Geopolitics seen from a UN Political Perspective

Ukraine, Taiwan and other conflicts

It seems that in 2022 a number of lingering geopolitical controversies and simmering conflicts between the US, Russia and China come to a boil. First the conflict over which global power determines the future of the Ukraine and its alliances, and then, the visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, which raises again the issue whether Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic of China or not. While in the first case, the overwhelming majority of countries condemn Russia’s attack on Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, in the latter case, an equal or even larger number of countries take the position that the island of Taiwan is an integral part of Chinese territory. Even the US accepts this. At issue is, whether Taiwan can maintain its own of way of governance, which is quite different from the one of mainland China, and whether the Communist Party of China and the Guomintang can regard their fight over the control of China to have ended.

Nancy Pelosi’s visit and her righteousness about US obligations for protecting Taiwan’s independence and the Taiwanese right of self-determination throws into relief the contours of the emerging global conflicts, as does the Russian military action in Ukraine. In many ways, the political views of Ms. Pelosi und Mr. Putin are frozen in time, and correspond more to the 1960s/70s than the beginning of the 21st century. Both politicians are the living example of people lost in today’s geopolitical reality, which is more complex than it ever was, and fraught with uncertainties and ambiguities. Of course, they are not the only ones. But their conservative views matter obviously heavy, given the political power they represent; and they are worrisome.

How did we get to this stage of geopolitical enmity, wars and threats of warfare?

The last three US governments have retreated from the role of global policeman. While doing so, for certainly good, mostly domestic reasons, they failed to handover the task they began to some other organisation or organisations. The logical choice would have been the UN, but failing this, it could have been other multilateral organisations. Obama’s choice in 2016 to make Angela Merkel the custodian of the liberal world order was a weak attempt to handover the watchdog function, and it brought Germany a very delayed change of government and resetting of political priorities for the country and Europe.

Such poor choices are fed by old-fashioned ideas about nation states. While they remain the constituent elements of the geopolitical order for now, they are counterproductive for the well-being of nations and their populations, when their governments act unilaterally.  No country in today’s world is big enough to determine the fate of other countries, no country is small enough to be not a real threat to international peace and stability. Hence, we need other mechanisms to ensure that all people can live in peace, pursue their life, where they are, or migrate with legal papers, and realize a decent living standard anywhere.

Political systems are historically grown and they differ. There is no system or regime that is perfect, and can thus serve as a model for all. Succeeding US governments have learned this, but it seems Ms. Pelosi has not followed a similar learning curve. Nor has Mr. Putin, who seems to believe that the world will be a better place, once the old Soviet/Russian empire is restored by military means. China by contrast has taken so far a very different, more measured approach. It distinguished between what is, in principle, agreed and what is pragmatically doable. But on one condition: Beijing decides what is in the national interest, and not another country or a government which rules over a part of China. As regards Taiwan, the Chinese Government and the Communist Party have decided that Taiwan is a part of China and needs to be reunited with the rest of the country. That a vast majority of the Taiwanese people see this differently, is of lesser importance. In fact, it is more an issue for the Party than the government. Assuming sovereignty over Taiwan is the one missing step to the communist victory in the civil war, which ended in 1949. Ever since, Beijing has maintained its claim and asked all countries with which it opened diplomatic relations to accept the One-China principle. When the People’s Republic of China replaced the Republic of Taiwan in 1971 as the representative of the Chinese people in the UN, and took over the permanent seat in the security council, this claim was further reinforced. The US, like other countries, confirmed its acceptance of the One-China policy, but made the reservation that unification should not be the result of a unilateral and/or military move. Over the last decades Beijing has observed this reservation. Under Zhang Zi Ming, negotiations were very far advanced to end the still open conflict between the Communist Party of China and the Guomintang in Taipei, but a sizeable part of the non-Chinese population in Taiwan was not in favour, as was a part of the Communist Party leadership, because the issue of the reunification remained vague and mostly undefined, and consequently the deal was never concluded. The handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and the policy of One Country Two Systems seemed to open new avenues, but again, by now, the democratic structures in Taiwan have become so strong that mistrust by the Taiwanese prevails, which was also reinforced by the most recent events in Hong Kong.

It remains unexplained, why Nancy Pelosi decided to travel to Northeast Asia this year, and as part of this trip, to Taiwan. There was no immediate change in policy on either side of this political equation. The Chinese sphere of interest is expanding in the South Pacific islands, and is challenging US American dominance there. Why she did not go to visit the South Pacific Island states rather than the immediate neighbours of China, remains a mystery, unless she wanted as a farewell gift to her Californian constituency secure a major armament deal between the US industry and Taiwan. But this remains unconfirmed.

