Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

U.N.’s Guterres Has a Plan to Reboot Multilateralism

The newly reelected secretary-general wants the world to work together to battle pandemics, inequality, and climate change.

By , a principal at the SecDev Group and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and , a researcher at the Igarapé Institute.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres holds a press conference on Afghanistan at the United Nations in Geneva on Sept. 13. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

The world is at a historical inflection point. It faces cascading, interconnected threats that could undermine global stability—including a relentless pandemic, runaway climate change, deepening inequalities and economic insecurity, massive digital vulnerabilities, and the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons. Paradoxically, at precisely the moment global cooperation is most needed to meet these threats, international solidarity is in short supply. Confronted with a widening array of transnational risks, most governments are distracted, preoccupied with attending to domestic challenges.

Yet now more than ever, humanity's collective future hinges on effective cooperation. Created 75 years ago, the United Nations was charged with facilitating collective action among nations on issues of peace, security, and development. Over the last decade, the organization has come under increasing strain, and some of its core bodies, especially the Security Council, are paralyzed. In order to avoid spiraling global instability, newly reelected U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and leaders from several countries have called for the renewal of multilateralism. In a widely anticipated report issued this month under the title “Our Common Agenda,” Guterres lays out a blueprint for how this can be done. (Disclosure: The Igarapé Institute, where we both work, contributed to the report.)

The agenda is one of the most far-reaching and comprehensive strategies ever produced by the U.N. It was crafted on the basis of consultations involving over 1.5 million people from around the world. The report was informed by discussions with national and city governments, impact investors, young people, and civil society groups, including outreach with over 1,500 thought leaders from 147 countries in 2021. Virtually all contributors agreed that more, not less, cooperation was needed. The agenda lays out two possible futures: one of breakdown and perpetual crisis due to pandemics, rising temperatures, massive job losses, and growing protests, and another in which there is a breakthrough to a greener, safer future.

The world is at a historical inflection point. It faces cascading, interconnected threats that could undermine global stability—including a relentless pandemic, runaway climate change, deepening inequalities and economic insecurity, massive digital vulnerabilities, and the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons. Paradoxically, at precisely the moment global cooperation is most needed to meet these threats, international solidarity is in short supply. Confronted with a widening array of transnational risks, most governments are distracted, preoccupied with attending to domestic challenges.

Yet now more than ever, humanity’s collective future hinges on effective cooperation. Created 75 years ago, the United Nations was charged with facilitating collective action among nations on issues of peace, security, and development. Over the last decade, the organization has come under increasing strain, and some of its core bodies, especially the Security Council, are paralyzed. In order to avoid spiraling global instability, newly reelected U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and leaders from several countries have called for the renewal of multilateralism. In a widely anticipated report issued this month under the title “Our Common Agenda,” Guterres lays out a blueprint for how this can be done. (Disclosure: The Igarapé Institute, where we both work, contributed to the report.)

The agenda is one of the most far-reaching and comprehensive strategies ever produced by the U.N. It was crafted on the basis of consultations involving over 1.5 million people from around the world. The report was informed by discussions with national and city governments, impact investors, young people, and civil society groups, including outreach with over 1,500 thought leaders from 147 countries in 2021. Virtually all contributors agreed that more, not less, cooperation was needed. The agenda lays out two possible futures: one of breakdown and perpetual crisis due to pandemics, rising temperatures, massive job losses, and growing protests, and another in which there is a breakthrough to a greener, safer future.

Mindful of rising geopolitical tensions among powerful members of the Security Council such as China and the United States, the U.N. secretary-general offers a road map to achieve global consensus. Taking a leaf from Kim Stanley Robinson’s celebrated book The Ministry for the Future, Guterres calls for a “Summit of the Future.” To avert the outbreak of interstate and civil wars, he recommends that nations establish a new agenda for peace to revitalize conflict prevention, reduce the risks of cyberattacks and nuclear confrontation, and lay out rules to prevent the militarization of outer space. He also urges the creation of a global digital compact to mitigate digital divides and ensure that new technologies, including artificial intelligence, are used for positive transformation. While some critics will groan at the suggestion of more meetings and declarations, major events that assemble leaders such as the 2005 World Summit have served as catalysts for real change.

