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Reforming the UN in an era of great power competition

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In a world marked by escalating global power struggles and growing uncertainty, the United Nations, as the leading international organization, will once again take center stage at the next General Assembly. Unsurprisingly, Russian Presidents Vladimir Putin and Chinese Presidents Xi Jinping will refrain from attending, as is their custom at the annual gathering in New York in September.

The past few weeks have clearly illustrated how geopolitical competition between countries manifests itself through international and regional institutions. Russia’s hosting of the Russia-Africa summit in Moscow was aimed at forging new alliances amid an ongoing, unjust war in which it finds itself isolated. Conversely, China sent a strong message to the United States by inviting new member countries to join it. BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The recent G20 Summit witnessed India launch a strategic corridor project with the support of the United States and Europe, known as the India-Arab-Europe Corridor (IMEC), to counter China’s Silk Road initiative.

As the United Nations General Assembly approaches, influential global players have meticulously executed their strategic decisions, and their leaders are now preparing to deliver diplomatic messages on the global stage. The UN will strive to maintain its traditional mission in a context of geopolitical maneuvering and competition. However, given its current structure, it faces considerable difficulties in achieving this. The UN finds itself trapped in a deep crisis characterized by problems of legitimacy, ineffectiveness and lack of accountability.

Founded shortly after World War II, the UN initially advocated an approach drawing on lessons from the past. It linked the principle of collective security to global stability, aiming to establish world peace by minimizing conflict and establishing a system emphasizing winner-take-all balance. The veto power granted to the Security Council was ostensibly intended to prevent global conflicts, protect victims from aggressors, and facilitate the maintenance of peace through preventive measures. However, global justice remained elusive for the UN. In reality, the veto power conferred on the permanent members of the Security Council has transformed into a mechanism prioritizing the interests of the “big five” over justice, efficiency and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. .

During the Cold War, the UN ensured that the strategic interests of the five permanent members of the world order were safeguarded. While avoiding confrontation, they often favored the strong over the weak, to the extent that it served their interests. The UN legal framework during this period accommodated policies such as Israel’s occupation of Palestine, US support for counter-guerrilla efforts in Latin America, the Vietnam War, and many other examples presented as stabilizing the so-called broader international system.

After the end of the Cold War, the UN assumed a greater role in global governance, but it failed to evolve in tandem with the changing international landscape. In the US-led world order, the UN has gradually evolved from a strategic institution to a tactical “apparatus”. Although it played a leading role in humanitarian interventions, it proved ineffective in curbing ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Africa. The fact that NATO, rather than the UN, intervened in Kosovo to prevent larger-scale massacres highlighted the dysfunction of the UN veto system.

Deep UN crisis

The crisis in global governance, triggered by the geopolitical, political, security, economic and social upheavals of the post-Cold War period, has highlighted the failures of the UN. Today, the UN faces a deeper crisis than ever before in its history. This crisis directly calls into question the founding principles of the organization and raises fundamental questions about its legitimacy.

The legitimacy crisis results from the UN’s continued adherence to a quintet structure despite significant geopolitical changes. The evolving post-Cold War international system is characterized by multipolarity, in which emerging powers refuse to defer to the decisions of the five countries. This demonstrates that the UN fails to reflect the current balance of geopolitical power.

At the same time, the UN is grappling with a profound crisis of representation. It remains culturally monocultural and has a Western-centric character. Its ineffectiveness exacerbates these problems and makes its current form unsustainable. The UN often fails to act in a timely manner during international crises, allowing them to fester and deferring resolutions to narrow interests. Transparency issues further compound the UN’s legitimacy problems, as decision-making processes and alignment of decisions with the nature of crises erode its reputation as a transparent organization. Such a structure not only struggles to ensure the stability of the global system, but also encourages states to develop their crisis resolution mechanisms.

The profound upheavals in the global system, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, intensifying competition between the United States and China, and Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, signal an imminent transformation in international politics without precedent since the Cold War. This transformation suggests a recalibration of the distribution of power and a shift in the center of power from the West to the East. Two centuries of Western geopolitical domination could give rise to a new era of Eastern geopolitical equality. In this emerging era, marked by radical changes in the distribution of power and the geopolitical order, UN reform takes precedence, surpassing all other priorities.

The failure to take into account the global distribution of power and to design timely, effective and equitable solutions to global problems will deepen the UN’s legitimacy crisis. This crisis could encourage the emergence of alternative standards within the existing international legal order and the development of a parallel legal framework. Decisions made by alternative regional blocs in political, economic and security matters are already supplanting the norms established by the UN.

Additionally, the creation of alternative regional organizations, rather than relying on the UN as a supranational entity, could further undermine the UN’s effectiveness and lead to its dissolution.

At the next UN summit, it is likely that Turkey will not be the only actor to raise the issue of reform. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will highlight the urgent need for UN reform to resolve the legitimacy crisis of the global system. As President Erdoğan has repeatedly mentioned, the UN must be reformed as quickly as possible to avoid further problems.

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