation, pandemics, civil wars, migrants, proliferation of weapons, terrorism, organized crime, food insecurity, etc.) cross borders and state boundaries. Yet, they have not led to a new congress of statesmen or business and civil society leaders to deliberate on a new world order. Instead and sadly, nativist, isolationist, even chauvinist forces are ascending. Their promise to turn back the clock, while a vote-getter among scared electorates, will not be fulfilled. Much rather, the pressures of the myriad challenges will continue to increase. So will conflict.

The old model – managing the world’s problems through the prism of traditional interstate relations – is fraying and the international system is changing; yet the architecture of a new order is not obvious. This is where the “new approaches” . . . come in.

The Need for a stronger UN

For me, it is clear that the UN – however reformed – is not the solution. It is equally clear, though, that it is a very important part of the solution.

The UN is a mirror of the world: it reflects divisions and disagreements as well as hopes and convictions. Sometimes, it only muddles through. At its best, the UN is the institutionalization of the ongoing cooperation of all states, which reduces the anarchy in the international system. Cooperation is confidence building.

The significance and importance of the UN should not be judged solely on its ability to enforce its resolutions. This is a naïve, flawed premise as, all too often, member states pass resolutions they have no intention of implementing. Nevertheless, they are important markers and provide useful guidance.

No country would have ever agreed to join an institution if it meant sacrificing its independence and the sad fact is that the UN Charter, ratified by the U.S. Senate by an overwhelming vote (89 to 2) in 1945, would not pass muster today. It would also be virtually impossible to convince the 193 nations of the world (up from 51 in 1945) again to draft a charter for the security of the Earth because of the sheer number of countries and the profusion of political differences.

One would do well to heed Kofi Annan’s advice. He concluded his address to the General Assembly on September 23, 2003 as follows:

The UN is by no means a perfect instrument, but it is a precious one. I urge you to seek agreement on ways of improving it, but above all of using it as its founders intended: to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, to establish the basic conditions for justice and the rule of law, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.(20)

*Franz Baumann joined the UN Development Program in 1980 and began working in the UN Secretariat in 1985. He retired in 2015 as an assistant secretary-general, special adviser on environment and peace operations, after working about a dozen assignments under five secretaries-general, in four duty stations and on three continents. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 December 2016]

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

Image: There is no Planet B. Credit: The Nature Generation.


(1) Preamble of the Charter:


            to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind …

            CHAPTER I      PURPOSES & PRINCIPLES    Article 1

            To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention

            and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression of other breaches of the peace …

(2) It bears remembering that the term “United Nations” was coined by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and used in the “Declaration of the United Nations” to describe the World War II alliance of initially twenty-six states against the Axis Powers Germany, Italy, Japan, plus Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Yugoslavia;

Today, one could say that the only united charter organ is the Secretariat, which is why it is so crucial for the Secretary-General to assert his independence. See my “New UN Chief Will Need to Rebuild the Secretariat’s Integrity,” IDN-InDepthNews UN Insider (22 June 2016);

(3) South Sudan became the 193rd member on 14 July 2011. All territorial states are members, with the exception of Palestine, Kosovo, the Vatican (Holy See) and, arguably, Taiwan.

(4) China has 1.4 billion inhabitants. Its population growth is about 0.5% (down from 2% in the late 1980s) or 6.9 million per year, or about 19,000 (down from 45,000) per day. By comparison, the UN’s three smallest member states have total populations as follows:
Palau: 21,000; Nauru: 10,000; Tuvalu: 11,000.

(5) A state is failed if it does not possess: (1) a population of citizens (2) a defined territory with secure borders (3) a functioning government which regulates the life of its citizens and provides services, including very importantly, internal and external security. Since 2005, the Fund for Peace has issued annually an index that ranks states based on a multidimensional framework of twelve criteria into ten categories. The 12th annual index – 2016 – looks as follows:

Sustainable States (16 states):

Very Sustainable (Finland), Sustainable (15 states, including Germany, Norway & Switzerland);

Stable States (36 states):

Very Stable (10 states, incl. Japan, the UK & the US); More Stable (13 states, incl. Argentina, Italy & Poland); Stable (13 states, incl., Greece, Oman & Romania);

States under Warning (95 states):

Warning (18 states, incl. Albania, Brazil & South Africa); Elevated Warning (18 states, incl. China, India & Ukraine); High Warning (29 states, incl. Iran, Lebanon & Russia);

States under Alert (38 states):

Alert (22 states, incl. Egypt, Kenya & North Korea); High Alert (8 states, incl. Afghanistan, Iraq & Nigeria); Very High Alert (8 states, incl. Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen).

(6) Current World Population (world odometer:
Although the human species emerged perhaps 150,000 years ago, most of its growth has occurred in the last 60 years.
– It took scores of millennia to reach the first billion humans (around 1800);
– over a century to reach the second billion (somewhere between 1918 & 1927);
– 33 years to the third billion (around 1960);
– 14 years to the fourth billion (in 1974);
– 13 years to the fifth billion (in 1987);
– 12 years to the sixth billion (in 1999);
– 8 years to the seventh billion (in 2007); 2016: 7.5 billion
– 17 years to the eighth billion (in 2024);
– 18 years to the ninth billion (in 2042); 2050: 9.7 billion; 2100: 11.2 billion

Africa’s vertiginous rate of population increase: 221 million (1950); 1,220 million (2016); 2,500 million (2050); 4,400 million (2100).

