Editor's Note: This article is part of a series that attempts to answer the question: Is democracy dying?
For the past two years, the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, has watched as President Donald Trump upends American foreign policy, engaging in trade wars while simultaneously disengaging from international agreements and alliances. And now Guterres has reached a verdict: The United States, once the guarantor of global stability, is losing its ability to influence world events.
“I think that the soft power of the United States … is being reduced at the present moment,” Guterres told me in an interview. This, he suggested, is dangerous because there “is no way to solve most of the problems in the world without” America.
We were sitting in his New York office, beside an array of windows overlooking Four Freedoms Park—an homage to Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of what the United States and its allies were fighting to preserve and promote during World War II. It was Roosevelt who spearheaded the effort to construct the United Nations from the ruins of that war more than seven decades ago. “The United States is today involved in a number of conflicts of different natures—in relation to trade, in relation to other situations—and indeed that means that the … attraction of American society that was a dominant factor in international relations just a few decades ago is today less clear,” Guterres said.
This is happening at the same time as the world itself is “in pieces,” moving since the end of the Cold War from an American-led order to an order led by multiple powers that has yet to be defined, he told me. “It’s inevitable that mono-state leadership of the international order will be more and more put into question,” said Guterres, who had just returned from a marker of this transitional period: a summit in Beijing on China’s deepening ties with Africa. “Both the United States and the rest of the world need to be able to adapt to this new situation,” he said.
Guterres did not directly criticize Donald Trump or even mention the U.S. president by name, even when pressed for his views on America’s disruptive foreign policy. The secretary-general has managed to maintain a workmanlike relationship with the U.S. government on issues like internal United Nations reform despite the Trump administration’s exit from the Paris climate agreement and the UN’s cultural and human-rights organizations; its withdrawal of funding for the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees; and its broader hostility to international institutions on the grounds of putting America first. (Ahead of meeting the secretary-general, I’d watched U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declare during a speech in Washington, D.C., that the Trump administration would be “defunding those things that are not helpful to us,” including the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights. The departing human-rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, an unsparing critic of xenophobic, populist nationalism, had recently accused Trump of aimlessly driving humanity in a bus “careening down a mountain road with steep cliffs on either side.”)
Under normal circumstances, Guterres—the former prime minister of Portugal, a NATO ally and fellow democracy—would be a natural partner for the United States at the United Nations. But these are not normal circumstances. Guterres is serving as secretary-general “at the very moment when the United States, despite its long-running ambivalence about the United Nations at least since the 1970s, is no longer really willing to be the anchor for the international system,” said Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations.
So Guterres has a “simple” strategy to keep Washington engaged: “It is to affirm the things we believe in, not in confrontation against, but as such,” he told me. “I’m not a multilateralist against anybody. I’m a multilateralist because I believe in a multilateral order … I consider climate change as the biggest threat [to the world]. That has nothing to do with who is or is not the head of a country or another … [With] climate change, if you do not act decisively in the next few years, you might have irreversibly dramatic impacts on the planet. And we are losing the race. Climate change is running faster than we are.”
Nevertheless, Guterres’s blunt assessment of American clout contradicts Trump’s core narrative: that he is making America great again and earning respect once more overseas—by, for example, launching one trade war with China and threatening several more, or pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal.
Asked whether he is worried about a severe disruption like the United States withdrawing entirely from the United Nations, the secretary-general gave an answer that was noteworthy less for what he said than for what he didn’t say: that such a scenario was unthinkable.
“I will do everything possible to avoid it,” he responded.
The secretary-general is facing another upheaval that extends far beyond America. And it’s one to which his own biography makes him acutely sensitive: Guterres was in his 20s, and a leader in the fledgling Socialist Party, when Portugal overthrew its dictatorship in the Carnation Revolution of 1974; he was an active participant in the struggle to consolidate democracy that followed, organizing demonstrations in Lisbon against communist factions intent on rolling back the revolution. “This,” he said, “is probably the central fact in my life.”
A central fact in the world right now, according to Guterres, is that not only are the democratic advances he and others secured in the late 20th century in jeopardy, but so too is something even more profound: the very values of the Enlightenment. We’re witnessing a “reemergence of irrationality,” said the secretary-general, who before assuming the office in 2017 served as the UN high commissioner for refugees during the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, and is now seeking to broker a “global compact” for managing migration flows. (The Trump administration has withdrawn from the negotiations.) “The Enlightenment is the primacy of reason, it is tolerance, and now we see the emergence of xenophobic instincts, of ethnic and religious fundamentalisms. Obviously all these put into question the cohesion of societies, and the cohesion of societies is a fundamental tool for democracy.”
Guterres said it’s “an exaggeration” to describe American democracy as “flawed,” like one recent study of democracy around the world did, while notably not highlighting as evidence the nation’s political leaders: “The U.S. has, independently of what happens in the political establishment, a fantastically vibrant civil society, a fantastically vibrant press.”
There is, however, a backlash under way against two recent waves of democratization, he added. First came the end of authoritarian rule in several southern European and Latin American countries in the 1970s and ’80s. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratic transitions of Russia and many of its satellites in the 1990s, when Guterres was prime minister of Portugal: “The human-rights agenda was gaining ground, and democracy was becoming the dominant form of political organization in the world.”
Yet Francis Fukuyama was wrong to proclaim the post–Cold War period the “end of history,” noted Guterres, who is the first former head of government to serve as UN secretary-general. “History was frozen by the Cold War,” but then, sometime after the turn of the 21st century, “it came back.” The inequities of globalization diminished public confidence in national political establishments, which “undermined the moral authority of democracies in the world” and also reduced trust in international organizations and cooperation. Repressed nationalism resurfaced, as the “national sovereignty” agenda overtook those of democracy and human rights. Politics in many countries grew more polarized and ideological, with parties focusing on whipping up their bases rather than fighting for centrist voters like they used to. Hollowed-out, authoritarian-inflected forms of democracy gained traction.
