The United Nations celebrates its 75th anniversary because the post-World War II world order that created it is based on shaky foundations.
Diversity is in serious disarray, as former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has noted.
US President Donald Trump’s “ America first ” foreign policy has seen the United States’ insult to multilateral agreements from the Paris climate accord to the Iran nuclear deal, while China is clearly positioning itself as the new supporter of the United Nations.
But increasing Chinese influence has a price, and if Beijing allocates more money to fund UN agencies like the World Health Organization, it will want to have a bigger role as a result.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres spoke of a foundational moment facing the United Nations – those who built the United Nations know the value of unity, he pointed out, because they have lived through war and a previous pandemic.
Concerns about what the US-China rivalry meant for global stability prevailed in this remote gathering of world leaders.
There was no hiding the urgency of French President Emmanuel Macron’s tone, as he said in his pre-recorded remarks that today’s world cannot be left to the rivalry between China and the United States.
This rivalry, which has seen countries shut down on everything from trade to technology, is becoming increasingly intense – and President Trump escalated rhetoric, using his platform on the world stage to attack what he called the China virus.
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With less than 40 days left until the US election, Beijing bashing is central to the Trump campaign. There appears to be concerted efforts underway to deflect criticism of the president’s handling of the outbreak by criticizing China for exporting the virus.
Will a bipolar world in which the United States and China compete for supremacy ultimately lead to a military conflict? It is clear that the UN Secretary-General is concerned about what lies ahead, warning of another “cold war”.
“We are moving in a very dangerous direction,” said Mr. Guterres. “Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies divide the world in a big rift – each with its own commercial and financial bases, Internet capabilities and artificial intelligence. There is an inevitable risk of the technological and economic divide turning into a geostrategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”
This open discussion of the consequences of the “Great Divide” shows just how quickly the world is changing, and how diplomats are scrambling to keep up.
In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in the hypothetical public debate that “China has no intention of waging a cold war or a hot war with any country.”
This statement was telling. Donald Trump’s presidency has led to an escalation of tensions with China, to the point that speculation about the whereabouts of all of this is spreading.
A seasoned diplomat told me on Tuesday that the public debate at the United Nations has always been seen as a creative mess.
When world leaders met and met alone, real diplomacy took place. Now, it’s just a mess, said this old hand sadly, rhetorically asking who is in charge, and which world leader has more than just a narrow self-interest at heart.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations noted that the pandemic has exploited the world’s grievances. He said people are hurting, our planet is on fire, and he appealed to world leaders to see Covid-19 as a wake-up call and rehearsal for the challenges ahead.
Yet, within an hour of Mr. Guterres saying solidarity was a self-interest, President Trump declared that all world leaders should follow suit and put their countries first.
If reelected, his unilateralism would become more apparent, and the United Nations will likely be further marginalized by Washington.
Would it weaken the US commitment to NATO as well? If Joe Biden is elected president, the tension between Washington and Beijing might decrease, but the primary rivalry between the United States and China will remain.
The world is reorganizing, and the question now is how the old multilateral order will adapt – and who will lead it.