Just as we were looking forward to the new year with hope in our hearts, things have already grown dicey. The chaotic images of the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan still reverberate around the world, continuing to raise big questions about where Washington is heading. Covid came back — or never went away. Now António Guterres is talking about a global “inferno.” As the United Nations secretary-general, can’t he find a fire extinguisher?
Happy new year?
Only one month in, 2022 is not turning out as hoped. Improvements in last year’s dismal diplomatic developments? Not really. Where are the signposts toward greater peace and security? Where do we find the tools we need to tame a global pandemic, strengthen financial safeguards, reinforce human rights, beat back climate change and create social equity?
In a Jan. 21 speech to the 193-nation UN General Assembly, Guterres, who has his finger on the world’s pulse, warned that a terrifying five-alarm fire was threatening to blaze out of control, with devastating global results.
“Each of the alarms is feeding off the others. They are accelerants to an inferno: inequity and injustice in tackling the pandemic, a global economic system rigged against the poor, insufficient action on the existential climate threat, a Wild West digital frontier that profits from division,” he told a news conference after the speech.
“And those social and economic fires are creating unrest and conflict we see around the world: not just in places plagued with daily bombs and bullets but everywhere. And all of them are fueling mistrust in our world. And when people start losing trust in institutions, they also lose faith in the values that underlie them. In every corner of the world, we see this erosion of core values: equality, justice, oppression, dialogue, mutual respect.”
He continued: “Let me be blunt: I fear the emergence of what I would call the twilight of shared values. Injustice, inequality, mistrust, racism and discrimination are casting dark shadows across every society. Wherever you are, just look out the window.”
It is also a part of Guterres’s job to come up with ideas to get the world back on track and translate these ideas into action. But in this department, his speech was heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics.
After five years as secretary-general, Guterres has cemented a reputation as a docile leader who shies from making waves, particularly when it comes to irritating the Security Council’s powerful “P5” — the veto-wielding members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
At one point in the news conference, a reporter suggested it was Guterres’s habit to work behind the scenes and asked him whether he planned to be bolder after winning re-election to a second five-year term, during which he presumably would no longer have to fear P5 payback.
Despite the dire outlook he had just presented, Guterres dismissed the idea that he needed to up his game.
“I never said that I only do private diplomacy, and I sometimes say some very tough things,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t mean that I always say the things you would like me to say, but that’s life. I will intend to go on doing discreet diplomacy, doing active public diplomacy, and speaking out when I believe this is the best way to solve the problems we face.”
Given all the dangers he described, another reporter asked, was the world on the verge of a new cold war? Guterres responded that the current climate was riskier than a cold war.
While the world’s two rival blocs had structured relationships and clear ways for dealing with conflicts during the Cold War, “to a certain extent, the truces never became hot because there was a certain level of predictability,” Guterres said.
“What we have now is much more chaotic, much less predictable,” he went on. “We have no instruments to deal with crisis. And so . . . we live in a dangerous situation.”
Given his grim view of the state of the world and his modest performance as a world leader, it is disappointing that Guterres failed to lay out his plans for enhancing his own diplomatic act.
He may look strong next to his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, who, to put it politely, kept a very low profile during his 10 years on the Secretariat building’s 38th floor.
But Guterres’s courage pales compared with that of Kofi Annan, who rarely shied from speaking truth to power, even after daring to denounce as “illegal” the 2003 US-British invasion of Iraq. Annan, the UN leader from 1997 to 2006, who died in 2018, tirelessly campaigned for a stronger and better UN. But he also paid a price, enduring heavy retribution from Washington during his final years in office.
When Donald Trump entered the White House, in January 2017, Guterres also suffered at Washington’s hand.
But Guterres shrank from confrontation, thereby achieving little to counter Trump’s all-out assault on multilateralism and on the role of the UN itself.
Trump was both a UN skeptic and a horribly incompetent policymaker. He ceaselessly boasted that he was restoring Washington’s standing as the world’s dominant superpower. Yet in the end, many of Washington’s closest allies concluded that they could no longer count on the US as a reliable partner and no longer required its leadership. Other world leaders, miming Trump’s autocratic edge, strived to become outlaws or dictators. Global rivals like China and Russia quickly learned they could just ignore Trump’s wishes as long as they first flattered his enormous ego.
During this era, the UN’s relevance and influence were disastrously diminished, particularly after the pandemic came to dominate the world, undermining the relevance of pretty much everything besides fear and isolation.
So by the time Joe Biden, posing as the anti-Trump, entered the White House in January 2021, most diplomats probably began thinking things would soon be looking up for their profession.
But 2022 is looking more like a replay of last year.
Americans in particular might have been hoping that Biden would be making great progress by now in restoring Washington’s international credibility. But his efforts have suffered from his sleepy image and the continuing attacks from the Trump camp.
While the Biden administration has gamely tried to reverse Trump’s most wrongheaded policy moves, such as pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, the task has proved difficult. Trump had predicted he would ultimately win stronger restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, for example, but instead Tehran has improved its bargaining position. Elsewhere, too, world leaders quickly grasped that change could have unpredictable effects. For one thing, if Biden could so easily unravel Trump’s initiatives, the next president could easily unravel Biden’s.
Is it any wonder that crises have been multiplying? Even keeping track of them is challenging. In his Jan. 21 General Assembly speech, it took time for Guterres to reel off some of the most troubled places: Afghanistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Israel-Palestine, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, the Sahel, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, the Western Balkans, the Caucasus, the Central African Republic, Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, the Korean peninsula, Lebanon, Mozambique, Somalia, South Sudan, Venezuela and Western Sahara.
“This world is too small for so many hot spots,” he observed.
Even more troubling, however, is the reality that to lower the temperature, to put out even a few fires, we so deeply lack the will, not to mention the remedies and resources.
As a character played by Bette Davis put it: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
The essay is an analysis reflecting the author’s views.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.