CHICAGO — American cities have an intimate association with the United Nations. That relationship started in San Francisco 75 years ago later this month and continues today and, one hopes, tomorrow in the New York and Washington headquarters for the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions.
Chicago is my sabbatical base and an intriguing location in which to be hunkered down for the Covid-19 duration. The city has a justifiable reputation for its civic pride and community spirit, on the one hand, and its woeful inequalities and racism, on the other. It is an apt metaphor for the strengths and woes of the country and the planet.
The Windy City reflects the mixture of aspiration and desperation that characterizes global politics. In optimistic moments, I am encouraged by the sense of community, by what might be learned from this crisis. Fleeting thoughts provide momentary relief, the possibility of moving back to the future of 1945 — to recapture the original UN Charter vision of international institutions that could “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” but also from pandemics and ensure the provision of global public goods that are in such dire short supply.
At the same time, I cannot overlook the depressing local realities of poverty and violence that are so apparent in appalling disparities: the 30 percent of the local African-American population who account for more than 70 percent of Chicago’s coronavirus fatalities; the 20 years of difference in longevity between the city’s North and South sides. This sad reality is familiar globally: Oxfam reported that in 2018 the world’s two thousand or so billionaires possessed more wealth than the bottom 4.6 billion people, many of whom undoubtedly will suffer the most ravages from Covid-19.
Life is anything except normal in America’s third-largest city right now. The majestic lakefront is closed. Its pleasure boats are still in dry dock. Its devoted sports fans are locked out of Wrigley Field. The country’s largest Irish-American population was deprived of a green-dyed Chicago River and St. Paddy’s parade. However, citizens are solidly behind Illinois Democratic Governor J. B. Pritzker and Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who have joined other national leaders in confronting the Trump regime’s alternative facts.
Many aspects of my daily sheltering-in-place while pursuing my research and mentoring no doubt resemble efforts by colleagues in New York and elsewhere. Amid a global economic meltdown and pandemic, the breakdown in international cooperation is devastating. It is hard to believe that we have to make a case for more robust intergovernmental organizations, but we do. We face the ugly reality of this administration’s zero-sum ideology that has no room for partners or allies. Trump and his band of sycophants have spent three years routinely denigrating a multilateral system that was established precisely to deal with this pandemic and other international threats, ranging from terrorism to WMDs, from climate change to mass atrocities.
Seeing Agent Orange performing from the White House is as gut-wrenching here as elsewhere. Among the most preposterous of delusions from our delusional president is that he is qualified to lead the United States in the “war” against Covid-19. Is it possible to find a more ludicrous comparison than that between the recycled reality-TV host and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who advocated and laid the groundwork for the UN?
That wartime leader spoke honestly with the American public; FDR avoided baseless cheerleading. Most important, he sought genuine partners in confronting the existential threat from Germany and Japan. The Declaration by United Nations was signed in Washington in January 1942 by 26 (and eventually 44) allies. Their commitment to multilateralism was not only urgent — to crush fascism — but also to maintain international peace and security and to foster postwar economic and social stability. Healthy intergovernmental organizations were Realpolitik, not liberal window-dressing. As I asked earlier this week in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, “Where is FDR when we need him?”
Like academic colleagues in New York and worldwide, I am engaging with students and colleagues in cyberspace. I am supervising Ph.D. students from the City University of New York’s Graduate Center remotely. Later this week, I will be a virtual “outside” reader for a dissertation defense at the University of Geneva. I am helping several M.A. students at Kyung Hee University’s Graduate Institute of Peace — a challenge to plan with 14 hours’ time difference with Korea and without kimchi.
With the luxury of a sabbatical and the constraint of social distancing, I have had the time to complete a book manuscript on the “Third UN” (with a former student and now colleague, Tatiana Carayannis), draft a book chapter on global governance and the global political economy (with Sir Richard Jolly) and finalize the proofs of an edited volume on the UN development system (with Stephen Browne).
Yet, the 45th president hovers like an ominous cloud as he frequently disparages the UN as a waste of money. His visible disgust with collaborative decision-making ignores the stark domestic and international reality of this pandemic. No country can manage the coronavirus, any more than climate change, on its own.
Having been conceived — according to my late parents’ calculation — while the San Francisco conference was in session, I have trouble imagining the world without the UN. To my chagrin, the world body itself and the organizations of the UN system largely are MIA amid Covid-19. The Security Council cannot even reach consensus that the pandemic is a threat to international peace and security. Apart from his call for a global cease-fire, the Secretary-General, António Guterres, has been nearly invisible.
On April 14, Trump made good on an earlier threat and announced the withholding of the US contribution to the World Health Organization, his latest tantrum to distract from his own mismanagement. The pretext, of course, was to review the WHO’s role in what he described as “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” The actual explanation for depriving the organization of 22 percent of its resources at this critical juncture was that the WHO is a convenient scapegoat for his own slow and ineffective responses to what he earlier had called a “hoax.”
One could justifiably criticize the politicization of WHO’s activities and appointments; however, one cannot ignore the value of its medical expertise, even given the dearth of untied resources in its budget. Yet, the middle of a global fight to halt a pandemic is not the ideal moment to evaluate performance. Trump’s decision was a device to deflect criticism from his own wildly irresponsible and erratic behavior. Earlier targets had included the media, Democrats in Congress, state governors and Barack Obama. Trump’s vilification of the WHO is part of his systematic attack on what he considers the uselessness of international organizations. We should not forget that he even argued that the Universal Postal Union had threatened US sovereignty and interests since 1874 by fixing international postal rates.
Determining what the UN can and cannot do, as well as how to make it fitter-for-purpose, is a perpetual necessity. But it is even more crucial in the Age of Trump, Brexit, Putin, Maduro, Xi, Netanyahu, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Duterte, and the list goes on. If the UN is not to be a relic, the politics of “America [or insert another country] First” must give way to a commitment to a more viable and visible UN.
With international cooperation of all stripes under siege, the UN — warts and all —remains essential. At a minimum, we should reinforce its crumbling foundations. “We are calling for a great reawakening of nations,” is how Donald Trump concluded his first address to the 2017 General Assembly. In his typical ignorance, he overlooked the fact that some three-quarters of a century earlier, the US had played an essential role in creating the world organization as an antidote to nationalism run amok.
Almost everything that Trump has said and done has undermined multilateralism. We should instead be calling for a great reawakening of the United Nations.
This essay is part of a series of people working in international affairs relating their experiences during the pandemic from across the globe. The first essay was written from Vienna, Austria.
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Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; co-chair of the Cultural Heritage at Risk Project, J. Paul Getty Trust; Distinguished Fellow of Global Governance at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Global Eminence Scholar, Kyung Hee University, Korea. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations,” (with Tatiana Carayannis).