Panic Attack:  Countering the UN’s Anxious Moments, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Sep

Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. Corrie Ten Boom

The more the panic grows, the more uplifting the image of the one who refuses to bow to the terror. Ernst Junger

Anxiety is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.  Jodi Picoult

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.  Søren Kierkegaard

The UN’s annual high-level week is over, and it is frankly difficult to capture the energy of UN Headquarters with so many global leaders – political, economic and moral – gathering to share their visions for the world while navigating what many millions hope is a path to greater peace and understanding.

Wandering the halls this week, it was clear that few issues of global consequence have escaped the attention of this leadership.   From pandemics to migrants and from climate change to nuclear disarmament, it would be difficult to conclude that the UN and its member states are ducking key responsibilities, nor are diplomats willfully placing the well-being of future generations in jeopardy through abject incompetence or benign negligence.  The week’s opening gambit, a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela complete with state commitments to a “political declaration” which his life inspired, was followed by other (albeit largely voluntary) commitments from national leaders, including on the reform of peacekeeping operations, the political integration and empowerment of youth, on Global Compacts for Migrants and Refugees, and (facilitated by Kazakhstan) the adoption of a Code of Conduct for the complete elimination of terrorism by the year 2045.

It would be easy to pick apart most if not all of these commitment events as more show than substance, more defending pre-existing positions than a serious exploration of their limitations, more signatures on the paper than serious commitments to up our urgency and amend our working methods.  But what could be interpreted as the limitations of this week would better be understood as a herculean struggle by states to overcome the anxiety – even panic – of these times, anxiety defined by so many policy “loose ends”, so many unfulfilled promises, threats to the global order to which some leaders have become overly complacent while many others find sleep elusive on most nights.

We did not need the High Level week to remind us of the roots of some of our current, pervasive anxiety – the climate threats that seem to have exceeded our collective capacity to respond; the weapons of more and less mass destruction that continue to flood conflict zones despite our high-minded resolutions and treaties; the equity gaps that this generation of policymakers has yet to address; the holes yet to be plugged in our 2030 Development Agenda responsibilities – anxieties that could exhaust even the most hopeful and energized of persons.

At the UN on Tuesday, It was apparently easy to join in the laughter at the outlandish claims made repeatedly by the US president.  And yet it is likely that much of that laughter was nervous more than mocking.  As the US president made the simultaneous case for the US’s own “hard sovereignty” coupled with the right to take unilateral action against the sovereign rights of others, there was a clear sense in the room of yet another dagger plunged into what remains of our “rules based order,” what remains of respect for a rule of law that even its erstwhile state guarantors in the Security Council too-often disregard with impunity.   As French president Macron noted in an address that seemed designed to counter what president Trump had been expected to say, we must do more to preserve the rules-based foundations needed to counter the struggles that lie before us.  But part of that requires self-assessment, to recognize that states and their peoples have threatened withdrawal from this “order” because it has too-often failed to fulfill its promises. We must acknowledge the self-interested application of this order’s privileges that have increased what Macron referred to as the “humiliating inequalities” we have repeatedly pledged to reduce.  As more than one speaker this week noted, in many key aspects we have brought this current situation on ourselves. Too often, we have been insufficiently vigilant and attentive stewards of the global commons entrusted to us.

Some of the rules-based anxiety this week was filtered through the various human rights events that dotted this week’s UN calendar, repeating what many have long recognized – that the commitment to human rights in many corners of the world is under serious assault.  Speaker after event speaker lamented the violence, intimidation and impunity for abuses that characterizes so much of our current landscape.  Often using terrorism and “illegal” migration as foils, states are increasingly justifying attacks on journalists, civil society organizations and others challenging the chillingly-punitive narratives emanating from more and more national capitals. Calls to “maintain our commitment to cooperation” as articulated by our current High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and to better ensure respect for the rights that are “inconsistent with human misery,” as noted by Senegal’s Foreign Minister, represent important messages that seem more and more to pass through our ears without pausing in our brains.

In fairness, the High Level event this week marking the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was brimming with insight, much of it courtesy of the Secretary-General and an extraordinary, young female advocate from Somalia. But even more wisdom came from a group of three elderly women, Louise Arbour, Mary Robinson and the aforementioned Michelle Bachelet, all of whom have occupied the High Commissioner’s seat, and all of whom were willing to speak truth about the “urgency and anger” that must energize our collective commitments to address rights-related threats – including on climate and migration – which we must get right if we are to avoid the “scorn of future generations.”

Mary and Louise, especially, are part of a quite small group of leaders in my long tenure at the UN whose respect from our office has never once wavered.   They have well-earned authority to name the present anxiety without “bowing to the terror” of these difficult times: this while also acknowledging the limitations of the system of which they have been an integral part – the doors to peace not opened, the unfair and self-serving application of our erstwhile “universal values,” our overly tepid defenses of human dignity, our increasing acquiescence (as also noted by the Republic of Korea’s Foreign Minister) to narratives that deliberately skew the truth about government intent, that allow leaders (as noted by France’s MFA) to get away with claiming they are “managing” journalists and civil society when such actors are actually being “muscled.”

These women and their podium colleagues grasp the times we are living through. In an age of high anxiety, temptations multiply to pull back, to cash in our trust in others, to micro-manage our own brand, to see threats around every corner, to preoccupy ourselves with those who are allegedly trying to “get us,” or hurt us, or “offend” us.  In an age of high anxiety, it is always someone else’s fault.  There is always someone or something trying to take advantage of us, prey on our vulnerability, or “ruin” what we have come to believe is our entitlement.  From our hyper-personal and increasingly isolated fortresses, we shine the mirror of anxiety and mistrust in every direction where it suits our psychic interests – everywhere it seems but towards ourselves.

The 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration, noted Mary Robinson, is not nearly as happy an event as it could have been.   Our “dignity deficit” remains intact, and we have allowed anxiety-driven isolation and polarization to spread like a virus, localizing trust and substituting small-screen grievances for bigger-picture human concerns.  If the UN is to make good on its recent promises, if the frenetic activity of this past week is to result in policies that benefit more than the people who crafted them, then we must all pledge to assess and refine as needed the caliber of our stewardship of the norms, rules and structures entrusted to us.  Only then can we credibly challenge the modern tendencies, as described by Mexico’s outgoing president Nieto this week, of states and people who would either “sow discord or sit on the sidelines.”

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