Peace and security: redefining the UN’s primary purpose

The war in Ukraine, the displacement of virtually the whole Palestinian population of Gaza, and Haiti’s spiral into anarchy have vividly exposed the UN’s inability to avert and resolve conflict. How might a changed UN apparatus be more proactive and effective in resolving disputes and bringing peace?

Peace and securityGlobal

Displaced families head from Gaza City to the south of Gaza. The ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have seen UN efforts at diplomacy and peacemaking stifled. © UN Women/Samar Abu Elouf

Diplomats and international officials in New York sometimes complain that the United Nations is turning into a “big non-governmental organization.” By this they mean that the UN no longer seems to play a significant role in international peace and security – and is increasingly focused on global cooperation in other fields, such as development and humanitarian assistance. Watching the Security Council divide and argue over Russia’s war in Ukraine and Israel’s operation in Gaza, many observers predict that the world organization’s peacemaking and peacekeeping functions will contract further, even if it remains active on other problems such as climate change.

Some of this pessimism is overstated. While the UN has struggled to deal with many recent crises, it still oversees more than 60,000 troops and police officers worldwide. That is down from over 100,000 a decade ago, but still a significant total by historical standards. UN mediators and political missions continue to nudge peace processes forward in places like Colombia and Yemen. When states want to voice their views on a major global crisis, their first ports of call are still the Security Council and General Assembly. And UN aid agencies offer rare – often the only – sources of assistance to suffering civilians in countries like Afghanistan. For a body that is supposedly in decline, the UN is busy.

Yet debates about what the UN’s overall priorities should be in an age of rising international competition are mounting. Even some of the organization’s leaders appear to think that the UN may be wise to take a lower profile on security concerns and focus its energies elsewhere.

Diplomatic efforts

Secretary-General António Guterres came to office in 2017 promising a “surge of diplomacy” in response to conflicts. He has had a few diplomatic successes, such as helping mediate the Black Sea Grain Initiative between Russia and Ukraine in 2022. Nonetheless, Guterres has gained a reputation for caution in other crises, and seemed keen to explore what the UN can do on other topics. In 2021, he published a report on the future of multilateralism entitled Our Common Agenda that contained bold ideas about the need for states to establish new mechanisms to handle pandemics, regulate artificial intelligence (AI), and govern outer space. Its section on issues like conflict prevention and disarmament was brief and lacked a comparable sense of ambition.

In 2023, Guterres released a fuller New Agenda for Peace. This contained a frank assessment of the poor state of international relations, and urged states to reinvest in diplomacy. It included interesting passages on the security challenges posed by AI, new biotechnologies, and other scientific advances. Yet the document struck a humble note, emphasizing that the UN’s ability to address many conflicts is limited and that international interventions often backfire. Instead, one of its themes is that states should invest more in their domestic conflict prevention efforts.

The Common Agenda and New Agenda for Peace were both designed to set the stage for the Summit of the Future, a leaders-level meeting initiated by Guterres that will take place in New York this September. In line with the Common Agenda, the Secretary-General has portrayed the summit as an opportunity for presidents and prime ministers to launch new ideas about global governance. Diplomatic discussions about the summit – and a Pact for the Future that is meant to come out of it – have further highlighted the difficulties of talking about security at the UN.

Many UN members from the so-called Global South have made it clear that the summit and pact should focus on the economic problems that they face today. Scores of developing countries are now carrying unsupportable debt burdens, and want the summit to help them unlock affordable financing. They also see this an opportunity to push for reforms to the governance of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to give non-Western states a greater say in their decision-making. While US and European officials say that they cannot give developing countries all that they want, they acknowledge that these economic and financial issues will be crucial to the September summit.

Redefining the UN’s peace and security remit 

Finding common ground on hard security issues in September also looks difficult. While Austria and Kuwait organized an energetic set of debates on Security Council reform in the first half of 2024 to feed into the summit, it is clear that agreement on a real Council overhaul is far off. Russia has firmly opposed calls by many UN members for the pact to endorse a drive for nuclear disarmament (other nuclear powers such as the US quietly support Russia on this). The pact may still include a few ideas about how the UN handles conflicts, such as a call for a new review of the strengths and weaknesses of blue helmet operations. It will also likely endorse efforts to strengthen the UN’s Peacebuilding Commission, which works collaboratively with countries to reduce conflict. But while small initiatives like this are useful, they do not seem equal to a moment in which overall levels of conflict are rising and a major power war is now a widely discussed threat.

The process leading up to the Summit of the Future does therefore point to a diminishing of the UN’s role on security issues. On the one hand, tensions between major powers place hard limits on the UN’s peacemaking role. On the other, many members want the UN to prioritize other issues anyway.

It is of course important to recognize that there is no hard and fast distinction between security and non-security issues. The UN has released a long series of reports attempting to widen states’ thinking on “human security” and related themes since the end of the Cold War. For the citizens of poor states, economic pressures risk creating political instability. Representatives from small island developing states point out that their countries face existential threats from sea-level rise tied to climate change. Even if the UN’s narrowly defined security role is shrinking, multilateral cooperation is still essential to addressing the security of states and individuals in a wider sense.

So it is possible that the UN will see its traditional mediation and peacekeeping roles shrink, while still contributing to making the world a safer place through other strands of work. Diplomats may fulminate in the Security Council, advocates of a less security-focused UN argue, but international experts can still get on with technical work on development, disease, and so forth. On the ground, UN agencies like the World Food Programme and UNHCR will continue to assist the suffering.

Yet if wars and international tensions continue to mount, all the good work UN staffers do on other issues may count for nought. As the food and energy price shocks associated with Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine showed – and maritime trade disruption following Yemeni attacks on ships in the Red Sea in support of Hamas confirmed – hard security problems can have major economic consequences. As my colleagues at the International Crisis Group have shown, states experiencing conflict also struggle to advance on adapting to the effects of climate change. And in a world where major power tensions could spike unpredictably, the UN may be needed to help freeze and ease conflicts that could otherwise escalate, as it did fairly frequently during the Cold War.

Rather than tiptoe away from addressing peace and security issues, therefore, advocates of multilateral cooperation should continue to focus on what the organization can do to tamp down local wars, ease regional conflicts, and avoid confrontation between the major powers. There is no easy set of recommendations as to how to achieve these goals. António Guterres and the potential candidates to replace him as Secretary-General in 2027 should be talking and listening closely to governments, large and small, about how the UN can play a bigger role in addressing international tensions. Diplomats and UN officials should also make the most of the few hooks that the Pact for the Future will offer on peace and security, such as its calls for a peacekeeping review. The Summit of the Future is very unlikely to deliver a clear vision of what the UN can do to promote international stability. But the challenge cannot be wished away.

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