US – China rivalry – a trap which needs to be avoided

In any event, Nancy Pelosi has retained a geopolitical understanding which is largely out of step with reality. Conversely, this can also be said about China, at least to some extent. In today’s world to replace US dominance by Chinese dominance in Asia and elsewhere can’t possibly be the answer to a more peaceful geopolitical situation. The underlying economic and national interests might be served by such a policy, but the global well-being certainly not. To suspend cooperation with the US on issues of climate change and nuclear disarmament are big steps in the wrong direction. It is almost tragic that Chinese leaders appear to follow the advice of experts who trained in the US, and seem to think, that beating the US by its ways and means, is the recipe for Chinese success. Instead, it would make sense that the Chinese Government now acts vigorously on its policy of creating a multipolar world, with the hubs of big powers networked among each other under the umbrella of the UN. Given China’s current economic strength, ever growing military power and long-term political goals for 2035 and 2049, the implementation of this foreign policy, adopted after 1989, appears a much better choice than the current aggressiveness which in many ways is very alien to the Chinese culture. Besides, the world’s people will view this aggressiveness quite differently. And if Chinese economic and geopolitical interests align with the selfish interests of small power elites like in Sri Lanka, then this expansionist policy will soon produce failures, which will haunt the Chinese leadership in the long run, as past hegemony is haunting the US today.

How can we come out of this downward spiral of events and trends?

When China opened in 1978/9 to the outside world, it presented itself as a developing country. The government did not ask for development aid, but, when it was offered, took the funds and started with these a process of learning from the outside world and of trial and error with pilot reform projects. As it began to gain in economic strength, China’s foreign policy advocated a multipolar world guided by the provisions of the UN Charter. It remained within the UN ambit a member of the Group of 77, i.e. the non-aligned movement, and refused to become a member of the G7, when it was invited to join. Why the Chinese leadership today emulates US big power politics remains unclear. Why it did not distance itself clearly from Russia’s military invasion in the Ukraine, throws a light on how far away the Chinese government and party stray from their own proclaimed foreign policy, which was never revoked. But the Chinese government is not the only one, which falls short of expectations. In Germany we voted a government into power, which we expected to set different priorities in Germany’s national and international policies than the governments under Angela Merkel had pursued. Instead, we see with regard to international engagement, quite the contrary, namely more of the same, and even less. We witness uncritical partisanship, when principled equanimity would be required. While reaching out to like-minded partners is indispensable, making others to adversaries or even enemies in today’s interconnected world is outright stupid. Clearly, there is nothing to be said for President Putin’s policy, but there is a lot to be said for keeping a dialogue with his government going. President Erdogan’s moves in tandem with the UN is a more promising way forward, and may give opportunities to respond more adequately to his heavy-handedness vis-à-vis Greece and the Kurdish people. Apropos Kurdish people: as we supported the Spanish government in its policy to not grant Catalonia independence, similarly we should not support Kurdish nationalism. In this age, other forms of respect and tolerance of national diversity can be practised, even across national borders, and digital systems can be a great help to manage daily life in a multilingual social environment. The partners of Turkey should support such approaches to overcome the political conflict between the mainstream society and the Kurdish minority.

One of the most promising concepts for a more peaceful international interplay between countries and regions is the initiative to formulate a feminist foreign policy. When one hears this term for the first time, it is a great enigma. Fortunately, a group of German NGOs has recently presented a concept paper which gives this enigmatic term concrete meaning. Basically the 22 page paper promotes peace-building policies, disarmament and avoidance of hard power politics. The full paper can be found here:

Will the UN fix current geopolitical problems?

The short answer is: no, if we continue with business as usual. Yes, if we change political actions and behaviour at all levels, i.e. at the level of the member states, the secretariats with their staff and the civil society organisations.

There are plenty of stumbling blocks for an overall change. But it does not have to be impossible. As a former UN staff member of 30 years who rose through the ranks to the level of senior management positions, and who served both in the field as Resident Coordinator in Malawi and China, and at headquarters level as Assistant Director General in WHO, I know from my own experience the pitfalls for maintaining at all times an impartial, but constructively critical stance with regard to national policies and politics. One of the most obvious preconditions is, that for the UN and in the context of the UN not the form and shape of the political regime is decisive, but the adherence to the principles of good governance. The yardsticks for good governance are stipulated in art. 1 and 2 of the UN Charter. By virtue of signing up for UN membership all signatory states have thus accepted these principles. In addition, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 and the two covenants of the 1960/70s have made the protection of human rights the guiding values for any state and for all political action. As the Universal Declaration and the 2 Covenants have been signed by an overwhelming majority of member states, we can say that we have almost universal coverage, too.

