Why the UN matters for Britain

In the fourth of a series of interviews with Queen Elizabeth II Academy faculty, Jeremy Greenstock argues that the UN is still important in a polarized world.

Interview Updated 14 September 2022 Published 13 September 2022 6 minute READ

Sir Jeremy Greenstock

Chairman, Gatehouse Advisory Partners Ltd. Former Chair, UNA-UK (2011-2016); Ambassador and UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York (1998-2003)

For many people looking at the United Nations (UN) today, the institution (and the world) appears to be at an inflection point and the UN seems ill-equipped to meet these challenges. From your vantage point, how does this period look in relative terms? 

I think for an institution like the UN founded on principles and compromises laid down in 1945, the passage of time is bound to be difficult because society changes quicker than an institution can reform. We can talk about reform later, but the UN has challenges. Where do these challenges come from? I see them coming from a crisis in governance, in governments around the world.

The UN is a forum of member states, and the member states carry their national labels at the UN and follow their national interests at the UN. And almost all governments are suffering huge challenges, not just from the circumstances of geopolitics, but from the expectations of their own people, which they find difficult to meet.

The UN still retains a tremendous value as a forum. It is a natural forum for governments to talk before they shoot, which was not there in previous eras, and that has had a significant effect since 1945 in reducing the incidence of war between states.

The UN is a servant in that sense, of governments, and so what happens at the UN reflects what is happening in and between governments. We need to keep that in perspective. The UN still retains a tremendous value as a forum. It is a natural forum for governments to talk before they shoot, which was not there in previous eras, and that has had a significant effect since 1945 in reducing the incidence of war between states, particularly between the largest states.

It has obviously been more difficult to deal with local and regional conflicts, but the kind of confrontation that threatens to escalate into a global war has been severely restricted by the UN. The habit of talking at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), artificial as it may seem, is an extremely important part of the avoidance of conflict in the modern age.  

There is a deep scepticism about the UN. Many people think there is a lot of talking but that the real action takes place elsewhere. What is the value of the UN?  

Well, there are two aspects to this. One is the fact that leaders must give their reasons for their policymaking to an international public. This has a force in today’s digital world where most people have access to a megaphone of some kind. The legitimacy of what governments do is exposed at the UNGA.

Secondly, alongside the open meetings and the publicized speeches, there are countless side meetings that go on, and it is an opportunity for leaders to test each other out, and to have private words that may differ from the public words they have to produce for their own followers in their own capitals.

It is an opportunity for personal diplomacy which is highly valuable, and which might not otherwise happen, particularly between leaders who have very serious differences. And I think that the testing of the legitimacy of policy in both the public and the private spheres is an important aspect of international diplomacy that the UNGA provides an opportunity for.  

At the UNGA, states are called to account before the UN, and this can expose hypocrisies. But sometimes there are fundamental clashes over interests and also over values. How would you characterize the UN’s handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

It is a different audience at the UN from the audience that they have back in their capitals or in their own groups of like-minded people. They must justify themselves in different ways, and there are a whole host of inconsistencies in foreign policy that get exposed at the UN when people must explain themselves in public.

A lot of member states around the world have not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine; yet underneath their non-condemnation is a general regret because Russia has broken a huge taboo of the UN Charter, which is the sacrosanctity of independent sovereign territories in Article 2.7.

And that article is valuable to member states who feel threatened by more powerful member states. Russia, as a permanent member, has ridden roughshod over sovereign independence. China and India will have equivocal feelings about that, but they can’t say so in public because they want some of the West’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies exposed, and because they find the approach of sanctions very unpalatable.

Sanctions are unpopular, and the use of sanctions has become a major weapon of non-war by the United States in particular. So, the Russian invasion is unpopular, but the approach of the West is also unpopular for not better looking after the interests of emerging economies and lower-income states, particularly on climate change, but also on economic development.

So, a whole host of different considerations come into play over Ukraine at the UNGA.

How do you think the UN could be best repurposed or reformed?  

It is terribly difficult, because if you open the UN Charter for one reason, you are opening it up to a host of demands from member states for other reforms. And remember that no reform of the Charter can happen without a 2/3 majority at the General Assembly, and that is an effective blocker, because you will always find more people opposing a particular reform that supporting it.

Just improving the competence of the UN and its agencies will ensure the relevance of the UN to people’s material interests.

So, I think formal reform remains a bit of a dream in the circumstances of a polarized world. I want to divert discussions about UN reform into areas where the Secretary General has a competence without needing a vote from member states.

I am talking about improvement in methodologies, in the meritocracy of appointments, in the day-to-day workings of the UN. It looks unambitious on a large-scale basis, but just improving the competence of the UN and its agencies will ensure the relevance of the UN to people’s material interests in terms of human rights, refugees, food distribution, and children, and all the other things that the agencies look after.

