Skip to content

U.N. Takes Stock Of Its Diminished Green Influence

The United States and other industrial powers have excluded the United Nations from the most critical international discussions on the response to the global financial crisis, hindering the U.N.’s ability to promote the cause of smaller countries and the poor, according to a confidential set of U.N. briefing papers presented to a U.N. retreat at Alpbach, Austria earlier this month.

The five papers were meant to help Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his top advisors brainstorm ideas for the U.N.’s future, weeks ahead of a major U.N. summit on global poverty. They portray an organization that is straining to carve out a relevant role for itself following setbacks on its most important signature causes, including efforts to rein in climate change and combat extreme poverty. In some places, the reports propose strategies for bolstering the U.N.’s role on issues like climate change or international financial regulation; elsewhere, they suggest the organization simply lower its expectations.

The papers, obtained and posted by Fox News, provide a deeply pessimistic assessment of the ability of national governments, the United States, to grapple with some of the world’s most pressing economic, political, and environmental challenges. They also warn that while the world economy is recovering from the global recession, the “jobless recovery threatens to slow down the pace of social progress” among the world’s poorest.

“Our planet’s ability to sustain life, as we know it, is under enormous strain,” according to one of the papers prepared by Ban’s climate change support team. “The human footprint resulting from rising greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation, increased resource consumption, rapid population growth and other demographic trends is approaching dangerous tipping points. The consequences — for our species, as well as other species and the ecosystems that sustain us — could be grave.”

Despite the gloomy report, the briefing papers often have the tone of a corporate pep rally, urging the U.N.’s top officials to explore ways to place the international body at the center of the world’s chief transnational challenges. They outline five areas — including climate change, the development of a financial regulatory system, the promotion of international peace and security, and management of migration to rich countries — where the U.N. can translate global “risks into opportunities.” Some global problems won’t be solved, the reports suggest, unless states yield greater sovereignty to the U.N. and other international groups.

“Are we ready to empower the Secretary General with our collective ideas on a vision of sustainable development, one that will enable growth and prosperity, while respecting planetary boundaries?” according to Ban’s climate team’s paper. “The planet and the world are both waiting for it.”

But the papers also highlight the difficulties Ban has faced in preserving a U.N. leadership role in combating climate change or in trying to persuade the Group of 20 nations, which has taken the lead in organizing the international response to the financial crisis, to treat the United Nations an equal partner, and ensure the interest of the world’s poorest are taken into account.

“The much paraded reform of financial governance has not gone far enough and the voting power of emerging players and developing world, in general, which demand a greater say on these matters remains inadequate,” according to a paper by the U.N. Institute for Training and Research(UNITAR), which organized the U.N. retreat. “Worse, the crisis has served to perpetuate social inequalities by punishing the most vulnerable through reduced employment opportunities while the banking sector responsible for the downturn has benefited from generous public financial injections.”

Ban has sought to position the U.N. as a key bridge between the G-20 and the larger U.N. membership. But in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, U.S. President George W. Bushblocked a proposal by Ban and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to convene a G-20 summit at the United Nations. It was held in Washington. “The U.N. should be able to take the lead in setting the global agenda,” the UNITAR paper states, citing several proposals the U.N. could announce, including a call for greater financial regulation of financial transactions.

But since 2008, the U.N. has effectively been cut out of substantive discussions with the G-20’s finance ministers and their deputies, according to the same paper. “The absence of the U.N. from these processes and meetings puts it at a decided disadvantage in policy discussions, even on development issues,” according to a final paper dealing with the U.N.’s relationship with the G-20. “Moreover, the U.N. continues to be marginalized from all G20 macro-financial discussions despite their importance for sustainable development and social progress.”

Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, is hoping to take advantage of the upcoming November G-20 Summit in Seoul to reinsert the U.N. into the high-level deliberations. The Korean government “will be adding financial safety nets as well as development to the G20 Agenda,” the paper notes. “These initiatives provide an important new opportunity for the Secretary General to impress upon the G20 the need for meeting their commitments in the context of the U.N. system as the legitimate embodiment of inclusive multilateralism.”

The U.N. climate team’s paper acknowledges that the U.N.’s own role in addressing one of the most critical challenges of the day — reining in climate change — has foundered. A U.N.-sponsored international conference on global warming in Copenhagen last year failed to secure agreement on a global treaty that would regulate greenhouse gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol, which currently serves that function, expires in 2012. The paper notes that the U.N. negotiating framework — which encourages input from the organization’s 192 members — may be too unwieldy. It conceded that a smaller group — like the G-20 — might be in a better position to lead.

The U.N. also voiced deepening concern that climate change “seems to be slipping off the agenda” in the United States and elsewhere at a time when emissions are rising precipitously. While the Obama administration has been “more sympathetic” than any previous administration to support steps to stall global warming, it “has been unable to deliver domestic legislation” to cut its own emissions, according to one paper. “There seems to be an overarching sense of pessimism on the part of all actors that solutions, especially political ones, are elusive.”

The paper also predicted limited progress at a major conference on climate change in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year. “While there is always some incremental progress to show, expectations for Cancun are being lowered by the day,” one paper states. “The long term objective of a comprehensive legally binding agreement is definitely not on the table for Cancun.” It proposed that representatives in Cancun focus their efforts on creating an “implementation architecture” that can promote a few concrete deliverables, including a deforestation agreement and a financing system to help poor countries protect themselves from the increased floods, storms and other environmental challenges associated with global warming.

“Currently negotiated sanctions and green house gas emissions cuts will not guarantee the solution to the problem,” the paper states. “The real challenge comes from the exponential growth of the global consumerist society driven by ever higher aspirations of the upper and middle layers in rich countries as well as expanding demand of emerging middle class in developing countries…the new multilateralism should not lose sight of the most vulnerable segments of the world population.”

Foreign Policy, 13 September 2010