This week, I had the opportunity to address the UN’s largest gathering of civil society groups from around the world that meet annually to collaborate on global challenges. They first met in 1947, when the UN was still wet behind the ears. In the 70 years since, the world has changed many times over.
The number of UN members has more than tripled. A Cold War gripped the world for decades before it finally ended. We’ve seen the global economy skyrocket with new wealth and new centers of power. Civil society activism has burgeoned and brought us everything from a ban on landmines to the International Criminal Court to the movement to end child marriage. Today, we are also seeing technology transform our societies in ways we barely comprehend, and the natural world on which we all depend is now telling us more aggressively by the day that we have been taking a benign planet for granted.
In these 70 years, the need for collective action and common purpose has not changed. What has changed is the urgency and scale with which we need to act with common purpose. If the first generation of the 21st century has taught us anything, it is that our futures are intertwined and our destinies are mutual – from Ebola to climate change to the future of work. That means that we probably need multilateralism more today than even when the UN was created in the shadow of the Second World War.
Madeleine Albright once famously said that people don’t like the word multilateralism because, “it has too many syllables and it ends with an ‘ism.’”
Whether or not you like the word, what it means – basically, that countries and their citizens will do better and go farther by working together than by going it alone – is vital to all of us.
There are three main points about multilateralism I shared this week and want to share here.
First, let’s dispense with any illusion that we don’t need it.
Wherever we live, whatever community we call home – there is virtually no domain of our lives that is not made better by stronger multilateral action.
It took multilateralism to defeat smallpox, close the hole in the ozone layer, and vaccinate record numbers of infants against preventable diseases after the world adopted the Millennium Development Goals. It took multilateralism to secure vital freedoms for women and beat back the scourge of HIV/AIDS. It has taken multilateralism to contain the risks of nuclear confrontation. Multilateralism brought you rules and standards that govern air safety, international shipping, and mail. Domain names for the internet? Also multilateral.
Second, let’s get creative about what multilateralism looks like in the 21st century.
Some of what we need lies in strengthening the institutions we have, and the UN is now undertaking comprehensive reforms to make it ‘fit for purpose’ to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals. That includes new ways of working with civil society, business, and others who are vital to solving the challenges we face today.
Some of what we need may also look different, and we can already see some of it emerging.
Consider some of the ways new actors are organizing around climate change. Here in the U.S., an umbrella group of nearly 3,000 private and public sector leaders representing more than $6 trillion in U.S. Gross Domestic Product have come together as America’s Pledge to deliver on the U.S. Government’s international commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. A bipartisan group of U.S. governors, representing the equivalent of the world’s third largest economy after the United States and China, created the U.S. Climate Alliance to do the same thing.
The Sustainable Development Goals have also stimulated new forms of collective action – just take a look at New York City’s “Voluntary Local Review” showcasing new ways the city is working to meet its constituents’ most important needs.
Another growing story is the private sector, with corporate leaders from Blackrock’s Larry Fink and J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon to Ladol’s Amy Jadesimi increasingly calling for new business models and practices that put greater value on the future and mobilize business dynamics in novel ways to help tackle some of our toughest collective challenges, from the health of the oceans and food security to women’s equality.
Cities, states, civil society, and companies are showing us fresh ways to think about multilateral action, and that’s a trend to embrace.
Third, let’s not underestimate the threat.
We face rising skepticism about the value of multilateral institutions. We are seeing new questions about the global staying power of precisely the countries that built the international system in the first place. The global agenda is also immense, and that carries different risks – of dilution and distraction. And the space for civil society has been aggressively shrinking in exactly the places we need it the most.
So our work, individually and together, has gotten harder. And the issues that we’re tackling are not simple or always straightforward.
But that also means that we have an incredible opportunity to bring new imagination and determination to our shared task.
Let me conclude with a reflection on my own country, the United States.
While some traditional defenders of multilateralism are threatening to withdraw from the international stage, we have also seen a groundswell of new and diverse actors calling for the opposite.
Polling last year by a UN Foundation sister effort, the Better World Campaign, found that 88% of Americans want the U.S. to maintain an active role in the UN. A full 83% of Americans believe it is better for the U.S. to work through allies and international organizations than go it alone.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this summer called for U.S. global leadership and full engagement with the UN.
The United Nations Association of the USA has seen a 25% growth in new chapters on college campuses alone over the last 12 months. In June, we had over 500 delegates – a record turnout – descend on Washington for two days to argue the case for strong U.S. support for the UN with virtually every member of Congress.
In short, Americans in many forms – beyond the federal government – are reaffirming the importance of global action and of international cooperation.
They get that now is the time for all of us to explore new ways to strengthen our collective ability to act with united purpose, because today’s global challenges – from cybersecurity to climate change and pandemics to inequality – need us to work together, and at scale.
We have a multilateral system that has stood an incredible test of time and continues to evolve in impressive ways. We also have an opportunity to bring fresh imagination to how multilateralism needs to innovate around new issues and with new actors.
Let me end with words from a true multilateral champion and a giant on the world stage, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Of all the many things he was as a leader, a humanitarian, and a human being, he was convinced that collective action was essential to secure our future.
At the turn of this millennium, he said: “More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that is why we have the United Nations.”
He sometimes called the challenges we face today “problems without passports.” Microbes and mosquitoes don’t respect borders; neither do extremism or weaponized ideas. But nor do forces for positive change, like innovation, technological advances, and solidarity.
We all now need to be champions of multilateralism and put our creative energies and passions into making it stronger. We can lose a few syllables, and maybe even the ‘ism.’ We cannot afford to lose our way.
Adapted from remarks delivered at the 67th United Nations DPI/NGO Conference, New York