Important to note in this context is that those member states which have not signed until today, should be given priority attention by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in order to remove whatever is holding up their signatures and ratification. That a Human Rights High Commissioner did not visit China for 17 years is a big error. The often partisan and muddled handling of Human Rights situations by human rights advocates does not help efforts, but it is here that the UN officials have to provide clarity and leadership. Basically, as the obligation of human rights protection rests with the governments any violation has to be regarded as a domestic political responsibility. This responsibility is subdivided into the requirements of adequate political action, e.g. anti-discriminatory policies and political programmes and a strong rule by law. If the High Commissioner and the UN staff were to stick to these parameters, then we may be seeing more tangible progress than at present.

Human Rights Protection as the Way, Peace as the Goal

Setting guiding political principles with the Universal Declaration in the wake of the Second World War and creating an international, intergovernmental organisation with the aim of maintaining international peace and stability was a big aspiration in the 1940s and following decades. Some member states expressed reservations, and even those who signed were not fully satisfied with the instruments created. But in the 21st century to act according to these principles is no longer a matter of choice, but of necessity. It appears that not all UN high ranking officials are realizing this, and prefer to throw the towel rather than to risk a visible clash over what is required in today’s world. Mme Bachelet’s resignation and her controversial handling of the human rights situation in Xinjiang/China is a telling example. Human Rights protection thus remains a big challenge in today’s world, irrespective of political regimes and order.

Similarly, the goal of international peace remains elusive, albeit possibly achievable, if there were a clearly defined strategy how to have all member states adhere to all provisions of the UN Charter. I have written about aspects of these requirements and, in particular deplored that the UN secretary-general acted often too late, and is too much focussed on humanitarian matters rather than on mediating in political conflicts. It appears that when he delegates such mediation, as he obviously has to do given the large number of ongoing conflicts, he no longer takes an active interest. But any conflict involving the 5 permanent members of the security council has to be handled by himself. That he seems to have only a sporadic contact to some of these governments is inexcusable. His predecessors were much more engaged in building a strong link to the heads of government and states of the 5 Ps, as they are who have the power to change the course of geopolitical policy and politics. Attending meetings of the G7 and G20 as a low-key participant is not sufficient. The world at large needs to hear the Secretary General and his messages independently of those gatherings of member states.

More importantly, the Secretary General should be seen as upholding at all times the provisions of the UN Charter. Since its creation the UN has never enacted all the provisions of the Charter, in particular those of Chapter VI and VII. Of course, it is not up to the Secretary General to enact the provisions, he just has to monitor that it happens. But he or she can encourage discreetly behind the scenes member states to become active, and set an intergovernmental process in motion. Articles, which are waiting for their activation are e.g. art.27.3, 44 – 50 and art. 109. The last one demands that a general conference is be held every 10 years to review and assess the robustness of the UN Charter and the organisational arrangements. Such a conference was never held, but it begs the question whether the time is not ripe for such a general conference to be called in the coming years, e.g. in the context of discussions on successor arrangements for the Agenda 2030.

With such a renewed political process the UN will be invigorated. As a result, we shall not remove all threats to peace and social stability, but we should be getting a handle on problems which political scientists today consider as “wicked problems”. We should be able to end wars which are frozen, and we may move on from a culture of enmity and hate to a culture of tolerance and cooperation. That is what the UN was founded for.

Autor: Kerstin Leitner

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Ein Gedanke zu „Geopolitics seen from a UN Political Perspective

  1. Dear Ms Leitner,
    thank you so much for this enlightening contribution to the present global political situation. As I can follow your arguments, I still doubt that the UN has such a power and respect to mediate soon between adversaries. Goodwill is most of the time not enough to convince adversaries. The UN would have to be represented by more senior and proven politicians and it would need more resources to mediate and guide to solutions that represent the UN charter. Your article highlighted the weaknesses of the UN well.

    As much as I would like the UN to be a decisive political player, I have the uneducated impression that the UN hardly ever overcame its significant role of offering a platform for dialogue. I do not want to belittle this success, but I have my doubts that personalities like Putin could be persuaded to act otherwise. Transferring more mediation power would certainly strengthen the UN and her image.

    Overall, it is a pleasure to read your blogs because they offer perspectives that are often neglected when being involved in local conflicts and would help to employ more fitting strategies for the solution of a crisis.

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