5 international experts consider what international order should look like after 2020

We cannot address inequality, migration, climate crisis or pandemic without international order

International cooperation has a bad name because its results have often left much to be desired. But without a United Nations, climate summit or other international agreements, chaos and conflict loom. MO* put five crucial questions about world order and disorder to five internationally recognized, non-Western experts. Is global governance still what we want, need, should have?

Adekeye Adebajo / Henry Kellner (CC BY-SA 4.0) / WEF (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) / © Gie Goris / Frei Betto


1. Less national sovereignty for more global governance?

Nations are the foundation of our international order. At the same time, national sovereignty lilits the space for global governance. Does national sovereignty need to be restricted in order to make a forward-looking global order possible?

Frei Betto: Global governance is an utopia. In reality it would be exercised by the United Nations, but how can we trust a political organization that is a process of “privatization”? Since 2000, the Global Compact has played a dominant role at the UN: a club of mega-companies that provide the financial resources that member states prefer not to pay, in order to defend the public interest and the principles of human rights. Ted Turner, the owner of CNN, once offered to pay a contribution to the United Nations that would equal what the United States payed at that time – which was much more than what they contribute today.

Frei Betto: ‘How can we trust the UN, a political organization that is a process of “privatization”?’

Salil Shetty: In the past, most nation states were artificially imposed on the population by the colonial elite, with the active support of the domestic ruling elite. In the vast majority of countries, the primary identity of individuals is rarely the nation state. Primary identity features are rather cultural and local, nation states are therefore inherently unstable and the concept of national sovereignty, fuelled by the fabricated emotion of nationalism, is especially essential to maintain the power of the elite.

The international order is a similar phenomenon at the international level. It is the mechanism by which the most powerful countries and their ruling elite can protect their interests. So yes, we need to reconsider both national sovereignty and the international order, from the perspective of those who do not count. We don’t need national sovereignty, we need the sovereignty of the people.

Izabella Teixeira: National sovereignty immediately makes clear where the responsibility lies. But governments need to focus less on power over their territory and more on caring for citizens in that territory. The advantage of national responsibility is that policy is close enough to people’s local realities. But the way governments in Russia, the US, Brazil and India dealt with the corona crisis shows that there is still a lot of work to be done in that area.

If properly understood, the concept of national sovereignty leads to the need for international cooperation to solve global problems. In order to do this properly, inequality within countries and inequality of power between countries are the biggest problems. Take climate change: that global problem can only be solved if all countries assume their national responsibility.

Adekeye Adebajo: The European Union is the most far-reaching example of transnational governance. But even there it is about pooling national sovereignty, not about giving it up. In other words: national sovereignty currently remains the cornerstone of international relations and cooperation. Even in Africa, where the colonial borders were confirmed in 1963, because the alternative was even more instability, war and conflict.

Sharan Burrow: We need a new social contract that focuses on recovery and resilience for a just, inclusive future. Both national and international governance is vital for this. But it needs to be much more democratic and transparent at all levels. In this phase of the pandemic crisis, people are looking more than ever to their national governments for security. International institutions remain further removed from the people, even if they become more democratic and participatory. And citizens are already losing faith in democracy. Our research shows that almost 40 percent of people do not believe that their opinion matters to their government.

2. Should the UN be reformed?

The United Nations, the backbone of the post-war international order, has been promising reforms for decades but apparently fails to adapt the organization to the needs of the twenty-first century. Why is that?

Adekeye Adebajo: The UN is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and the UN Security Council has been enlarged only once, from eleven to fifteen countries, five of which are permanent members. Reforms are therefore absolutely necessary. Africa urgently needs to gain more power and influence within the UN and the Security Council in order to help shape decisions that are important to the continent. It is high time to give Brazil, India, South Africa and Nigeria a permanent seat at the table. But the current permanent members can block reform plans with their right of veto, so everything remains the same.

