Why the United Nations has been reduced to a technical support role

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 26, 2022

There’s lots to say about the excellent interview that Quartz did with former UN deputy secretary general Mark Malloch-Brown on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, but mainly the sense that even if multilateralism isn’t dead, its tool – the United Nations – is a bit blunt.

Click here to read the Quartz piece, but if you don’t, here are some takeaways.

Mr Malloch-Brown’s career is a paean to multilateralism. He was at the World Bank, the UN Development Programme, the UN Foundation and is now president of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. So his comments are especially interesting in their realism.

Mr Malloch-Brown acknowledged the significance of the UN secretary-general’s grain deal and the fact that IAEA inspectors were present at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia  nuclear plant. But multilateral institutions have been “good on consequences [and] completely absent on causes,” he said, noting that inescapable reality: “they don’t have the consent in the Security Council”.

The result is that the UN is reduced to serving as the world’s technical support rather than thinker, doing what needs to be done on humanitarian issues, nuclear inspections etc but unable to meaningfully guide and channel world developments.

That said, Mr Malloch-Brown noted the barest “silver lining” in terms of US President Joe Biden’s “sort of conversion” on that longstanding problem: UN Security Council reform. Suddenly, he said, the US sees “virtue in reform” though it’s not clear when events will start to catch up with the need for change.

That said, Mr Malloch-Brown makes an important point in stressing that “multilateralism is not an alternative to bad national governments. It is intergovernmental. It requires governments to share values and approaches, and in the case you find common ground between each other, coming together to drive shared solutions.”

It’s when you can’t find common ground and don’t have a mechanism to move anything forward that you get a state of half-gridlock as we see at the moment, with the UN reduced to a technical support role in the many troubling issues confronting the world.