“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.)
The United Nations: What’s the point?
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.