Salil Shetty: It’s a public secret that the UN is only as strong as their strongest members, especially those in the Security Council, allow, starting with the US. Any UN body or leader that challenges the major powers will have a hard time surviving. The rise of China as a major power turns the traditional calculation upside down. India could have played a very important and positive balancing role, but has unfortunately engaged with Trump’s United States. The four countries that currently perform worst in the world, the US, Brazil, India and Russia, are led by authoritarian leaders who will do everything in their power to undermine the UN and multilateral processes.

Sharan Burrow: ‘It is time to think about a democratic reform of the United Nations.’

Sharan Burrow: With a consensus-based model, inertia will continue. It is time to think about a democratic reform of the UN. This should include options for democratically elected representatives, in a structure that can integrate people’s views with those of national leaders. In this way, the UN can guarantee progress and trust.

Izabella Teixeira: In any case, we need a multilateral system to bring countries and interests together. Pandemics, migration, the relationship between man and nature, global inequality: without an international order, built around international organizations, we cannot properly address any of these challenges. But the existing system suffers from a lack of credibility. Anyone who thinks that the solution lies with the private sector is wrong. It was precisely the private financial sector that brought the world to the brink of bankruptcy in 2008. The credibility of the UN, but also of international development cooperation, will only be restored if better results are achieved for the poor and for the environment.

Frei Betto: It was a mistake from the start to accept New York as the headquarters of the UN. It should have been Geneva, or another place that is much less partisan than a city in the US. If we really want to work together, we have to follow the example of Pope Francis. He organized three international meetings of leaders of popular movements, two in Rome and one in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (in Bolivia, ed.). Cooperation must be built from the bottom up, between institutions representing refugees, the unemployed, LGTBIQ, women, blacks, indigenous people and all those who are victims of segregation, discrimination and exploitation.

3. What needs to be tackled as a matter of priority?

Which challenge should be given absolute priority in international cooperation? What structure is needed?

Sharan Burrow: Global cohesion and solidarity are vital for building a global social protection fund, for universal income and health support in vulnerable countries. 400 million jobs have been destroyed and so 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy end up in poverty. Therefore, social protection is crucial for both survival and the basic economy. And in the reconstruction process, decent work must be created everywhere. This means supporting jobs in the transition of all sectors of the economy to a net-neutral economy. In this way we can secure a viable planet.

Frei Betto: International cooperation exists more on paper than in reality. The corona crisis has made that clear. The US appropriated health equipment destined for Brazil, just as the Czech Republic seized a shipment for Italy. The good intentions of international agreements for the protection of the environment are also limited to paper declarations. The biggest problem in today’s world is social inequality. What are rich countries doing to reduce it? Why doesn’t the International Court of Justice in The Hague enforce the closure of tax havens, where fortunes of corruption, evasion and organized crime are kept? Until humanity conquers the capitalocene, the era in which private capital speaks louder than collective rights, there will be no international cooperation, but conflicts of interest disguised as humanitarian actions.

‘How do international institutions address the issues that are put on the agenda by citizens and global movements?’

Izabella Teixeira: Climate change. This was made clear last year by the global actions of climate youth, followed by their parents and grandparents, and then by the international institutions. It is also the crucial challenge for international institutions in this 21st century: how do they address the issues that are put on the agenda by citizens and global movements? It also requires a new political narrative in which there is much more room for citizens and their informal movements, rather than the formalities of international diplomacy. In addition, the corona crisis has once again made very clear what the climate crisis has been demonstrating for years: the importance of science for effective action and for global governance. Bolsonaro and Trump show how disastrous it becomes when you reject science and govern it on the basis of fear.

Adekeye Adebajo: Peace and security on the one hand, poverty alleviation on the other. And both are connected to each other. Because without peace and security, development is not possible, and without development, there is always the threat of instability or worse. And that is another reason to reform the UN Security Council and make it more democratic.

Salil Shetty: What we need is a radical transformation of the balance of power in order to reduce or eliminate inequalities in terms of wealth, race, gender and caste. However, we currently have a huge lack of moral leadership. With the current group of leaders in the G20, there is no way to review power and the notion of international cooperation.

4. Can we work with fewer international organizations?

In a recent interview, Belgian professor Jan Orbie (Ghent University) says that the world might be better off with a few less international organizations. He mentions in particular the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Do you agree?

