Behind all the Speechmaking at the UN Lies a Basic, Unspoken Question: Is the World Governable?

AP Photo/Richard Drew
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres addresses the United Nations Sustainable Development Forum, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023.

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Work together. Go it alone. The apocalypse is at hand. But the future can be bright. The squabbles never cease, yet here are human beings from all across the world — hashing out conflicts with words and processes, convening under one roof, trying to write the next chapter of a common dream.

At the United Nations, “multilateralism” is always the goal. Yet so is the quest for a coherent storyline that unites all 193 member states and their ideas. Those two holy grails often find themselves at odds when leaders gather each September at the United Nations — a construct whose very name can be a two-word contradiction.

You hear a lot about “the narrative” these days in politics (and everywhere else). It’s a way to punch through the static and make sure people are absorbing your message — and, ultimately, doing what you want them to do. But how to establish a coherent storyline when the very notion of many nations with many voices is baked into the pie to begin with?

Which raises the bigger question, the one that sits beneath it all at this assembling of people trying to figure out how to run their patches of the planet and be part of an increasingly interconnected civilization: With the 21st century unfolding in all of its unimaginable complexities and conundrums, with fracture and fragmentation everywhere, can the world even be governed?

“Yes, it can, but only in the sense that the world has ever been governed, including in this highly institutionalized and regulated world — that is, minimally,” Jeffrey Martinson, an associate professor of political science at Meredith College in North Carolina, said in an email.

That truth becomes evident listening to the first two days of leaders’ speeches at the U.N. General Assembly this week. They are, to put it mildly, a global festival of competing wants and needs and complaints and demands — with climate and war and public health and inequality at the center of it all, but fragmentation and chaos ever-present.

“The world,” said Wavel Ramkalawan, president of the island nation of Seychelles, “stands at the brink.”

His sentiment embodies the main challenge that surfaces each year since shortly after World War II when leaders have gathered at the United Nations: how exactly to balance hope and cold reality.

For the past several years, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has set the tone with warnings of darkening skies. His imagery gets more dire each year, and this year he topped himself. First, in his opening speech Tuesday, he said that “our world is becoming unhinged.” Then, at a U.N. climate conference on Wednesday, he upped the ante even more — if that was possible — with the statement that humanity has “opened the gates of hell.”

Here’s a sampling of what followed:

— “We are going through a crisis — possibly the most significant one since the end of the Second World War,” said Alain Berset, the president of Switzerland.

— “We no longer trust any narratives,” said Nataša Pirc Musar, the president of Slovenia.

— “We believe that the world … needs to be reborn,” said El Salvador President Nayib Bukele.

— “Time is running out for all of us,” said Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo.

Not exactly excerpts from “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Yet in listening to the speeches, it became clear that some of this was merely an attention-getting device. Even Guterres, with his apocalyptic language, offered ways forward. His answer — unsurprising, since he hammers it home every year — is a world that is “multipolar” and multilateral, the collaborative foundations upon which the United Nations was founded.

“We are rapidly moving towards a multipolar world,” he said. “This is, in many ways, positive. It brings new opportunities for justice and balance in international relations. But multipolarity alone cannot guarantee peace.”

Or even coherence. Being multilateral means shared responsibility, shared ideas, shared paths forward. And nations have internal constituencies that often prevent that kind of cooperation (Exhibit A: Some Americans’ suspicion of the United Nations, a mostly advisory organization, as the path to a “one-world government”).

“The idea of a single governing body able to understand and address each country’s needs and aspirations has proved to be an illusion,” Andrea Molle, a scholar in sociology and political science at Chapman University in California, said in an email. “One of the axioms of the system of international relations is that such a system is intrinsically anarchic.”

Anarchic is right. That’s going to happen when those 193 members try to form a family and get along under one roof. But the goal — a shared vision, but multilateral — is always the United Nations’ most elusive quarry.

“We seem incapable of coming together to respond,” Guterres said in his opening speech Tuesday. Here’s the thing, though: He may have been right, but he was also wrong.

Because before him sat scores of leaders and deputy leaders and ministers and diplomats, who traveled a total of more than a million miles to be on one patch of land in New York City to talk, to hear others talk and to try to work it out. It’s chaos, but it’s chaos sublimated.

“One can argue this question of governance has always plagued the United Nations,” Katie Laatikainen, a professor of political science and international relations at Adelphi University in New York, said in an email. “Perhaps governing and a unified narrative are too ambitious for an organization like the U.N. Creative problem-solving and inclusion are worthy goals of multilateralism, and the U.N. has a respectable record in that regard.”

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s also what makes the most intricate era in human history governable: Sometimes we don’t just kill each other. Sometimes, like this week, we draw together with all our contentiousness and all our ego, and we sit down and try to work it out. Maybe that act of trying is the entire point.