To celebrate United Nations Day this year the University of Bedfordshire, of which I am an Honorary Fellow, combined with the United Nations Association to invite Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former UK ambassador to the UN, to deliver a keynote speech. He is now Chairman of the United Nations Association - UK which supports the institution of the UN but is independent of it[i]
. Sir Jeremy accepted the title of the event: ‘Is the UN working?’ and attempted to address the question.
Of course it is working, he said. It is a collection of organisations through and beyond the intergovernmental process with 193 Member States. It runs the World Food programme delivering sustenance to over 90 million people. The UN Refugee Agency has helped 34 million people. It has 120,000 peace keepers in 16 countries. It vaccinates 58% of the world’s children against deadly diseases, saving an estimated 2.5 million lives a year. The UN’s maternal health campaign saves around 30 million lives a year. It provides a terrific range of services and in the process it has to make sacrifices in resources, lives and livelihoods.
But when we consider the intergovernmental process the answer has to be more qualified. We have entered into an era of growing freedom. With the end of the threat of cold war in 1990, freedom won over repression, open markets capitalism over communism. We seemed to have reached the sunny uplands and Francis Fukuyama announced the End of History.
But History never finishes. Issues never go away. There is a need for order but there is an imbalance between freedom and order. Freedom brings a risk to structures. Sir Jeremy then gave a brief review of underlying anthropological factors. He asked why humans are the dominant species. We are not the biggest, strongest or fastest. But there are three characteristics of Homo Sapiens which contribute to the fact that we are the only species that can control our environment.
First, we have the intelligence necessary to understand our environment. Even more we have the intelligence to ‘know thyself’. Second, we have the adaptability to live anywhere where water is present and can eat virtually any food. And third, we can operate with team work. It is this last factor that is most important to the UN. We are all globally aware. We have globalised economies, information and communications. But we cannot act at a global level. We have to act through representatives. And so the UN understands the importance of grass roots.
The freer a community, the narrower our horizons become. When free, man’s choice is to revert to tribalism. That polarises culture, politics and religion. This is not accompanied by the responsibility to act cooperatively. The connection between global and local is not made. And so in that sense the UN is not working.
Sir Jeremy then put some of the blame on his own generation. (He was born in 1943). His generation, he said, have enjoyed growing freedom and prosperity for the smallest return. They have created institutions but not kept them healthy. They have borrowed from their fathers and grandfathers who laid the foundations for that freedom and security by risking their lives in war. And they have borrowed from their children to whom they will pass on the burden of irrepayable debt.
Sir Jeremy then set out a manifesto developed by the UNA of ten ideas for UK foreign policy[ii]
. As we approach the General Election he and his organisation will be making every effort to get all the political parties to adopt these:
I can’t see much wrong with any of those. If they look a little top line that’s because they are but there’s more well-thought out detail in the manifesto and I commend it to you. General Elections are seldom decided by matters of foreign policy unless the problems created by our membership of the European Union and our feelings about mass migration intervene. But it would be nice if for once these larger issues could be the dominant factors. Sir Jeremy is a wonderful public speaker and now he is no longer shackled by his career in the diplomatic corps he speaks freely and with great intelligence as well as experience about these global challenges. He was the UK permanent representative to the UN and the UK representative on the Security Council from 1998 to 2003 and so speaks with first-hand knowledge of how these affairs are conducted.
This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had been on my first visit to Berlin only a few months before and went up to the observation platform which then allowed you to look across the waste of Potsdamer Platz patrolled by East German guards. I was so shocked by this abomination that in a loud voice I cried “This must come down.” I suppose sub-consciously I was echoing the words of President Reagan who, two years before in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, ostensibly to mark the 750th anniversary of the City of Berlin, said “Tear down this wall, Mr Gorbachev!” But his words were carefully prepared and mine were simply an emotional reaction to what I saw. When the wall actually fell on 9th November I was in Japan but we could talk of little else for days.