The Academic Council on the United Nations System, founded in the United States in 1987 and housed in a series of North American universities since then, announced on June 15 that it would move in July from its current base in Canada to the Center for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University in the British Midlands.
The symbolism of the move at this low point in US relations with the UN is not encouraging. The Trump administration and it voice at the UN — represented by Ambassador Nikki Haley — regularly castigate and threaten withdrawal from several UN bodies. Academia in the US and possibly Canada has also turned its back on UN studies.
In announcing its move, Acuns — known by its initials, which are less tongue-twisting than its full name — emphasizes that its new home will allow it to extend its global reach, especially in the developing world. Acuns is currently based at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
From its start, Acuns was meant to be a global association of educational and research institutions and scholars “active in the work and study of the United Nations, multilateral relations, global governance, and international cooperation” — promoting teaching and dialogue on those topics among academics, practitioners, civil society and students.
John Latham, the vice-chancellor of Coventry University, was enthusiastic about the move: “It is an honor for Coventry University and for our Center for Trust, Peace and Social Relations to be selected to host the ACUNS secretariat,” he said in a statement. “The shared strengths and ambitions of our organizations, in international relations, peacebuilding and security, among many other things, will help the council to grow its impact and influence in a global community in which academia and scholarship play such an important role.”
The new executive director of ACUNS will be Math Noortmann, a professor of transnational law and nonstate actors as well as transnational law and maritime security, two issues high on the agenda of the UN and its 193 member nations. He will be replacing the current executive director, Alistair Edgar, a research associate with the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies and an associate professor of political science.
The first home of the Academic Council on the United Nations System was Dartmouth College, where the association was founded in 1987. It moved to Brown University in 1992; Yale in 1998; and Wilfrid Laurier in 2003, when no US university or college was willing to give it a home.
Jean Krasno, who directed the program at Yale, described the history of Acuns as a study in the vulnerability of such organizations, fickle to grant-making institutions that react to political trends; or in the case of Acuns, to geopolitical trends.
In an interview in 2016, Krasno, who lectures at Columbia University and the City College of New York, where she is a tenured faculty member, said that as the Soviet system in Europe began to weaken in the late 1980s, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a burst of interest in the UN, and the money followed. But after the high hopes of a new, dynamic international order waned by the end of the 1990s, grants for UN studies evaporated or were greatly reduced.
“For example, at Yale, United Nations studies was established in 1993-1994 with a huge grant from the Ford Foundation,” Krasno said. “Foundations play a role in this, because if you can get grants to do things related to the UN, then academia is interested. . . . Now nothing is being offered at Yale related to the UN.”
The move by Acuns to Coventry has raised hopes of a new beginning. Writing in the New Statesman in London on June 15, Arslan Malik, a visiting fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, who was formerly an adviser in the UN peacekeeping department and at the US State Department, floated the idea that Britain should respond actively to the threat posed by the Trump team.
“As a result, many of the UN’s activities, which benefit vulnerable communities globally, will be squeezed or halted,” he said of the Trump budget proposals and executive orders. One order has already cut off all US funds to the UN Population Fund and another has announced a US withdrawal from obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change.
“The UK should protect the UN, an organization it helped conceive nearly 75 years ago, by providing funds to offset the Trump cuts,” Malik wrote.
In 2000, Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, a deputy permanent US representative at the UN and ambassador to the UN in Europe, urged Europeans to bolster if not rescue the organization in another period of American skepticism and falling support.
Seventeen years later, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, stunned by Trump, boldly suggested that Europe should stop relying on outsiders and follow its own policies. Will Europeans, with or without the British, be able — or willing — to save the UN?
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.