UN success rests in commitment to common values, but China, Russia and the US differ on globalization.
By Richard Weitz
The surprising near-consensus selection of Portugal’s António Guterres as UN secretary-general should not obscure the sharp differences among the Security Council’s leading members. Syria debates and leadership speeches at the General Debate of the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly have made clear that these divergences are broad and deep. Unless ways are found to narrow, if not bridge, the differences the next secretary-general won’t achieve much.
The good news is that the ability of Russia, China and the United States to agree on a consensus candidate, and from a NATO country no less, underscores that the great powers can cooperate despite their differences.
The General Debate session saw one of the most comprehensive, high-level political debates on globalization in years. US President Barack Obama opened the discussion by describing the process, achievements and challenges of globalization, and ended with recommendations to attain what could be called “smart globalization” though he did not use the term: how to benefit from the process by softening its rough edges. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang offered a much more favorable description of globalization, at least in how it benefits China and how the Chinese contribute to it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered a darker assessment, seeing globalization as having little impact in constraining what he views as malign US unilateralism.
Obama described globalization as a double-edged sword in his September 20 address. On one hand, global economic integration makes nations prosperous, keeps people informed through the internet and social media, generates entrepreneurship, advances human liberties, limits great power wars, and promotes global governance and international law. However, globalization also produces refugee migrations, financial disruptions, loss of jobs and worsened inequalities, transnational terrorism, and the internationalization of internal conflicts. Describing the “paradox” of our time, he told the Assembly: “the world is by many measures less violent and more prosperous than ever before, and yet our societies are filled with uncertainty, and unease, and strife.”
Obama does not see the world under the control of mindless global forces out of human control: “I believe that at this moment we all face a choice,” people can choose to steer globalization towards more positive direction, driving “forward with a better model of cooperation and integration,” rather than backward toward trade wars, resource dependency and weakened multinational institutions unable to manage global challenges. In his view, politics imparts globalization with its orientation. Democracy, human rights, accountable political systems and respect for international law – combined with open markets – provide “the firmest foundation for human progress in this century.” In contrast, aggressive nationalism, xenophobic populism, religious fundamentalism, ethnic and sectarian politics, and authoritarian political systems lead to self-defeating isolation and often aggressive foreign scapegoating.
To pursue progress, Obama held that, “the existing path to global integration requires a course correction” in which nations collaborate to ensure that integration benefits are more widely distributed and that the disruptions are better managed. These steps include strengthening workers’ rights, reducing income gaps, countering corruption, promoting entrepreneurship, supplying generous foreign aid, mitigating climate change, securing accountable democratic governments, supporting high-standard trade agreements, and sustaining “commitment to international cooperation” to address common global challenges like transnational diseases, nuclear proliferation, mass migration and sustainable development. Obama claimed that the United States had gained from following these precepts, while Russia has endangered its security by harassing its neighbors and China does likewise by militarizing rather than negotiating its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China’s Li was less conditional regarding the merits of globalization, which he described almost exclusively in economic terms. He detailed how the Chinese government’s decision, since 1980, to open its previously closed market to foreign trade and investment had benefited both the Chinese people and the world. Li insisted, “Economic globalization is a general trend that is in line with the long-term and fundamental interests of all countries.” In addition, he detailed how the Chinese government was striving to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN Sustainable Development Summit in 2015. Li stressed: “Without development, nothing can be sustainable. The lack of development is often at the root of many problems facing the world. Be it poverty or the refugee crisis, war, conflicts or terrorism.” Whereas Obama stressed how political orientation shapes globalization, Li argued that “Only development can guarantee people’s fundamental rights.”
Still, Li agreed with Obama that “Development won’t be sustainable if it is unbalanced, unequal and widens the gap between the North and the South and the rich and the poor. Development won’t be sustainable if it is achieved in an extensive manner, driven by high consumption, high pollution and high emissions and depletes resources.” He further accepted that wars and instability presented major obstacles to economic development and that greater international cooperation and “improvement of global governance mechanisms” are essential for overcoming shared global challenges.
He concluded by arguing that the solution to globalization’s challenges are freer trade and more development.
Russia’s Lavrov pursued this critical approach even further. Whereas Li only indirectly hinted at China’s deep differences on global political issues with the United States, Lavrov’s broadside against Washington was much more direct. He welcomed what he regards as the development of a more “polycentric, democratic system of international relations,” but wanted to see an end to “attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of states and impose development models on countries and nations” and to “the ideas of mentorship, superiority and exceptionalism, as well as the pursuit of one’s own interests at the expense of just and equitable cooperation.” These attempts, he argued, “have become deeply ingrained among the political elites of a number of Western countries.”
Lavrov followed Li in attacking the “double standards” of geopolitical games in fighting terrorists. He denounced the instability generated by Western states through their “unilateral reckless solutions, born of a sense of infallibility.” He pointed to what he calls US failure to separate “the so-called moderate opposition from the terrorists” in Syria, and bring these groups to the negotiating table without preconditions while expressing deepening “suspicions” that Washington aims to use extremists as weapons of regime change in the Middle East.
Addressing Obama’s nonproliferation agenda, Lavrov called for less populist sloganeering about “nuclear zero,” and for more recognition of Moscow’s requirements for nuclear global stability, including constraining missile defenses, non-strategic nuclear weapons, space weapons and other alleged areas of US advantage. Additionally, Lavrov denounced those who hold sports “hostage to political ambitions” and implied that Western states try to predetermine outcomes that should be decided by “honest competition.” He insisted that “it is simply indecent to lecture anyone on what to do, while reserving the right to engage in doping, reckless unilateral actions without UN approval, geopolitical experiments that cost millions of human lives, or extraterritorial blackmail against everyone.”
Finally, he denounced “hegemonism,” insisting that people “be able to choose their own path of development” and urging a return to the “norms and principles” of the United Nations. Lavrov’s speech was notable for the scant mention of globalization’s benefits or challenges. For him, the world is about geopolitical competition and reining in the United States.
The UN’s three most powerful members cooperated in selecting of the UN secretary-general. Now, Guterres must work to narrow the massively diverging views towards globalization.
*Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia and East Asia as well as US foreign, defense and homeland-security policies.