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UN Chief's Bleak Assessment   09/23 07:56

   Guterres: 'We are Gridlocked in Colossal Global Dysfunction'

   At the annual meeting of world leaders last year, the U.N. chief sounded a 
global alarm about the survival of humanity and the planet. This year, the 
alarm rang louder and more ominously, and the message was even more pressing: 
Wake up and take action -- right now.

   UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- At the annual meeting of world leaders last year, the 
U.N. chief sounded a global alarm about the survival of humanity and the 
planet. This year, the alarm rang louder and more ominously, and the message 
was even more pressing: Wake up and take action -- right now.

   Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' assessment, delivered in his no-nonsense 
style, aimed to shock. We are becoming "unhinged," he said. We are inching 
closer to "a great fracture." Conflicts, coups and chaos are surging. The 
climate crisis is growing. Divides are deepening between military and economic 
powers, the richer North and poorer South, East and West. "A new Rubicon" has 
been crossed in artificial intelligence.

   Guterres has spoken often on all these issues. But this year, which he 
called "a time of chaotic transition," his address to leaders was tougher and 
even more urgent. And looking at his previous state-of-the-world speeches, it 
seems clear he has been headed in this direction for quite some time.

   In his first address to world leaders in 2017 after taking the helm of the 
193-member United Nations, Guterres cited "nuclear peril" as the leading global 
threat. Two years later, he was warning of the world splitting in two, with the 
United States and China creating rival internets, currency, trade, financial 
rules "and their own zero-sum geopolitical and military strategies." He urged 
vigorous action "to avert the great fracture."

   Then came the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. The global response Guterres 
called for never happened; richer countries got vaccines and poorer ones were 
left waiting. At last year's leaders' gathering, his message was almost as dire 
as this week's: "Our world is in peril and paralyzed," Guterres said. "We are 
gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction."

   This year, his message to the presidents and prime ministers, monarchs and 
ministers gathered in the vast General Assembly hall was unambiguous and stark.

   "We seem incapable," Guterres said, "of coming together to respond."


   At the heart of Guterres' many speeches this week is the very future of the 
United Nations, an institution formed immediately after World War II to bring 
nations together and save future generations from war. But in a 21st-century 
world that is far more interconnected and also more bitterly divided, can it 
remain relevant?

   For Guterres, the answer is clear: It must.

   The Cold War featured two superpowers -- the capitalist United States and 
the communist Soviet Union. When it ended, there was a brief period of 
U.S.-dominated unipolarity after the breakup of the Soviet Union and its 
dissolution into a dominant Russia and smaller former republics. Now it is 
moving to a more chaotic "multipolar world" -- and creating, Guterres says, new 
opportunities for different countries to lead.

   But Guterres' key argument is rooted in history. He says it teaches that a 
world with many power centers and small groups of nations can't solve the 
challenges that affect all countries. That's why strong global institutions are 
needed, he told leaders on Thursday, and "the United Nations is the only forum 
where this can happen."

   The big question, upon which Guterres is now laser-focused, is whether an 
institution born in 1945 -- a time when the tools to address chaos and 
fragmentation were more rudimentary -- can be retooled and updated to tackle 
today's challenges.

   "I have no illusions," he said. "Reforms are a question of power. I know 
there are many competing interests and agendas. But the alternative to reform 
is not the status quo. The alternative to reform is further fragmentation. It's 
reform or rupture."

   That is the conundrum sitting in the U.N. chief's lap: Can 193 nations with 
competing agendas undertake major reforms?

   To meet the challenge, Guterres has called on world leaders to attend a 
"Summit of the Future" at next September's U.N. global gathering, and in the 
coming, year to negotiate a "Pact for the Future." At a meeting Thursday to 
prepare, he told ministers that the pact "represents your pledge to use all the 
tools at your disposal at the global level to solve problems -- before those 
problems overwhelm us."

   The secretary-general said he knows reaching agreement will be difficult. 
"But," he said, "it is possible."


   Time, Guterres says, is against the United Nations and countries that 
support the return of united global action. Perhaps that is why his words grow 
more dire each year.

   He points to new conflicts like Ukraine, more intense geopolitical tensions, 
signs of "climate breakdown," a cost-of-living crisis and the debt distress and 
default that is bedeviling more countries than ever.

   "We cannot inch towards agreement while the world races towards a 
precipice," Guterres said. "We must bring a new urgency to our efforts, and a 
shared sense of common purpose."

   That's easier said than done, as this week's high-level meetings -- and the 
priorities and problems they raise -- make clear.

   Can all the U.N.'s far-flung nations unite behind a common purpose? Whether 
that happens in the next 12 months remains to be seen. Certainly there is 
support. Consider Bahamas Foreign Minister Frederick Audley Mitchell, 
addressing the global gathering Friday night. "Now, more than ever, we need the 
United Nations," he said.

   Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, said 
Guterres' state-of-the-world speech spoke "truth to power" and was an 
especially blunt and bleak assessment.

   "He really seems to think that the multilateral system is fundamentally 
broken," Gowan said. The secretary-general seems frustrated after years of 
difficult dealings with the divided U.N. Security Council, Gowan said, alluding 
to the United States and its Western allies increasingly clashing with Russia 
and China.

   "Sometimes it feels like Guterres no longer believes in the institution he 
leads," Gowan said.

   For Guterres, then, the Summit of the Future presents an opportunity but 
also a possible demarcation point -- between a brighter future and a more 
desolate one, between a chance at progress and the prospect of a closing door. 
To Gowan, it will be "a last chance for U.N. members to get their act together 
and rethink how the multilateral system could work."

   And that could present a potentially insurmountable peak for the world's 
most senior diplomat to scale. Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open 
Society Foundations and a former U.N. deputy secretary-general, pronounced 
Guterres' keynote speech to world leaders "a brave and frank admission that the 
U.N. is broken -- no longer fit for purpose."

   "The problem is that precisely because of that, nobody may hear him," 
Malloch-Brown said. "He may be speaking to an empty room."

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