Change in an era of great power rivalry

10 September 2018

“What we have since 2016 is something that none of us alive now have experienced before…a world in which there are three credible, major military powers with global reach.”

These words are those of Dr David Malone, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), Director of the UN University in Tokyo and recent guest at The Australian National University.

Dr Malone spoke in Canberra about how the complex international environment and great power behaviour might affect the UN.

According to Dr Malone, the UN remains a pre-eminent actor in humanitarian and development fields. However, he argues the UN Security Council (UNSC), a forum to manage international security challenges for decades, is now under threat.

“Today’s distribution of power globally…doesn’t correspond to that group of five,” he said, referring to the Permanent Five nations who hold veto power in the body.

“France and Britain are not great powers. They compensate for this constructively by working quite hard at their membership…but they aren’t anybody’s idea of a great power.”

When asked how he would re-create the UNSC if given the power, he named India, Japan, Brazil and a number of African nations as viable candidates to add to the international security body.

“The problem is, none of the current permanent members actually want change. They all say they’re in favour of reform – they aren’t. And because they can veto any change to the UN Charter, it’s not going to happen without their consent.”

This inability to reform poses a major threat to the UNSC’s legitimacy as the preeminent forum for resolving international security issues.

“The risk to the UN is the UNSC could become simply irrelevant and that could lead to the need for something else outside the UN or succeeding it the way the UN followed the League of Nations.”

Speaking also on the effectiveness of the UN Secretary General, Dr David Malone says he had once heard the role described as something akin to “the head waiter at a boring party.”

Not so for the current Secretary General António Guterres, however, according to Dr Malone.

“He’s a doer…But for a Secretary General to be able to make a difference on the key security challenges, the principal powers have to be willing to listen (at least) and to consult occasionally.”

“I think we have the right Secretary General, but is the environment permissive enough for him to be able to lend his good offices to some of the principle geo-strategic bones of convention? That is an open question.”

And of course, what discussion would be complete without reference to the American president and his impact on the integrity of international institutions?

“If you think of the successive [American] presidents,” Dr Malone said, “there was a certain continuity in how they saw the United States as an international actor, in fact, the preeminent international actor.”

“And the disjuncture now, with the current president, who doesn’t share any of those pre-dispositions or constraints.”

When asked whether he thinks the American system is robust enough to withstand Trump, Dr Malone was up-front.

“ I think the American republic will survive the current president…but the scar tissue will be there.”

He cited the damage done to America’s relationships abroad as a major departure from previous US administrations.

“Confidence in the willingness of the United States to back up the NATO allies has been seriously dented, so that’s a major change,” he said.

By CAP Student Correspondent, Georgie Juszczyk

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