Adekeye Adebajo: I’m afraid that’s a rather irresponsible point of view. Of course, the IMF and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are anything but perfect institutions. But if they didn’t exist, someone would have to invent them. Dag Hammarskjöld (UN Secretary General in the 1950s, ed.) summarized this well, when he said that ‘the UN was not founded to bring humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell’.

‘Dag Hammarskjöld summarized it well when he said that “the UN was not founded to bring humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell”.’

In Europe, you know how dangerous it is to reject international cooperation, because it recalls protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbour competition in the inter-war period (when the economic solutions of one country reinforce the problems of another, ed.). This created the economic and social conditions that led to the Second World War.

If international order is not inclusive and does not represent global power relations, it loses credibility. As a result, the decisions that matter are taken elsewhere. It sounds counterintuitive, but the interests of the most powerful countries must be served by an international system so that it can also work for the weaker countries.

Frei Betto: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) mainly defend private capital. They encourage financial speculation and impose tax reforms and trade tariffs that plunge millions of people into poverty and misery. But we cannot do without sufficient international organizations.

Sharan Burrow: We need international organizations. The World Health Organization (WHO) has proven that it is necessary to provide a global response to COVID-19. On the other hand, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is responsible for an international trade model that has abandoned both people and their environment. And the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have strayed far from their mandate to promote neoliberal structural reforms and austerity, the interests of dominant countries and the greed of business. This must change.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a good example, with its unique tripartite system of employers, trade unions and governments, the pillars of the ILO. But today they must be as committed to a global floor of rights and shared prosperity as its founders were in 1919.

Salil Shetty: There is a proliferation of international organizations and UN bodies. And much less bureaucracy is needed. But the rich countries are the big donors and they want both jobs for their people and control over the governance of these organizations. The IMF was on a respirator a few years ago, but was revived when Greece and Europe were in crisis. Today, it is the financial ambulance itself. We need a rules-based trade system, but the WTO has caused as many problems as it was meant to solve.

Izabella Teixeira: I’m not an economist, so I don’t speak out about the current need for organizations like the IMF or the WTO. But the future is not a simple continuation of the past. One need is certain: to develop a way to organize the responsibility of the private sector on an international scale.

5. Which international organization should be established?

If you had the power to create a much needed international organization, which one would it be? And why is it so important for global welfare?

Salil Shetty: We need an international organization that is truly accountable to the international population, to We, the People. Because our problems are increasingly crossing borders. Moreover, the world needs to be able to intervene when leaders or governments use their power to attack minorities or weaker groups in their countries. But as long as we fail to put domestic politics on the right track and get progressive majorities in power through elections in key countries, international politics will remain in the hands of the elite.

‘We need an international organization that is truly accountable to the international population, to We, the People

Adekeye Adebajo: We must not create something new, we must make the existing institutions work better. There is already a UN Peacebuilding Commission. It has far too few resources. Invest in it. Because today we see that half of the conflicts that are being stopped will flare up again within five years. This has everything to do with a lack of resources to demobilize, disarm and reintegrate. A well-functioning Commission would also contribute to a larger and better administrative capacity, with better functioning social outcomes.

Sharan Burrow: Instead of creating new institutions, we need to make the institutions we have work together. With the express aim of building and coordinating that global, universal social protection fund. After all, that would mean that everyone would get a floor of social security, including pensions, income support, a minimum wage to stay alive. This is the basis for dignity at work and in our communities.

Izabella Teixeira: There is certainly a need for a new way of bringing people together worldwide, a new form or a new platform for the Enlightenment of the 21st century, in which a new balance between man and nature is realized. Not in the form of a new institution or organization, but in a network or alliance, in which the differences between people, communities or nations are no longer seen as stumbling blocks, but as strengths.

Frei Betto: I would set up an organization of all people and peoples living below the poverty line. This organization should fight for a global basic income, a monthly basic food package for all families and free access to quality medical care. For free and quality primary education for all children between the ages of three and twelve. For the realization of the three T’s of Pope Francis, right to work, land and shelter (trabalho, terra e teto, ed.), and for socially oriented nature conservation.

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