Nearly 45% of the world’s population, more than 3 billion people, are aged under 25.
In sub-Saharan Africa (excepting South Africa), more than 40% of the population is below 15 years old.

(7) The number of staff members of the UN grew from under 2,000 to over 40,000 (Composition of the Secretariat: staff demographics. Report of the Secretary-General (A/70/605 of 11 December 2015);

(8) United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2016). International Migration Report 2015: Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/375);

(9) UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015;

(10) HOUSE OF LORDS, Select Committee on International Relations, 1st Report of Session 2016-2017, HL Paper 60, The UK and the UN: Priorities for the new Secretary-General (London, 3 November 2016, paragraph 138);

“When you visit the Pentagon, ask the generals about climate change. Here’s what they’ll tell you: A majority of immigrants flooding Europe today are not coming from Syria or Iraq. Three-quarters are from arid zones in central Africa, where the combination of climate change and runaway population growth are making small-scale farming unsustainable.” Thomas L. Friedman, “Donald Trump, Help Heal the Planet’s Climate Change Problem.” The New York Times, 16 November 2016;

(11) The size of the global economy has tripled over the last 20 years from around $25 trillion to over $77 trillion today (cf. International Monetary Fund World Economic and Financial Surveys; World Economic Outlook Database;

US industrial output has doubled since 1983, but with half the workers (22.8 vs. 12.1 million; cf. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), Industrial Production Index [INDPRO], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis;, 15 November 2016;

US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment by Major Industry Sector

Ellen Sehgal, “Work experience in 1983,” Monthly Labor Review, December 1984, pp. 18-24;

(12) Juliet Eilperin, “Trump says ‘nobody really knows’ if climate change is real,” The Washington Post, Sunday, 11 December 2016;

Global temperatures for January to September 2016 have been 0.88°C above the average (14°C) for the 1961-1990 reference period and 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. 2016 again – like 2015 and 2014 – will be the hottest year on record. This means that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been this century (1998 was the other one). WMO Press Release No 15 of 14 November 2016

Carbon emissions have increased 8.5 fold since 1945 from 4.3 gigatons of CO2 to 35,8 gigatons of CO2 (see Tom Boden, Bob Andres; Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831-6290;

See also the Global Carbon Project:
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, as a consequence, has risen from 300 ppm to 404 ppm (see Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center; U.S. Department of Energy (DOE);

(13) IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1–30;

See also Bill McKibben, “Recalculating the Climate Math: The numbers on global warming are even scarier than we thought,” The New Republic, November 2016, pp. 16-17

(14) The Carbon Tracker Initiative, Fossil fuel firms risk wasting $2 trillion on uneconomic projects: Governments and companies must align plans with the energy transition underway to deliver a low-carbon future. (London/New York, 25 November 2015);

(15) The White House, Findings from Select Federal Reports: The National Security Implications of a Changing Climate, (Washington, DC, May 2015);

Kurt M. Campbell, Jay Gulledge, J.R. McNeill, John Podesta, Peter Ogden, Leon Fuerth, R. James Woolsey, Alexander T.J. lennon, Julianne Smith, Richard Weitz, and Derek Mix, “The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change,” Center for Strategic & International Studies (Washington, DC, November 2007);

(16) Consider for instance the US elections (8 November 2016), those in the Philippines (9 May 2016), Bulgaria (13 November 2016), Moldova (13 November 2016), the constitutional referendum in Italy (4 December 2016), the Brexit vote in the UK (23 June 2016), the rejected peace referendum in Colombia (2 October 2016), the Hindu nationalism in India, the “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, the authoritarian backlash in Brazil, Egypt, Turkey and Venezuela as well as the growing support for illiberal parties in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden and others. And then, there is the withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) by – so far – three countries (South Africa, Burundi, Gambia); Russia announced on 16 November 2016 that, as the US had done earlier, it was unsigning the treaty; Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, on 17 November 2016, threatened also his country’s withdrawal from the ICC. The recent transgressions of three permanent members of the Security Council are egregious: the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; Russia’s annexation of Crimea & military involvement in Eastern Ukraine, and China’s repudiation of the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration of the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines regarding the seizure of South China Sea islands (12 July 2016). Canada is the noteworthy exception of these worrying trends.

(17) John Bolton, former US Ambassador to the UN, in his memoires published a decade ago, recounted that, as a senior State Department official, he was determined “to signal that the Clinton era’s deference to ‘norm setting’ by huge international conferences was over,” (Surrender is not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and abroad. (New York, Threshold Editions, 2007, p. 89).

(18) Horst Köhler, The End of Humankind’s Dream? The United Nations in the 21st Century. Address given at the official ceremony hosted by the United Nations Association of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, 21 October 2015; emphasis in the original.

(19) The French Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, tweeted after the US presidential election: “After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes.“ (cited in “The piecemaker: For seven decades America has been the guarantor of global order. It may now become a force for instability,“ The Economist, November 12th – 18th 2016, p. 22).

(20) The Secretary-General’s address to the General Assembly of 23 September 2003;

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