The United Nations was looking forward to a grand 75-year anniversary this month. Instead, it is in existential trouble because money is running out and China’s influence on its work could soon surpass the United States.
The risks are existential because lack of money combined with the global Covid-19 crises are weakening the UN’s legs.
At the same time, Chinese concepts have started finding enough backers to influence its operations away from the agenda and ideals of its American and European creators.
Secretary General Antonio Guterres wrote to member countries recently to warn that the UN received only $8.4 million dollars in the July-August period compared with $147.2 million for the same period last year.
It needs $1.52 billion but $950 million is still unpaid for its 2020 programme of work. Only 115 countries have paid their contributions so far this year.
The US, which contributes about 22% of its annual spending, is holding back partly because of President Donald Trump’s disdain for the UN. A few other large donors like the European Union are behind schedule.
Beyond financial troubles, menace looms over the UN because of the deepening clash between Trump and China’s Xi Jinping. Trump’s decisions against China disregard the UN and its diplomatic process.
Trump’s indifference to the UN is growing because it walks on egg shells to placate major members, including China. He pulled no punches in his pre-recorded speech to the UN General Assembly.
He wants the UN to hold China to account for allegedly triggering the global spread of Covid-19, which he still calls the China virus. “The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions,” he demanded.
He also blamed China for being a reckless polluter of the air and oceans. “Those who attack America’s exceptional environmental record while ignoring China’s rampant pollution are not interested in the environment. They only want to punish America, and I will not stand for it,” he declared.
Then came the warning that he thinks the UN is not a relevant body for his goals. “If the United Nations is to be an effective organization, it must focus on the real problems of the world. This includes terrorism, the oppression of women, forced labor, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, religious persecution, and the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities.”
The UN is already deeply engaged in all of these issues together with many organizations in its system dedicated to health, children’s welfare, women’s rights, and religious tolerance. Inevitably, there are differences with Trump because it is mindful of the interests of all member countries and not just those of the US.
Trump’s continuous scolding is weakening the UN’s ability to provide leadership because Washington is shedding a longstanding role as the superpower guarantor in light of disagreements with how the UN works, what it stands for and whether it supports American foreign policy goals. This frustration predates Trump by several decades but the gaps have widened considerably since his demands are more unilateral and dismiss the need to persuade or even listen attentively to the concerns of other countries.
For the most part, the UN’s work involves arduous negotiations to build international cooperation to promote inclusion, tolerance, poverty reduction and peaceful resolution of conflicts, among other things. A lot of it is humanitarian to help people struck down by natural disasters and wars. Currently, more than 80 million people are displaced by civil wars.
Trump is scornful because the UN cannot be his enforcement arm to push the notion that whatever he thinks is best for America is best for the world.
European countries are worsening UN weakness because they are not stepping into US shoes as the UN’s guarantor, despite having established it together with the US. All of the UN’s liberal principles on inclusion, equality and justice are offshoots of European enlightenment.
Despite their wealth, which is collectively equal to the US, Europeans are not picking up the financial slack left by Washington’s reluctance to pay. The Covid-19 emergency has taken attention away from the UN, beyond their insistence that It must undertake major reforms.
Seeing this erosion of traditional Western support, China’s Xi has pulled out the stops. His recorded intervention at the General Assembly was statesman-like but did not hide his ambition to refashion the UN and its agencies in the image of his thoughts.
He is pouncing on opportunity since the US and West seem confused and tired after 75 years of taking care of the UN. Xi called for “a new type of international relations” to make the world “a better place for everyone.” This sounds like rhetoric but challenges the European and American ideas that established the UN system.
In a dig at Trump’s desire to separate the US and its allies from reliance on Chinese industries, he added, “We should reject attempts to build blocs to keep others out and oppose a zero-sum approach…(and)… rise above ideological disputes and not fall into the trap of “clash of civilizations”.”
Some American analysts may see such idealistic words as duplicity because Xi represents China’s Communist Party. But the majority of leaders of UN member countries view them as much more reassuring than current American attempts to assert US power in a more coercive manner than ever before.
However, China does not yet have the economic strength and enough friendly countries to become the backbone of an international system with a changed UN at its hub. Nor can Xi risk alienating the West and its friends to make China the central power at the UN, unless of course the US and its European allies step aside voluntarily.