Articles - February 2020

Secretary General Describes a World of Circular Diplomacy as the United Nations Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary

“Too often, he noted, “governments and international institutions are viewed as places that talk.  I want the United Nations [during] this anniversary, essentially to listen. There is no doubt that people have much to say. The disquiet in the streets and squares across the world is proof that people want to be heard.”

Secretary General António Guterres began the United Nations 75th anniversary year (1945-2020) with a speech to the international press that regularly covers the work of the organization.


Building a 21st Century Agenda Through Listening

As it celebrates its 75th anniversary the United Nations is convening a series of dialogues in every country across the world with a special emphasis on youth and groups not already engaged with the UN. In what the Secretary-General has termed a “global reality check,” the United Nations is setting out to build a reenergized 21st century agenda by encouraging feedback across borders, sectors and generations.  Urging wide participation in these dialogues, the Secretary-General underscored his theme that the United Nations needs “your opinion, your strategies, your ideas for us to be able to deliver better for the people of the world that we must serve.”

This effort is an attempt to generate “crowd-sourced” solutions to major global challenges and to use information technology and social media to reach beyond the traditional avenues of diplomacy into a new era of public diplomacy.  Multiple data streams are being pursued.  The country dialogue process will be catalyzed by UN Resident Coordinators stationed around the world.  On-line commentary will be solicited through a “One Minute survey” available in dozens of languages that anyone with internet access anywhere in the world can take.  Formal opinion polling will be carried out in 50 countries. And artificial intelligence sentiment analysis of traditional and social media will be deployed in 70 countries.


Circular Diplomacy – both Vicious and Virtuous

Even as the Secretary-General offered fresh visions intended to shape the future of the organization, he also offered a sobering analysis of the state of the world in which the United Nations currently operates.

“I have spoken recently about “winds of hope.  But,” the Secretary General lamented, “today a wind of madness is sweeping the world.”  He observed that as 2019 ended, “we were moving in the right direction in a number of hotspots.  We were seeing signs of de-escalation and some measure of progress.  That’s all changed.” 

The Secretary General pointed to the need for world leaders to address the “cascading challenges and [break] the vicious circles that define our day.”  He identified several such “vicious circles.”  In the realm of peace and security, conflicts are becoming longer, more lethal and more likely to erupt in the first place.  Guterres observed that, “From Libya to Yemen to Syria and beyond – escalation is back.  Arms are flowing and offensives are increasing.  All situations are different, but there is a feeling of growing instability and hair-trigger tensions, which makes everything far more unpredictable and uncontrollable, with a heightened risk of miscalculation.”

A second “vicious circle” arises from the interplay of conflict and struggling efforts at economic development. The Secretary General describes the series of steps that link these critical problems. “As economies falter, poverty remains entrenched.  As future prospects look bleak, populist and ethnic nationalist narratives gain appeal.  As instability rises, investment dries up, and development cycles down.  When armed conflicts persist, societies reach perilous tipping points. As government grows weak, terrorists get stronger, seizing on the [vacuum of lawlessness].”

Yet a third set of vicious circles exacerbates the global climate crisis.  “As oceans warm, ice melts, and we lose the vital service the ice sheets perform – reflecting sunlight, and thus further increase ocean warming,’ the Secretary General explained. “And as ice melts and the oceans warm, sea levels rise and more water evaporates, fueling ever greater rainfall, threatening coastal cities and deltas.”  Guterres notes similar processes on land. “As permafrost disappears, and as tundra thaws earlier and freezes later, vast amounts of methane – a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – enter the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.”

Still a fourth vicious circle is represented by the global impact of poverty and inequality, which interact to skew the process of globalization in ways that deny many parts of the world the opportunity and the income needed to improve standards of living.  “Development,” the Secretary General asserts, “is a goal in its own right.  But it is also our best form of prevention.”

Nevertheless, the Secretary-General countered these bleak visions with the recognition that it is possible for the United Nations to counter these threats by building a series of “virtuous circles” designed to mobilize global commitment and the corresponding resources.  “Finance will be critical,” he emphasized.

Building on the UN’s Sustainable Development goals and the recently launched “Decade of Action” to deliver on those goals, Guterres added, “We know that progress on one Goal can generate progress on all - [that way lies] the virtuous circle we know is possible and that can point the way to toward growth and prosperity for all.”  


“Nice Speeches Won’t Do”

Constructing such virtuous circles is necessary across each of the issues the United Nations faces today and will make it possible to confront new challenges that will emerge in the future.  That is the work of the United Nations and collectively of the sovereign states represented there.  Multilateral institutions, Secretary-General Guterres avowed are needed more than ever.  “I will continue my efforts to build both a networked multilateralism, with the United Nations and all international organizations working together, and an inclusive multilateralism able to listen and incorporate the contributions of business, civil society, local and regional authorities, and young people.”

In his speech to the General Assembly setting out his priorities for 2020, for the United Nations 75th anniversary observance and for the decade ahead, Secretary General Guterres identified four horsemen  – epic geopolitical tensions, the climate crisis, global mistrust and the downsides of technology – that jeopardize every aspect of our shared future.  “That is why,” he insisted, “commemorating the 75th anniversary with nice speeches won’t do. We must address these four 21st-century challenges with four 21st-century solutions.”

“Let us make 2020 the year of urgency,” he implored.  “And, as we do so, let us spare no effort to rebuild trust.  I make a special appeal to all Member States:

Listen to people.

Open new channels for all to be heard and find common ground.

Respect freedom of peaceful assembly and expression.

Protect civic space and freedom of the press.

And let us harness the ideas and energy and sense of hope of young people —in particular young women     
  - demanding change and constructive solutions.”

For more information or to be a part of this global conversation and the regional dialogues, please go to:

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