Liberal democracy, it turned out, is “not inevitable,” Guterres said. It must be nurtured.
Guterres is in the perhaps impossible position of leading something called the United Nations at a time when, in his own view, the world is fracturing. And as he tells it, it’s not just dysfunctional democracies and xenophobic nationalism that made it this way. The culprits also include shifting power dynamics and resurgent great-power conflict in a world organized neither by the bipolar competition of the Cold War nor by the singular leadership that the United States exercised after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We live in a … chaotic world,” he said, in which “impunity and unpredictability” have become “the name of the game.”
In the case of the Syrian war, for instance, “you have the involvement of the superpowers. You have several regional actors, be it Turkey, be it Iran, be it Saudi Arabia, Qatar. You have terrorist groups. And then you have all kinds of Syrian movements,” observed Guterres, who days earlier had appealed to the Syrian government and its Russian patron to not perpetrate an expected bloodbath in the last rebel-held stronghold of Idlib. “It’s very difficult to put the puzzle together, and it makes peace much more difficult to achieve. First it makes prevention more complex, because we have more actors and the risks of conflict increase. And then it makes conflict resolution even more difficult, because of all the contradictory interests of these … actors.”
It was enough to make him seem nostalgic for the comparative order of the Cold War. During the Cold War, “there were conflicts, and there were many wars by proxy. But when things would get really dangerous, usually the two superpowers would calm things down,” Guterres continued. He recalled how, in the post–Cold War period, “there was a capacity [of] the United States … to have a very strong influence in solving problems”—such as when the Clinton administration mobilized the UN Security Council to dispatch a peacekeeping force to the former Portuguese colony of East Timor after a vote for independence from Indonesia sparked violence. “The moment the president of the United States decided that an intervention was necessary, everything happened,” he marveled. “Now”—Guterres paused, shaking his hands in frustration—“this kind of thing no longer exists.”
“The fact that the world [is moving to] a multipolar situation”—with several preeminent powers organizing the international system—“is probably good,” he added. “But it would be an illusion to think that multipolarity is a solution of peace and security problems. We can never forget that Europe before the First World War was multipolar, but in the absence of multilateral governance mechanisms” the continent plunged into war.
Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and onetime aspirant for Guterres’s job, once told me that we tend to take modern international institutions like the United Nations for granted. But order in international relations, he said, has historically been the exception, not the rule. Three previous efforts in Europe to construct interstate order after devastating conflict—the Westphalian peace in 1648 after the Eighty Years’ and Thirty Years’ wars, the Concert of Europe in 1815 after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and the League of Nations in 1920 after World War I—all decayed over decades and ultimately devolved into Hobbesian disorder.
Rudd had observed that “the jury is still out on the fourth,” which might never have come into existence had two catastrophic world wars not compelled the world to embark on the most ambitious order-building project in human history. I asked Guterres if he agreed that the jury is still out, as the person presiding over the most prominent component of the fourth order.
“Yes, of course,” Guterres told me. “The future is unpredictable.” Yet he also pointed out that the League of Nations, which failed to do anything about the depredations of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan, didn’t have some of the powerful instruments that the United Nations has, such as the Security Council. (The League was also missing the United States, which didn’t join because of isolationist opposition in the Senate even though the American president, Woodrow Wilson, had come up with the idea for the organization.)
Still, Guterres acknowledged that “the Security Council doesn’t correspond anymore” to today’s international power dynamics, and that there is currently a “serious confrontational environment” among the Council’s permanent, veto-wielding members: the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France. Those powers have struggled—and in many cases failed—to take meaningful collective action on almost all the pressing issues of the day: the suspected genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Russia’s seizure of Crimea, the disaster in Syria. (Security Council sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear and missile tests, orchestrated by the Trump administration, are an exception.)
“With a Security Council [as] divided as this one, it’s difficult to adopt sanctions or to adopt tough measures against whatever regime in the world, even if [those sanctions and tough measures] are fully justified,” Guterres admitted.
“The systems for states to act collectively at higher levels in pursuit of solutions are decomposing,” al-Hussein wrote last month, just before he stepped down as UN human-rights chief—a sentiment Guterres did not dispute when I read that line to him. Al-Hussein went on: “If we do not change course quickly, we will inevitably encounter an incident where that first domino is tipped—triggering a sequence of unstoppable events that will mark the end of our time on this tiny planet.”
One of the lessons Rudd draws from history is that an international system only endures when the states central to creating it remain invested in its future. Nowadays, however, the states present at the creation of the current order are locked in confrontation. Guterres has expressed alarm about the “rebirth of the Cold War” between Russia and the United States, this time without the safeguards that were previously in place to tamp down tensions and avert nuclear war. During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., a Chinese scholar and former government official told me the U.S. government appeared to be shifting “away from 40 years of engagement with China” and that the burning question is whether American leaders are “looking for a fight or a deal.” If the former, the scholar cautioned, there would be “no capitulation” from China. “If the storm’s coming, we better make sure [our] ship’s solid,” the scholar said. The French president has spoken of the challenge of keeping Trump’s America in the “community of nations.”
“If you end up with weak global institutions, together with rising great-power rivalry, then that points us strategically in the direction of a more fragile global order than we’ve had before,” Rudd had told me shortly before I met the secretary-general.
As we wrapped up our interview, Guterres took me to his dining room and pointed to framed pictures on the wall of the temple-tomb of the ancient king Antiochus I, a spectacular expanse of cracked, disembodied heads of statues and assorted rubble rising from the earth. “It’s here,” he said, “to show how the world is in pieces.”