Notwithstanding its flaws, the U.N. is still the only genuinely representative multilateral organization.

Given the deep flaws in the international financial system and the uneven pace of development, the agenda calls on state leaders, the G-20, the U.N. Economic and Social Council, and international financial institutions to urgently redesign global economic governance. To help achieve this, Guterres proposes a biennial strategic global economic dialogue and a world social summit in 2025. This could build on past ventures to promote a more equitable economic order, including the 2008 to 2009 Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission and former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1994 “Agenda for Development.” This is not a surprise. When Guterres was the president of the Socialist International from 1999 to 2005, he strongly advocated for the establishment of an economic security council to streamline cooperation between international financial institutions and U.N. agencies.

If it hopes to achieve any of these goals, the U.N. will need to upgrade the way it works. For one, it needs to be much more participatory and consultative, including with environmental, human rights, and grassroots nongovernmental organizations that are on the front line of addressing climate change, humanitarian crises, and community development. To this end, Guterres has proposed strengthening the representation of and engagement with civil society, parliaments, the private sector, city and local governments, and young people within the U.N. system. The U.N. is also expected to adopt a data-driven and evidence-based approach to implementing the new agenda. To accelerate action, he is calling for the reestablishment of a scientific advisory board to advise the organization accordingly. Guterres expects to ramp up the U.N.’s strategic forecasting and use of behavioral science, including by establishing a Futures Lab that can peer 25 years ahead.

The wide scope of the agenda is both a comparative advantage and a potential liability. To be sure, it features a long list of laudable priorities aligned with existing processes such as the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement. But at a time of multiple overlapping crises, Guterres will need to get U.N. member states to select and adopt a shortlist if he intends to deliver results. That is what he hopes will happen at the proposed new summit. The agenda will only be achieved if all member states, including China and the G-77 coalition of developing countries, are genuinely on board. This is not straightforward. Some countries are wary that claims to protect public goods and the global commons could provide justification for restrictions on their economic development or even military interventions down the road. Guterres can allay these fears if developing countries are provided with a stronger voice at the negotiating and decision-making table.

Notwithstanding its flaws, the U.N. is still the only genuinely representative multilateral organization. Although there are more actors today than when it was created 75 years ago—multinational companies, major philanthropic organizations, large humanitarian and development organizations, and a huge array of NGOs and pressure groups—it still has a vital role to play when it comes to managing tricky issue of the global commons and global public goods. Maintaining peace and security, a job the organization has done reasonably well over its history, and “sav[ing] succeeding generations from the scourge of war” are at the core of the U.N. Charter. But today, guaranteeing peace and security requires safeguarding a widening array of commons from the oceans, the atmosphere, and poles to outer space and the internet, as well as managing public health and the global economy. To help identify, manage, and deliver on these goals, Guterres is calling for the establishment of a high-level advisory board of world leaders.

Guterres knows that to be effective in a multipolar world, the U.N. needs to become a platform to foster networked multilateralism. More than ever, it needs to nurture and empower flexible networks and impact hubs composed of actors and coalitions working on clearly defined issues, including global decarbonization, universal access to the internet, the education of girls, and sharply reducing violence. While nation-states are still the key players when it comes to implementing and scaling solutions, the U.N. will have to work closely with regional organizations, city governments, parliamentarians, philanthropic groups, and the private sector to deliver lasting outcomes.

Taken together, “Our Common Agenda” proposes an urgently needed reboot of the global system that incubates inclusion and takes into account the needs of future generations. It kicks off a desperately needed process to reinvigorate multilateralism and looks to make the U.N. more relevant in global economic governance and other global public goods. It is sweeping in breadth and ambition, and seems to be positively received by member states. The question now is whether the world’s countries can translate a blueprint for a better world into action.

Robert Muggah is a principal at the SecDev Group, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and the author, with Ian Goldin, of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years. Twitter: @robmuggah

Giovanna Kuele is a researcher at the Igarapé Institute.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.