UN, 75

Image: Stela Grespan


The present and future of the United Nations in the face of the crisis of multilateralism

75 years ago, the United Nations was founded, from a broad coalition of forces that defeated Nazi-fascism. On September 22nd, the proposed theme for the Assembly of Nations reaffirmed the “collective commitment to multilateralism”. Along with the words of Secretary-General António Guterres in favor of international cooperation, this theme is yet another letter of intent in the face of an adverse scenario: the anniversary of the UN takes place before the deliberate US attack against multilateralism.

For decades, the US defended (in terms of discourse) a liberal and democratic order. As Perry Anderson recalls, if in the East the Cold War was defined as a dispute between capitalism and communism, in the West, the USA presented it as a struggle between a “free world” and “authoritarianism”. At least until 1989, because afterwards the open defense of market values ​​came without the fantasy of freedom[I]. Who does not remember the triumphalism displayed by Francis Fukuyama in the text that would be the academic bestseller of the final victory of the United States and the world built by them?

It was a vision steeped in blind triumphalism: the “end of history” had arrived with the final defeat of capitalism's opponents. The rivals of liberalism had demonstrated their inefficiency in practice and would invariably give way to the most evolved form of human consciousness. This new world emerged from the last great ideological confrontation would be governed by a “Universal Homogeneous State”. Goods would circulate freely, people would seek happiness through the satisfaction of their needs (seen through the prism of consumption, as befits a good liberal) and universal peace would finally be a reality.

Countries would not need to arm themselves and international relations, emptied of subject matter, would be confined to the pages of economics and no longer to those of politics and strategy. Warlike conflicts would occur, yes, for some more time, but never between countries of the posthistory and always against what was left of “autocracies” on the planet. A universal democracy, that is, capitalism and neoliberalism, would gradually impose themselves on all the peoples of the planet, even if through the use Historical of strength[ii].

For History had not died and Fukuyama himself recognized it a few years later[iii].

Today, faced with this test of life and ways of overcoming capitalism, the US seeks to face it by bringing old Cold War fantasies back to the stage. And this time, in an ironic paradox, they are the ones attacking the institutions of the “free world”. The attack on the United Nations, the regulation of international trade and multilateral organizations comes from Washington. At the other end, Beijing places itself as a guarantor and defender of the international system.

There is a short circuit in the American leadership, in which the United States invokes all the ghosts that founded its conflict with the USSR. The staging for the general public brought out of the closet the sexism, hate speech, “internal enemies”, the figure of the “red enemy”, confrontation with the East… everything is back, redesigned for the new times. “Without the barbarians, what will become of us”, asked the poem by Konstantinos Kaváfis and also asks a good part of the North American electorate, lost between Trump’s false promises, the advance of the pandemic and a Democratic candidacy that does not seem to offer anything very different.

Now there is talk of a new Cold War. Of course, the expression fits what remains of the imaginary of the dispute that marked part of the XNUMXth century. Needless to say, historical experiences are not repeatable. What is Cold War is present only in the aggressive North American rhetoric.

China and the United States are the two largest economies in the world. More than that, in a way that never happened in the relationship between the USA and the Soviet Union, China and the United States have their economies strongly intertwined. A demonstration of this lies in the fact that Trump's trade war has as its goals not the closing of trade with China, but its intensification, causing the Chinese to buy even more from the Americans. Evidently, this only changes when it comes to technology. And it is clear to anyone that, in American rhetoric, the Chinese are not spies when they buy, but paradoxically they are when they sell products from their sophisticated industry 4.0.

Trump has a key role on this new stage, but none of this should be attributed to him alone. With Bush Jr., the war on terror fulfilled the mission of tearing up the Charter of Nations and discarding the UN as an instance with some cogent force. The attack against the WHO carried out today comes after the door was opened by the invasion of Iraq, illegally – without the approval of the UN Security Council – and from a proven pretext. Then, with democratic governments, the image of the “terrorist” enemy took the war directly to Afghanistan, in addition to Syria, Libya and all the chaos implanted in the Arab countries.

Now, in the midst of a difficult re-election campaign, Trump needs a more tangible "enemy," more acceptable to the symbolic structures reinforced by decades and decades of messages of all kinds, from academic texts to Hollywood films. China, says Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “want to dominate the world”[iv]. A puerile language, but adapted to an era of foreign policy via tweets. The UN is an unnecessary expense and does not serve US interests, says Trump, who used the UN tribune as a platform to repeat accusations against Beijing, which were never proven.

For his part, Joe Biden, the opponent chosen by the Democratic Party, radically changed his position. Until last year, he was critical of the trade war against China and said Beijing was not a threat to the US. However, the article signed by him in launching his platform for foreign policy repeated Trump and elected China as the new enemy. His proposal, in what he tries to differentiate himself from the current occupant of the White House, is to renegotiate NATO exactly to face what he now considers the “true threat to the United States”. He also says that a renewed NATO would be the best instrument to face Putin's government in Russia, which he defines as "authoritarian and kleptocratic"[v]. As always, the “barbarians” are needed.

Thus, the UN reaches its 75 years with the two parties that govern the US agreeing on the essential: multilateralism is good only when it serves the United States. The lack of vocation for dialogue and the will to govern the international system unilaterally and with fists in the air is latent in both the histrionic Donald Trump and the more refined Joe Biden. The victory of the Democrats in the US elections in December will certainly represent a breakthrough in the face of the whole project that Trump carries with him. However, it will mean little in building the peaceful world that the UN aspired to when it was founded.

*Alexandre G. de B. Figueiredo He holds a PhD from the Graduate Program in Latin American Integration (PROLAM-USP).



[I] ANDERSON, Perry. “The battle of ideas in the construction of alternatives”. In: BORON, Atilio (org). New World Hegemony – alternatives for change and social movements. Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2005, p. 38.

[ii] FUKUYAMA, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1992.

[iii] FUKUYAMA, Francis. The American Dilemma: Democracy, Power, and the Legacy of Neoconservatism. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 2006.


[v]BIDEN, Joseph. “WyAmerica must lead again”. In: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/whyamerica-must-lead-again

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