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Ban Ki-moon to U.N. Member States: The World’s a Mess — Fix It!

Extremists rule large parts of Syria and Iraq. Violence consumes communities from the Central African Republic to Mali, Somalia, and South Sudan. Ukraine teeters on the verge of all-out war with Russia. Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as ever. Libya descends into chaos. Oh, and Ebola is spreading terror and death across West ...

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(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Extremists rule large parts of Syria and Iraq. Violence consumes communities from the Central African Republic to Mali, Somalia, and South Sudan. Ukraine teeters on the verge of all-out war with Russia. Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as ever. Libya descends into chaos. Oh, and Ebola is spreading terror and death across West Africa.

As President Barack Obama and more than 140 global leaders converge on New York City for the U.N.'s annual General Assembly debate, the world looks like a bloody mess. U.N. members, meanwhile, are often too busy quarreling to confront problems head-on. The United States and its Arab allies are reluctant to join forces with Syria and Iran to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Despite Tuesday's agreement between Israel and Palestinians to start reconstruction work in war-wracked Gaza, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon confessed that the two sides "seem more polarized than ever."

Speaking Tuesday at the official opening of the U.N. General Assembly session, Ban said we are "living in an era of unprecedented level of crises." He urged the U.N.'s key powers to stop squabbling and restore some peace and order.

Extremists rule large parts of Syria and Iraq. Violence consumes communities from the Central African Republic to Mali, Somalia, and South Sudan. Ukraine teeters on the verge of all-out war with Russia. Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as ever. Libya descends into chaos. Oh, and Ebola is spreading terror and death across West Africa.

As President Barack Obama and more than 140 global leaders converge on New York City for the U.N.’s annual General Assembly debate, the world looks like a bloody mess. U.N. members, meanwhile, are often too busy quarreling to confront problems head-on. The United States and its Arab allies are reluctant to join forces with Syria and Iran to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Despite Tuesday’s agreement between Israel and Palestinians to start reconstruction work in war-wracked Gaza, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon confessed that the two sides "seem more polarized than ever."

Speaking Tuesday at the official opening of the U.N. General Assembly session, Ban said we are "living in an era of unprecedented level of crises." He urged the U.N.’s key powers to stop squabbling and restore some peace and order.

"Each [problem] has its own dynamics and requires its own approach," Ban said. "But all have featured atrocious attacks on civilians, including children. All have dangerous sectarian, ethnic, or tribal dimensions. And many have seen sharp divisions within the international community itself over the response."

It is difficult to measure whether the recent spate of international crises is materially more serious than previous spasms of conflict. Ban has been known to throw around the word "unprecedented" lightly. But it’s pretty self-evident that international diplomacy is in a fairly abysmal state.

Despite the gloomy scenario, Ban welcomed U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State and Obama’s subsequent efforts to cobble together a coalition to confront the extremist group. "This airstrike and military operation, which was done at the request of the government of Iraq, was able to help the United Nations and other actors to, first of all, save a lot of human lives."

But Ban dodged questions about the legality of expanding U.S. airstrikes into Syria. Last year, he gingerly raised concerns about American plans to hit the Syrian government for launching a chemical weapons attack in rebel-controlled territory. The offensive was aborted after the United States and Russia brokered a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.

Beyond Security Council-sanctioned action, the U.N. Charter recognizes a state’s right to use force in its own self-defense or that of one if its allies. Obama says the United States can strike Islamic State fighters in Syria without a green light from the Syrian government. France, which joined America’s air campaign in Iraq, so far isn’t ready to make that legal leap. Russia has gone further. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said last week that such a move without Security Council approval would constitute "an act of aggression, a crude violation of the norms of international law."

Ban said that since the United States has yet to launch airstrikes in Syria, "it would be a little bit premature for me to say something" about a decision that remains "hypothetical."

The United States has secured broad political support for its effort to fight the Islamic State inside Iraq, with a group of 26 countries agreeing in Paris to take the fight to the militants "by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance, in line with the needs expressed by the Iraqi authorities." Australia, Canada, and France have committed to supporting the air campaign. But it remains unclear how far Arab states are willing to go.

Last week, foreign ministers from the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and the United States met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to discuss "a strategy to destroy ISIL wherever it is, including in both Iraq and Syria," according to a joint communiqué. The group committed to participating, "as appropriate," in "many aspects of a coordinated military campaign against ISIL."

Iran, which has been denied entry into the anti-Islamic State coalition, refused what it claims was a request by the United States to discretely cooperate. "I saw no point in cooperating with a country whose hands are dirty and intentions murky," Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei told Iranian state media. "If the U.S. enters #Iraq & #Syria without permission, they will go through the same problems as they did over the past 10 years in Iraq," he added, on a Twitter account managed by his aides.

Although the United States opposed Iran’s presence in the anti-Islamic State coalition meeting in Paris this week, Kerry left open the door to further talks with Iran on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly debate. The U.N. chief, meanwhile, said Tuesday that he looked forward to meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. He also instructed his new Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to establish a "closer relationship" with the Iranian government and prepare for a trip to Tehran. "Iran is an important actor and important country in the region."

Ban also sought to highlight the slow international response to the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, noting that the seriousness of the crisis is reflected in the decision of the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly to hold high-level meetings on the matter. Ban said that the epidemic is far more than a medical crisis but is upending the social and economic well-being of West African countries and posing a threat of "political instability" in the region. While praising the United States for a "massive scaled-up" response, he chided shipping companies and international airliners — which include Air France and British Airways — for suspending service to the region.

"The patient can be separated, isolated for professional cure. But the country should not be isolated…. [It] prevents the United Nations and international health workers to visit and provide humanitarian and medical assistance."

Ban was more upbeat on the crisis in Ukraine, where the parliament ratified an agreement with the European Union, marking deeper integration with Europe. And he urged Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to continue talks with Russia aimed at rendering the cease-fire "sustainable."

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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