Choir Practice:  Making Melodies for Multilateralism, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Sep

I would like to see anyone, prophet, king or God, convince a thousand cats to do the same thing at the same timeNeil Gaiman

Don’t let a loud few determine the nature of the sound. It makes for poor harmony and diminishes the song. Vera Nazarian

Humor is a universal language that topples walls, connects hearts, and opens the door to communication and cooperationL.R. Knost

Cooperation is very often furthered by segregating those who do not fit in. That creates some superclusters of cooperation among the quality cooperators and a fair amount of chaos and dysfunctionality elsewhereTyler Cowen

Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarismNaomi Klein

This week marks the end of what we believe to have been the remarkable General Assembly tenure of Ecuador’s María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, a too-rare female president who brought to her tasks abundant energy, thoughtfulness and honesty about our common responsibilities and the impediments to growth and change that we so often place in our own way.  She has been, in our humble view, just what this organization needed and, indeed, what it would have been good to hold on to for just a bit longer.

If this week was to be her swan song, the PGA did her best to ensure it was one to remember, doubling down on key concerns that have defined her leadership:  promoting a culture of peace based on fulfillment of our sustainable development promises; integrating the skills and aspirations of women and youth in social, political and economic life; and especially upholding the value of multilateral engagement at a time when a toxic nationalism has swept through our political fabric, pulling in the reigns of diplomatic cooperation and substituting “rooting interests” for a broader sense of civic participation and human solidarity.

The events sponsored by the PGA were not the only signs of multilateral energy this week:  A Swiss-moderated , Working Group discussion on threats to cyber security and a Peacebuilding Commission session on promoting “south-south cooperation” both underscored the futility of attempting to solve problems that are global in nature with solutions that are tailored to the now-competitive and distrustful national frameworks in which more and more of us seem a bit too comfortable.   Clearly, as noted in these and related sessions, there is no cure for the ills of unaddressed food insecurity, cyber crime, ocean pollution, climate-related disasters or forced displacement that is strictly (or even primarily) national in nature.   We simply will not fulfill our promises to future generations unless we can free up now-clogged pathways of communication and mutual support. We have dug too deep a hole to think it can be filled with only one brand of shovel.

But this PGA (and some of those whom she has inspired and been inspired by) also understands that much of the current “push-back” on multilateralism represents a self-inflicted wound.  The push to metaphorically abandon the choir for a solo career has its roots in an international system that has at times been too smug, too complacent, too removed from the needs and aspirations of constituents.  We have allowed criticism to take root of a UN “too much about talk and not enough about action;” we have passed resolutions without a sincere commitment to implement their provisions; we have played with peoples’ expectations, making promises (especially but not only on peace and security) about which we then continue to “hedge” our bets; we have only begun, as the director of the UN Office for South-South Cooperation noted this week, to “break the taboo of looking sideways,” only timidly acknowledging that all states and other stakeholders have much more to both share and receive.  Such patterns have contributed to what the Ugandan Ambassador called his “nightmare,” the fear that 75 years from now we will still be fussing over language at the UN while yet another generation of opportunities to promote lasting peace, development, climate health and global solidarity goes by the boards.

And perhaps of greatest concern from the standpoint of rescuing multilateralism from its increasingly vocal and dismissive critics, we have sanctioned reforms of this system without a commensurate commitment to change ourselves, to recover and then display some of the passion, curiosity and discernment that led us to choose this path of service in the first place.   We have heard often in this policy space, especially with regard to persons with disabilities and indigenous persons, that there must be “nothing about us without us.”  We need to apply a version of this to our current, urgent struggles to re-establish the credibility of multilateral engagement.   No restoration of multilateralism without a commitment to amend the ways we do our own business.  No restoration without, as the Secretary General stated well during the dialogue on multilateralism, the reform of how we communicate with each other, the degree to which we can be convincing in this difficult moment that others also have a voice in this space, that others also matter in this space, that others also have the ability to influence what happens in this space.

As the director of the Interparliamentary Union noted this week during a “culture of peace” panel, “the world is changing every day, tolerance is eroding every day, loud voices are calling for national solutions to global problems every day.  We must thus make the decision to change ourselves every day.”  The truth of the matter which she recognizes, which the outgoing PGA certainly recognizes as well, is that no sustainable reform of this institution, no “comeback” for multilateralism, will likely occur without the willingness to reform ourselves and, more specifically, the nature and content of our “contract” with both constituents and each other.  As the Russian Ambassador plainly reminded on Wednesday, this is collectively our UN. If we don’t like what we see “we need to look in the mirror.”  This goes for all of us who give less than we are able and dismiss more than we imagine.

And “we must get beyond acronyms,” the PGA chimed in, reassuring the global public that we in this still-august policy space are conversant with and have the will and the skills to tangibly and positively impact real human needs. To get there, as the SG noted, we must demonstrate the willingness to move beyond our current, unhealthy preoccupation with “coalitions of the willing,” eliminating the segregation associated with our modernist “super-clusters of cooperation.” And, we would add from out vantage point, we need to convince constituents that we are willing to take them more seriously — and ourselves less so.

Indeed, this “choir” of ours won’t be ready for its next moment in the spotlight until and unless all of us –states and stakeholders alike — agree to practice harder at blending our voices and thus bring to a close the “poor harmony” which is needlessly draining the patience and enthusiasm of our global audience.

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