At the opening of the 2023 session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted for world leaders the preamble of the organization’s Charter, which says that the “people of the United Nations” are “determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Yet, he explained that “instead of ending the scourge of war, we are seeing a surge of conflicts, coups and chaos.” Indeed, in 2022, there were 55 state-based and 82 non-state conflicts raging around the world, and the period from 2017 to 2021 saw the highest death tolls from non-state actors in armed conflict since 1989. The Institute for Economics and Peace’s annual Global Peace Index found that last year there was a 96 percent increase year over year in conflict-related deaths.

Screens show Ukrainian President Zelenskyy as President Biden speaks at the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 19, 2023. Biden was the only head of state from a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to speak at the UNGA. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Screens show Ukrainian President Zelenskyy as President Biden speaks at the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 19, 2023. Biden was the only head of state from a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to speak at the UNGA. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

These worrying trends and the secretary-general’s remarks set the tone for a major theme of last week’s UNGA — war is upon us, and without urgent collective action, this violence and destruction will grow with the potential to envelop every corner of the globe.

World Leaders Wary of Rise in Conflict

With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attending in person, many knew the war in Ukraine would Ukraine take center stage. Indeed, President Joe Biden reminded the world that “for the second year in a row this gathering dedicated to peaceful resolution of conflicts is darkened by the shadow of war — an illegal war of conquest, brought without provocation by Russia against its neighbor Ukraine.” Zelenskyy took the opportunity to showcase some of the horrors of Russia’s aggression and tout his 10-point peace plan, which he said offers “solutions and steps that will stop all forms of weaponization that Russia used against Ukraine and other countries and may be used by other aggressors.” Several other leaders, including Guterres, vocally condemned Russia’s illegal war. 

However, nearly two years into Russia’s illegal aggression many feared the world had started to move on. Commentators thought that this year’s General Assembly would largely focus on climate change and sustainable development, which it did to a certain extent. But the secretary-general’s remarks and the trending theme of war signaled a warning that went beyond that of Russia’s brazen attempt at territorial conquest. World leaders remarked of the new world disorder, U.S.-China tensions and the world’s ungoverned spaces that are ripe for violence and chaos.

Yoon Suk Yeol, president of the Republic of Korea, highlighted the global divisions triggered by Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, noting that the war “has deepened the division in values and ideologies within the international community.” Ghanian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-addo said that the mutual trust among nations has diminished and is reaching the low levels seen during the Cold War.

For his part, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey spoke about how terrorism — wielded as a tool in proxy conflicts in Syria and across the African continent, particularly the Sahel region — is inflicting lasting harm on the already vulnerable global security environment. He pointed out that the territories where terrorist groups operate are expanding rapidly, much like the outbreak of a disease.

Biden was direct in confronting what was on the minds of many at the U.N. meetings — the potential catastrophic consequences of a full-scale violent confrontation between the United States and China. “When it comes to China, I want to be clear and consistent. We seek to responsibly manage the competition between our countries so it does not tip into conflict,” he said. Representing China in Xi Jinping’s absence, Vice President Han Zheng urged that nuclear war “must not be fought” and nuclear weapons “must not be used.”

Peace and Security Trends Moving the Wrong Way

These nods to sensibility in the strategic rivalry between today’s two major powers could be seen as encouraging — although it would be wise to take Beijing’s talking points with a healthy dose of skepticism. Nonetheless, violence and conflict persist. During the 1960s through the 1980s, there was a major uptick in violent conflict. But following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many proxy wars ended as major power backing dwindled. Although there was a significant decline in state-centric confrontations and proxy battles, state-based warfare surged in the subsequent 20 years. Additionally, the civil conflicts that ignited in the post-Cold War former Soviet territories, like those in Georgia, Tajikistan and Chechnya, transformed into intensely lethal "internationalized internal armed conflicts” perpetuated by foreign sponsors, like those we now see in Syria, Yemen and Sudan. Today, there are concerns over the rise in both civil and inter-state wars.  

As shown above, the statistics on today’s conflict are deeply alarming. An estimated 4.7 million people and counting have died in post-9/11 war zones, and the U.N. estimates that 90% of wartime casualties are suffered by civilians. From February 2022 to August 2023, there were 9,600 civilians killed in the war in Ukraine. Worse still, from 2020 to 2022 some estimates show a staggering 600,000 people were killed as a result of the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Ukraine and Ethiopia are just two examples. Around the globe, the chaotic nature of violence manifests in varying degrees and contexts, representing a grim testament to the complexities of our modern world. Sudan is descending into chaos as foreign interests continue to fuel an atrocity-ridden civil war. Elsewhere on the continent, ungoverned spaces have become hotbeds of instability; people in junta-led countries like Mali and Niger are grappling with the rise of extremist groups, which exploit the lack of effective governance to establish footholds. With some ebbs and flows, Central American nations such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador face unparalleled levels of gang violence, while Haiti has reached unimaginable depths of disorder as gangs having nearly taken over the country. Over in Eurasia, the flames of conflict were reignited in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenia and Azerbaijan have clashed again in a deadly war over a disputed territory, causing immense civilian suffering and displacement.

