Summit of the Future – Part one

A- A A+

In a lecture delivered last month at the European University Institute in Florence, European Central Bank Executive Board member Isabel Schnabel referenced the importance of  ‘creative destruction’, a concept associated with the Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter. It means that in a well-functioning system, productivity is boosted by the exit of inefficient firms and processes and their replacement by more dynamic ones.

The problem with international organizations is that this does not happen – creative destruction is largely unknown. A case in point is the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which clearly fails “the Ronseal test” – it does not do what it says on the tin – i.e., it doesn’t provide international security. The most egregious example of this was the 24 February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by the then President-in-Office of the UNSC, Russia, which made a complete mockery of the idea of ‘global governance’.

A second example is the Gaza-Israel conflict stemming from the savage massacres which took place in Israel on 7 October 2023, leading to Israel’s punitive, still ongoing and highly controversial military actions. Over a long period the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis had been left to fester, and indeed the late-2020 Abraham Accords seemed to relegate the Palestinian issue to a zone of international disinterest, with the UNSC as a kind of bystander. Following the events of 7 October the Palestinian issue returned to the agenda with a vengeance.

Some UN insiders – e.g., senior diplomats – habitually defend the UNSC by saying that “Yes, it’s not perfect, but imagine if we didn’t have it.” It’s akin to declaring “My favourite football team is hopeless but imagine if we didn’t have it.” Such an attitude does nothing to boost performance. It’s complacency, not humility.

The Summit of the Future

What can be done to improve things, and how soon? An opportunity for radical change presents itself later this year when ‘The Summit of the Future’ (SOTF) will take place at the United Nations in New York on 22-23 September.

The UN itself describes the summit as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance cooperation on critical challenges and address gaps in global governance, reaffirm existing commitments including to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the United Nations Charter, and move towards a reinvigorated multilateral system that is better positioned to positively impact people’s lives.”

During a Carnegie Endowment online event last month, UN Under-Secretary General Guy Rider explained that the idea for the summit stemmed from the UN75 Declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2020 commemorating the 75th anniversary of the setting up of the UN. Inter alia that declaration said that the challenges facing the world are interconnected and could only be addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism. “Multilateralism is not an option” the declaration continued, “but a necessity as we build back better for a more equal, more resilient, and more sustainable world.”

The weakness of the declaration is exemplified by the content of Arts. 9 and 10 which said “We will promote peace and prevent conflicts” and “We will abide by international law and ensure justice.” Neither has been borne out in practice. All such documents necessarily seem to contain their share of bromides, but in the context of the forthcoming SOTF, the worrying thing is that its outcome document – The Pact for the Future – will be similarly replete with high-blown rhetoric that doesn’t deliver.

UN model of multilateralism open to question

There is a rich repository of academic literature on the subject of multilateralism. For example, the Italian political scientist Mario Telò wrote a brilliant book entitled Multilateralism – Past, Present and Future – A European Perspective (Routledge, Abingdon, 2023). He noted that some critics say that “the West is declining and too myopic to take a long-term approach to global governance.” However, he points out that “the war in Ukraine of 2022 and its acceptance or tolerance by many Asian, African and Latin American countries is not making the global credibility of the BRICs and their soft power stronger.” In Does the UN Model Still Work? Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Multilateralism (Brill, Leiden, 2023) Fontaine-Skronski et al wrote that the UN “remains a controversial model of multilateralism.”

The China syndrome

We’ve already noted that Russia made a laughing stock of ‘global governance’ by invading Ukraine in February 2022. What about China, Russia’s very close partner? Writing in Crisis of Multilateralism? Challenges and Resilience (Palgrave Macmillan // Sciences Po Series in International Relations and Political Economy, 2023) Camille M. Brugier gets to the heart of a key problem with the UN system. About China, she says that the real challenge with it in the liberal international order is what it stands for. She notes that in a UN context “China’s objective, through its appointed nationals and increasing financial engagement, is to spread a set of values at odds with political liberalism and individual rights. This is also central to its attempts to circumscribe the progression of liberal norms that it perceives to be destabilizing for its own regime.”

Songpo Yang of Tsinghua University speaking during a Chatham House online event on 30 August 2023 said that the international order that China wants is essentially UN-centred. Yet Brugier points out that “China also contributes to relative losses of power of the UN by creating alternative venues of discussion, international initiatives, and multilateral organizations such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Prof Matteo Dain of the University of Bologna, speaking at the 2024 EU-Asia annual Conference at the EUI on 18 March ‘Italy, Europe, the G7 and the China challenge‘ referred to what he termed China’s “ideological over-supply”. China’s zeal in this context could be deemed counter-productive.

Global security governance and elite deals

The zero draft of the Pact for the Future that was released by its co-facilitators Germany and Namibia has chapters on (i) Sustainable Development and Financing for Development (ii) International Peace and Security (iii) Science Technology and Innovation, and Digital Cooperation (iv) Youth and Future Generations (v) Transforming Global Governance. Clearly, this represents a huge range of important topics with ample room for spreading desired improvements too thinly.

As the recently elected President of Finland Alexander Stubb put it in his farewell address to the School of Transnational Governance last month, the problem with peace efforts these days is that they are transactional, rather than multilateral. In a draft paper entitled ‘Inventive Interventions’ presented at the Robert Schuman Centre in Florence on 5 March 2024, Prof Simone Tholens et al wrote that “Global security governance (structures) are primarily webs of elite deals.”

What comes next?

If September’s ‘Summit of the Future’ is to have a positive effect on global governance and international peace and security, an acceptance of this reality is a necessary starting point, followed by ‘creative destruction’ of any structures that have not delivered. Specifically, the UN Security Council needs to be abolished – not ‘tinkered with’ for the next several years to no appreciable effect – and replaced by an altogether new body. The possible outlines of such a structure will be detailed in Part Two of this article.


Michael Sanfey holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from UCP Lisbon. He is a Visiting Fellow at the EUI’s Robert Schuman Centre, working on a research project entitled The Liberal International Order and Global Governance: Ramifications of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.