In a World of Pandemics and ‘Black Sky Hazards’, Can the UN Be Rendered Fit for the 21st Century?

The coronavirus crisis has exposed deep flaws within the UN. At a time when the world is desperate for the international leadership that only an organisation like the UN can provide, the organisation itself has never seemed so dysfunctional and ineffective.

The UN’s health body, the World Health Organization (WHO), has been a leading voice during this pandemic, but certainly not the only one. Some argue it is too diplomatic and hence too slow, prioritising consensus over tough choices. Others have even accused it of being too close to China, and thus unable to provide impartial advice in a timely manner to prevent an epidemic from becoming a pandemic.

And, of course, the WHO’s remit extends principally to public health. There is no international organisation able to coordinate the sharing of information and policy options about the range of non-public health challenges connected to this pandemic. Global supply chains and energy supplies have been severely disrupted by closed borders. Financial markets and economies around the world have tanked, bringing down many businesses and forcing massive lay-offs. There are concerns about the Internet crashing due to overload, and bigger worries about additional strains on communications and critical national infrastructure. We are all now very familiar with these examples: the list is truly daunting and demonstrates how interconnected we all are, in both positive and negative ways.

All of this has been compounded by the US withdrawal from its traditional international leadership role, and the emergence of China as a major geopolitical power, one that has challenged the traditional ways of managing international affairs. The way that countries are now competing to develop vaccines to serve their national interestsraises serious concerns that we are now entering a zero-sum world at a time when global cooperation is most needed.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the UN this year, in the midst of a global crisis not experienced since the Second World War, serious consideration must be given to what it might take to make the institution relevant to meet current and future challenges.

Here, it is worth distinguishing between the UN’s political bodies, including the Secretary-General’s Good Offices and the Security Council, and its functional bodies, like the WHO. Not all UNs are created equal, and complaints about the UN are more often than not related to its ineffectiveness in the political sphere. For example, neither the Secretary-General nor the Security Council were able to reduce suffering in the midst of such grotesque human rights violations as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar or Syria, nor was the Secretariat able to constrain or manage other looming threats, such as trade wars between China and the US.

The UN has had some important successes in its seven and a half decades, including in global health, where the WHO led the world in eradicating smallpox, achieved in 1979, and in promoting peace, and in poverty reduction – but it also has gone through long fallow periods. Taken as a whole, failures such as those in Somalia, Rwanda or the Balkans have inevitably led to the overall decline in the UN’s influence today.

And yet, despite the mounting despondency, below the political surface lies a functional substructure which includes the International Labour Organisation, the World Meteorological Organisation, the World Trade Organisation, and more well-known bodies, such as the WHO, the World Food Programme and UNICEF.

While the distinction between political and functional is necessary in order to understand a complex, multi-layered institution, it matters less in practice because the functional issues are today inextricably linked with the political, and increasingly so. In other words, the impacts that functional crisis drivers have are increasingly global and affect very basic political interests, if not our survival.

Black Sky hazards’ are natural and man-made threats that can disrupt systems and resource–infrastructure interdependencies upon which most of the planet depends – this includes not just pandemics, but other threats such as a massive cyber attack that crashes the Internet or collapses the electricity grid. In the words of two eminent analysts, these ‘messes’ reflect a ‘complex system of problems that are so tightly bound together that the problems are not inseparable, they don’t even exist apart from the system of which they are a part’. They are manifestations of deeply intertwined political and functional interests, which spill over in ways that are often unpredictable, but ultimately have global impacts.

It is now apparent that the international community will require a forum for promoting discourse and solutions for ever more entangled problems of global consequence. The UN could have a unique role because it has unprecedented convening powers, can draw upon expertise from around the world through its many platforms and organisations, and is generally seen as representing global issues compared to more narrow national interests. At the same time, managing these mega-challenges is a task that goes well beyond the capacities of any group of member states such as the Security Council. Smaller states and, increasingly, non-state actors, including the private sector, now have the ability to be disruptive on a global scale, a monopoly that was once the preserve of larger states.

From this perspective, the coronavirus wake-up call, which could have come just as easily from any other Black Sky hazard, should compel us to make fundamental adjustments in the ways that the UN anticipates global threats, monitors them and assesses how they have been and should be handled. To date, there is little integrated analyses of potential crisis drivers from a global perspective. Those that have been undertaken are typically ‘one-offs’, rarely look beyond the immediate, are sectorally-based (for example, drought or flood management), and are overly sensitive to the predilections of certain member-states.

To fulfil the critical role outlined here, however, the UN would require an integrated analytical capacity that it does not currently have, one that could identify potential threats from short-term and long-term perspectives (for example, one year, five years, and 20 years), as well as anticipate and monitor not merely the drivers of crises, but also ways that the impact of such drivers could be prevented or at least reduced, as well as the progress towards doing so. It should also focus on the full range of connected threats, and the various systems in place to ensure that mitigating measures are considered in a holistic fashion. The body that could fulfil such objectives should be comprised of experts from a wide-range of disciplines and sectors, from both public and private institutions. In other words, actors that are currently associated with the UN as well as those that are distinct from it.

This body would therefore be of the UN but independent of it, though it would have direct access to the UN Secretary-General. The Secretary-General would be responsible for informing the member-states annually about that body’s findings and conclusions. Based upon the report and the Secretary-General’s presentation, a panel of eminent persons would evaluate the veracity and utility of the UN’s findings, and judge what could be called the state of global vulnerability. Through its monitoring and recommendations, this body would help states and institutions build up their resiliency and avoid zero-sum thinking, and instead promote cooperation and mutual self-interest.

Establishing yet another UN body to bolster the institution’s relevance has become a familiar recommendation. This time, however, the context is different. We now have a very real example of the devastation that these threats can cause at the global level, far beyond the public health impact in this particular pandemic. Interconnected messes are no longer solely confined to Hollywood productions.

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us in the starkest terms that our very survival depends on managing the future in a responsible and coordinated fashion. A body of the UN, but not in the UN, responsible for anticipating and monitoring short-term and long-term threats and assessing actions taken to address them is urgently needed. It might also be a role that could give us all cause to celebrate the UN’s 75th anniversary.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr Karin von Hippel


Senior Management

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Dr Randolph Kent

Senior Associate Fellow

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