UN@75 vs multilateralism
The United Nations was set up after World War II, and today, we are at the beginning of a new one — only this time, it is a war against democracy
The United Nations (UN) marked its 75th anniversary in September 2020. This institution — set up after World War II in 1945 — came as the response to build global consensus on issues of peace and security. But when it met this year at its virtual General Assembly in New York, each leader sent taped messages — it marked the time when the world is most divided; most dysfunctional in terms of global cooperation; and certainly, most filled with insecurity and hatred between people in nations and between nations.
So, what then is the future of the UN? I ask this at a time when we know we have an interconnected and interdependent world, like never before. We have the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) — the pandemic that has ravaged world economies and does not seem to be abating as yet. The fact is that if any part of the world remains infected, it will spread. So, we need global cooperation to tackle it; to reduce mortality; to build economic well-being; ultimately to provide access to the promised vaccine to all. We need countries to work together. We know that.
Then we have the other catastrophe knocking at our windows — climate emergency — a crisis that is testing the limits of national sovereignty. The fact is that we have a global atmosphere and all countries will emit into the airshed unless there are rules that apply to all. Rules require institutions that can regulate and enforce these on one and all — without prejudice to the more powerful. This is what we know we need.
But let's recognise that at the UN's 75th, the world is seeing tectonic shifts. First, the most crucial tools of democracy — tools that should engender open societies with open access to information and knowledge and action — are doing the reverse. Making societies more closed; more information-knowledge starved; and, far more divisive and polarised. This is a fact. It is changing each one of us who live in these open democratic societies, and so changing democracy as we know it, as we speak.
A few years ago, I was concerned about the "bubble" we had built around us; how we were choosing to follow people who agreed with us; and, how we were choosing to see the news and read the views that we agreed with. The news platforms that brought us information were also limited in their worldview — news that would bleed would lead; or, it would simply wipe out large parts of the world who were poor and, so, not the consuming classes.
This is why we were becoming more intolerant. But within a span of a few years, even this has "evolved". Netflix's documentary, The Social Dilemma explores how social media and internet companies use and manipulate us. Each click, hover, or view that we do on our screens is monitored so that our consuming, viewing or commenting habits are tracked.
This then allows for really sophisticated algorithms to work behind our screens to provide us with the world that we would like to see. Everyone works then with a different set of facts — there is no one reality then that is real.
But what should really worry us is how this documentary and other research is now pointing to the fact that these social media-machines of our age thrive on polarising people; influencing us to build a narrative that is extreme and hateful. This gets eyeballs; it gets more likes; and, it raises more revenue for these companies.
All this can be a stretch as we still would like to believe that we are in control of the machine. But it is a fact that these tools of democracy — created for the million Arab Springs that would revolutionise our world — could well be the cause of its demise today.
Second, undemocratic systems are gaining ground. Here, I speak of China. The ultimate irony of the two key speeches at the 75th birthday of the UN was that of the president of the free world, Donald Trump, who spoke of America-first. And Chinese President Xi Jinping became the unlikely champion of democratic values.
So, in this not so brave, new world, the China model of democracy, if you can call it that, will become the new norm. So, not only is democracy as we know it being corroded and weakened at its source, the alternative reality of what democracy will mean is already being presented to us through this leadership and regime change.
It is not just China — many countries and many leaders across the world would like to ape the model of authoritarian growth; it is efficient and successful. The Chinese tell us how they have managed to tide over the COVID-19 crisis — it may have started in Wuhan, but now all is in control. So, even the virus listens to this model.
This is where the UN's 75th bash has brought the world to a full circle. We started with the end of the war, and today, we are at the beginning of a new one — only this time, it is a war against democracy as we know it.
The writer is the Director-General of CSE and editor of Down To Earth. Views expressed are personal