So, I would prefer to concentrate reform energy into competence reforms, management reforms, rather than reforms of the Charter. 

This takes us to the question of the permanent members of the Security Council, and especially the US and the UK. You have experienced first-hand America’s ambivalence towards the UN. How much has this undercut the UN’s relevance?

I was frequently disappointed by the approach of the US to issues of policy at the UN. The US finds it very difficult as a nation to move beyond the primacy of its own domestic public opinion.

I think it is more than untenable, it is against the US’s long-term interests to demand such national exceptionalism.

That perspective – that we have democracy at home, but we will not, as Americans, allow international democracy – is regarded around the world as an untenable position for the superpower. And I think it is more than untenable, it is against the US’s long-term interests to demand such national exceptionalism.

That exceptionalism is extremely unpopular, and the US’s extraterritorial reach is very unpopular. That loss of legitimacy around the world is affecting American interests, in the Middle East, over Afghanistan, over the reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine; America losing the argument with international public opinion has a material effect on American power, influence and interests.

Has America paid the price for asserting its exceptionalism? From your perspective, representing the UK, arguably the closest ally of the US and one with a permanent seat on the Security Council, how did you manage this?

Well, I had a long experience of that in my job in Baghdad. Yes, the UK normally supports the US in international forums because our interests coincide. In foreign policy, interests are more important than values, and sometimes you have to make compromises and shade your values in order to get results and to avoid conflict.

I found myself taking up the US’ arguments and trying to deliver them as the UK, because the US was more unpopular than the UK and we could act more subtly. The US was more unpopular than the UK because the UK – and a lot of the time France – tried a lot harder than other permanent members to work for the common interest of UN members.

There were times I argued publicly against the US at the Security Council because their logic was incompatible with a multilateral approach, over the International Criminal Court for instance, or over some approaches to the Middle East. I would take a different view, not just because I didn’t want to seem like a constant puppet of the US, but because I thought the logic that they were following was constraining for them, and the counter-productiveness washed off on us.

Here, I want to make an important point. You won’t get governments coming together to form a multilateral approach with all the compromises that this entails unless they are confident of their position at home. They can’t otherwise explain those compromises to their domestic public opinion. If governments are insecure at home, they won’t pursue a multilateral approach because of that insecurity.

The UK is seeking to define a new global role for itself. It has been one of the most influential states at the UN. Do you see this changing?

I don’t think the change of leader makes a terrific difference for the UK in the UN because there is cross-party parliamentary agreement that the UN is important.

I was disappointed that the UK did not take the UN more seriously at a political level except when it badly needed it at a particular moment. At an official level, there was plenty of support from London, but I don’t think that politicians ever gave much priority to the health of the UN.

New leader cont.

I don’t think this will change with a new leader. Yes, the UK, on its own outside the EU, has suffered international reputational damage that will affect the debate about whether the UK deserves a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. If we started again from scratch, the UK would obviously not earn a permanent seat, and this means the UK has got to work even harder to make it clear that it is working for international solutions to international problems.

What is your advice for the new UK prime minister with respect to the UN?

Prime Minister Liz Truss will travel to New York, for the meetings of the General Assembly, just after the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen’s life is a reminder of the importance of Britain’s leadership, not least at the United Nations. 

I hope that the new prime minister will go to the General Assembly meeting of heads of state and government. I hope that she will have plenty of side meetings around the public speeches and will make a good declaration of the approach of the new government to foreign policy and to multilateralism.

A statement of long-term interest in reforming good relationships with the Russian people would be a welcome message from the UK head of government, because the Russian people are not responsible for what happened, and they should be part of Europe as well as of Asia.

I expect that there will be quite a lot of rhetoric about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some of which could be divisive; the divisiveness should be kept to a minimum, and a statement of long-term interest in reforming good relationships with the Russian people would be a welcome message from the UK head of government, because the Russian people are not responsible for what happened, and they should be part of Europe as well as of Asia.

I also hope that there will be firm statements about the need to keep up communications with China as an important global player. Communication with China over the things that we can potentially agree on is just as important as opposing them on the areas where we disagree.

Do you think people in the UK care about the UN? You continue to say how important it is for a country’s leaders to feel that they have domestic public opinion on their side.

Well, I think a lot of people in the UK do support the UN. But when was the last time you heard UK politicians say to the public ‘you must care for the UN’? People would follow their leaders on that.

I find young people across the UK keen to partake in model UN meetings. Young people do seem to care about the UN and enjoy representing a national position in a multilateral context.

When it comes to a specific proposition at the UN, then I think that the British public does care, and they did care about Iraq. The largest demonstration ever in London was against the government’s approach to Iraq in early 2003.

I would like the British government to be more proactive, transparent, and forward-looking in its approach to the UN, and to think more carefully about the interconnection between our national and our global interests.