In a historic first, the heads of all five main pillars of the United Nations — the Secretariat, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), General Assembly, Security Council, and International Court of Justice (ICJ) — sat down for a frank conversation about the future of our multilateral system.

The rare dialogue was moderated by UN Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Cousens, who kicked off the event by acknowledging the myriad ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives and destabilized societies the world over — from upending economies to exacerbating inequalities, displacing social institutions, and even threatening to unravel the very fabric of society itself. She aptly stated that “in our increasingly interconnected world, the need for a robust, vibrant multilateral system is as urgent today as it has ever been.”

Reflecting on the achievements of the multilateral system

The event, part of ongoing discussions called for by UN Secretary-General António Guterres about reinvigorating multilateralism, took place ahead of a UN Security Council open debate on the topic. It also marked the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the multilateral system, take stock of where it has fallen short, and discuss how it can be strengthened and reinvigorated.


“The UN has not always met the challenge of the day — and we must be honest about this fact,” said UN General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir. “It would be a disservice to the people we serve to pretend otherwise. However, imperfect as it may be, the primacy and relevance of the UN remains unmatched after more than 75 years.”

We don’t need to look far to identify achievements of the UN system. As Mr. Guterres pointed out, the UN has been at the center of tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from decolonization and ending apartheid to eradicating diseases and reducing extreme poverty. The system has also set international legal and human rights norms, and developed mechanisms — including the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals — to help Member States with inclusive, sustainable development. The past year alone has given us ample proof of the UN system’s crucial role, including its championing vaccine equity, advocating climate action, and providing a platform to discuss challenges related to new technologies and cybersecurity.

Multilateralism needs to work for everyone

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, these new challenges will also be a great test for multilateralism.

“[We need to] be better prepared,” said Ambassador Zhang Jun, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations and President of the Security Council. “The world is changing, conflicts are also changing in their scope, in their nature, and we should also adapt to the new changes.”

For multilateralism to be more effective and relevant, it needs to work for everyone. From strengthening public trust in the ICJ and its mandate to deliver international justice to mobilizing the political will to achieve ECOSOC’s sustainable development aims, attendees at the multilateralism dialogue stressed the importance of ensuring that UN bodies are listening to the public — including civil society groups, academia, and local leaders — and evolving and reforming to maintain purpose and deliver results.

“What is clear is that our multilateralism that has been able to achieve all this is a multilateralism that still needs to be much more coordinated,” said Mr. Guterres. “We are still too fragmented. The UN needs to be able to address the needs, the concerns, and give voice to all of those elements of society . . . that make our modern world.”

In addition to multilateralism being more inclusive, speakers said that it should also be intergenerational, and because young people will inherit today’s challenges tomorrow, they must be incorporated at all stages of strategizing a solution. At the dialogue, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, shared the impact that the virus has had on young people around the world because of interrupted schooling, lost employment, social isolation, and shrinking civic spaces. But she also emphasized that despite these unprecedented challenges, young people are some of the most optimistic about the future of the UN and multilateralism.

As many world leaders have pointed out, the COVID-19 pandemic is a litmus test for multilateralism moving forward. This recovery not only affects lives and livelihoods right now, but it will also shape how people the world over will perceive global cooperation as a tool for tackling challenges.

“If we did not see the urgency of this topic a year ago, we surely see it now,” said Ms. Cousens. “Can we recognize enough of our common interests to act with common purpose and with uncommon speed and scale against this truly global threat that must be vanquished everywhere if it is to be vanquished anywhere?”

This challenge will require all hands on deck, or as ECOSOC President Munir Akram said, taking inspiration from John F. Kennedy’s famous call to action to Americans, “Ask not what the UN can do for us, but what we can do for the UN.”