Article by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Le Figaro newspaper
When it was created, the United Nations was a source of great hope. Let us admit that, in the face of national interests – which are not about to go away –, it has never been able to meet those expectations fully. Despite its weaknesses, which are clear in the Syrian tragedy, the UN remains the pillar of multilateralism and an tool of political regulation that cannot be ignored. France is deeply committed to this organization, which is insufficient but indispensable. We intend to contribute to the necessary reforms to enable it to play its full role.
Let us look back several decades. After the brief period of enthusiasm following the Second World War, the UN became a Cold War sounding board. It escaped paralysis only when the two superpowers wanted it to – i.e. rarely. The collapse of the USSR then initiated a period when the organization emerged from its silence. For the first Gulf War and Bosnia, the UN again took on the mission for which it had been created.
11 September and the second Iraq war marked the beginning of another period: that of a fragmentation of power and a shift of the centre of gravity towards the countries acquiring economic prosperity. The 2008 crisis accelerated this change and marked the return to the forefront of a narrow idea of national interests.
This is where we are. On certain subjects – for example, Iranian nuclear weaponry – the United Nations plays a useful role. On others, unfortunately, it constitutes a sort of community of interests. Too often, the United Nations now presents itself as an association of nations with rival ambitions – nations that agree to see eye to eye on limited objectives provided these reflect narrow interests, taking insufficient account of the long term.
What are the main “forces” present in that community?
Driven by economic growth but confronted with the poverty of a substantial sector of their populations, the emerging powers are showing themselves to be cautious in dealing with the new issues of the green economy and global warming. They see them as potential constraints on their future. They legitimately claim that their role should be recognized, without necessarily shouldering the global responsibilities it entails.
For their part, authoritarian regimes make national sovereignty their ultimate defence. They are able to influence the workings of the UN, as we are tragically seeing with the deadlock at the Security Council on Syria.
The United States continues to see the United Nations as a rather secondary instrument in its foreign policy. President Obama took the positive step of ending his predecessor’s systematic hostility towards the organization. He has paid the bulk of his country’s debts; beyond this, he has hardly taken an active role as yet.
As for the European Union, it has not yet succeeded in establishing itself as a major player, although it accounts for nearly 40% of the UN’s budget and 60% of Official Development Assistance. Certain differences of approach between its members and the crisis afflicting it are damaging its prestige and influence.
Finally in this swift outline, the financial crisis is undermining the long-standing compromise on which the UN operation depends. The G77, which brings together 132 out of 193 countries, contributes less than 10% of the budget. The United States, Europe and Japan together pay for 70% of the costs and 80% of peacekeeping operations. France alone contributes more than China, India and Russia combined. As we are seeing, all this is not very satisfactory.
In order to give the UN every opportunity, we must define the “new compromise” the organization needs. France, identified as one of the pillars of the UN, must propose objectives for achieving this.
— Our first objective must be to deepen the dialogue forged with the emerging countries. This is not necessarily easy. Not everyone dreams of a mutually-supportive world. Some envisage, instead, a theatre in which to further their national ambitions. For all that, they have a right to ask us for power to be better shared out.
— We must actively focus our efforts and thinking on Security Council reform. We are one of the only permanent members to really promote this active role. As President Hollande said at the UN, we shall promote it forcefully.
— The EU must demand a role matching its weight, rather than – as it does today – acting as something of a large NGO. In other words, Europe must accept its political role. This is in the interests of the United Nations, which needs balance. It is also in ours.
— We must, if possible with others, regain the initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remains central to the tensions in the Arab-Muslim world. The Quartet is at a dead end. Both sides have hitherto proven incapable of moving towards peace by themselves. France has real legitimacy on this subject.
— Nearly two-thirds of Security Council cases relate to Africa. We have to involve Africans and their regional organizations more in resolving crises; this is being done today for Mali.
— Finally, environmental issues are too often the subject of a dialogue of the deaf between a Europe which makes proposals but cannot finance everything, small countries which feel abandoned, emerging countries focusing on their economic growth, and the United States quite happily hiding behind the latter.
The fact is that agreements forged in the environmental sphere are sadly less and less substantial and financial commitments are forever being recycled. The question arises of whether another approach would allow us together to identify the consequences of sustainable development on each type of economy.
All in all, I am delighted to note that France today punches significantly above her weight at the United Nations. She owes this to her status as a permanent member of the Security Council, her commitment to multilateralism and human rights, her language, her clear political choices and her historical commitment to an organization which from her expects support, ideas, expertise and impetus. Despite or because of the current difficulties, the United Nations remains indispensable for world peace. France has genuine influence there. On the basis of a new compromise, it is up to us to exert this./.