Years ago, one of us was walking with a colleague who had experience working in the UN Secretary-General’s Office. He asked, pointedly: “Do you think we have reached the apex of our global governance evolution?”
By framing this moment of history in this way, the question raised the issue of not only the present circumstances of our global governance architecture, but what the future of global governance might look like. Will future generations be living under this same UN Charter brought into being in 1945? That conversation, in turn, brought to mind the words of one leader at the San Francisco conference where the UN Charter was adopted:
This Charter, like our own Constitution, will be expanded and improved as time goes on. No one claims that it is now a final or a perfect instrument. It has not been poured into any fixed mold. Changing world conditions will require readjustments, but they will be the readjustments of peace and not of war.
To return to the question about whether we have reached the apex of global governance, we believe any thoughtful person would have to say “no”. This begs the next set of questions: what is the future of global governance and when will these structures evolve? Why have they proven so resistant to change, despite the mounting evidence of their shortcomings? Why, at a time when we have the necessary resources and knowledge to provide sufficiency for all, do poverty, war, and climate change persist? In other words, are the normative bases underlying and informing governance structures actually reflective of our aspirations?
These are some of the questions which instill in us a combination of hope and fear. Hope because if we all recognize something new must one day come, then we can bring about change through an act of collective will. Fear because the longer we wait, the more likely it is that catastrophe, rather than volition, will be the catalyst of progress and evolution.
Is now the time to think about the future of global governance?
It is cliche to say we are at an inflection point. Maybe it is more accurate to say we are at a moment when we see that we have a choice to make, and we have the opportunity to choose wisely.
The calculation to us is clear: either we make the sensible decision that future generations will thank us for, stepping back from the current precipice and rethinking the international order in a way that better corresponds to the needs humanity and the planet are facing. Or, alternatively, we continue to say: “the time is not right,” “it is too difficult,” or “it is too dangerous,” up until the moment when the choice has been made for us and, we fear, tragically so. Whether it is another pandemic, climate change, system collapse, nuclear war or, more likely, a combination of multiple crises which interact with each other in deeply intertwined ways – whatever the circumstance, it is patently clear to us that an ounce of prevention is worth far more than a pound of cure.
To take an example, some of the world’s leading scientists have been saying for the past three decades that the costs of dealing with the consequences of accelerating climate change will be orders of magnitude higher than the costs of taking preventive measures now. We learned long ago that systems that are in disequilibrium eventually adjust, but orderly adjustments are infinitely better than the adjustments imposed by system collapse.
The Summit of the Future is a unique opportunity to shape the future of global governance
Enter the 2024 Summit of the Future. We are not so naive as to think that one Summit will change the course of human history. It is unlikely, on its own, to help us overcome the forces of materialism and complacency; state centrism and competition which have come to define our current patterns of global governance. But it does offer the potential to set in motion forces which would open the door to systemic change. It could help us begin to describe what our present paradigms are, and then to raise deeper questions about them: are our notions of development adequate and consistent with preserving the integrity of our earth’s planetary systems? Can we afford to wait? Can we find a coherence between state-centric responsibilities and meaningful global solidarity? Can shared societies be built on competitive frameworks that infect our economic, political, scientific, and social systems?
While these questions may be philosophical, even esoteric, without considering them deeply, the changes we propose are likely to stay within the same paradigm which has brought us to this point. What doors can the Summit of the Future open to allow for such debates to take place?
UN Charter Reform and Article 109
Perhaps the simplest one is that which is found in the UN Charter itself – and about which we have written before – Article 109. The goal of calling for such a convening is as much to open the imaginative space, to encourage creativity, as it would be to actually lead to change.
We are aware of the perceived risks of opening the Charter to review: no progressive change will be agreed to, goes the argument, which means we only risk disappointment and, maybe, a loss of some of the gains thus far made. But what do we invite by not opening up such a space for creative thinking and consultation? What risks are we taking by waiting idly as temperatures rise—literally and figuratively—the world over? It is increasingly clear to us that continuing on this trajectory for the next several decades without openly questioning our deeper assumptions—our default approach since the adoption of the UN Charter—is no longer an option which can be justified to our children, and theirs.
And here we return to that opening question: have we reached the apex of global governance? If you agree that the answer is “no”, then we propose there is only one humane path forward. That is to make every effort to bring about a system that more adequately addresses the needs we face before greater, unconscionable suffering is allowed to take place. The Summit of the Future provides an important opportunity to this end, let us seize this critical moment.
The United Nations must reform to better represent the interests of the Global South
Klaus Kotzé | January 6, 2024