Moreover, tensions in the South China Sea present a grave concern for global stability. This region, laden with strategic waterways and rich in resources, is a potential flashpoint, with major powers like China and the United States, along with other Southeast Asian nations, navigating a precarious balance of territorial claims and military posturing.

On the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, the secretary-general closed the General Assembly warning against the emerging arms race and the erosion of disarmament norms. He echoed the message of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, vowing to rally nations to eradicate these devastating weapons, and highlighted the urgent threats posed by modernized arsenals and growing tensions between nuclear-armed powers. The volatile mix of geopolitical ambitions and strategic interests raises the specter of a larger conflict that could have devastating global repercussions.

Multilateralism is the Answer

Given these alarming scenarios and the current state of global violent conflict, it is imperative that the international community, under the aegis of the United Nations, collaborate to address these challenges holistically. This entails not just responding to the geopolitical, economic and strategic factors that escalate state-sponsored conflicts but also tackling internationalized wars where non-state actors, emboldened by external support, engage in protracted and lethal battles.

Economic disparities and the adverse effects of climate change indeed play their parts in instigating these conflicts, yet the ultimate cost is human suffering. The very ethos upon which the United Nations was founded was to prevent, alleviate and resolve the horrors of war. Today, that ethos should animate member nations to unite and take decisive action, fostering a world where peace is not a mere ideal but a lived reality.

The answer is not minilateralism, today’s trendy term for an approach of addressing international challenges with a limited number of relevant and willing participants rather than through broad-based multilateral forums. Proponents of this approach say it can lead to quicker decisions and more targeted interventions. However, when dealing with global issues like pervasive violence and conflicts that span continents, a minilateral approach will always be inadequate and can actually exacerbate conflict.

The mosaic of violence across the globe is too interconnected and multifaceted to be tackled by a limited group of actors. For instance, the instability in ungoverned spaces in Africa, or the complex web of violence in Central America and Haiti, cannot be isolated from broader international dynamics. Similarly, the tension in places like Nagorno-Karabakh or the South China Sea do not just impact the immediate players but has reverberations for global peace and stability.

Minilateral alliances, while formed with the intent of addressing specific issues more efficiently than broader multilateral frameworks, can sometimes be perceived as antagonistic. The AUKUS pact — a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States — is primarily centered around sharing advanced defense capabilities, including helping Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. While the alliance is aimed at ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, it has raised eyebrows, particularly in China and France. China perceives AUKUS as a counter to its growing influence in the region. France, meanwhile, expressed strong dissatisfaction with the alliance, primarily because Australia canceled a multi-billion-dollar submarine deal with Paris in favor of the AUKUS agreement.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — comprising the United States, Japan, India and Australia — is another minilateral grouping focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. While the QUAD emphasizes its commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, China views it as a strategic move to contain Beijing’s influence in the region, which could further polarize regional dynamics.

The BRICS grouping — encompassing Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (and soon to include Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Argentina) — is primarily an economic alliance. However, its member countries, particularly Russia and China, showcase it as an alternative to the Western-dominated international order, which has gone a long way to fuel the rhetoric of division between the Global South and Western powers.

The answer to the well-founded fears of a total breakdown in peace and security remains clear: A comprehensive multilateral approach is needed for the challenges of our unique times. Only through institutions like the United Nations can the world ensure that all states, regardless of their size or power, have a voice in finding solutions.

Multilateralism embodies a collective responsibility to address not only the geopolitical, economic and strategic tensions that underlie state-sponsored wars but also the shadowy realms where non-state actors, supported by foreign backers, wreak havoc. Economic development and climate change are intertwined with these issues, and their global nature necessitates broad-based cooperation. Ultimately, the founding principle of the United Nations was to prevent the scourge of war, and only through a genuine multilateral approach can we hope to live up to that lofty ideal.

The track record is there for all to see. For nearly 70 years, the current multilateral architecture has reduced violence and human suffering from war in ways unprecedented throughout human history. That said, to continue to function effectively, immediate, serious and comprehensive reform is required.

Reforming, Not Rupturing, the System

Last week, Guterres poignantly noted that “[i]t is high time to renew multilateral institutions based on 21st century economic and political realities.” The system, he said, must either “reform or rupture.” The Biden administration recognizes this and has joined many other world leaders to support expansion of U.N. Security Council membership, changes inside the World Bank and admission of the African Union into the G20, among other things.

However, greater political consensus is needed to push through the necessary changes. On this front, it was not a good a sign that Biden was the only head of state of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent five members present at the U.N. last week. Xi has long sought to position China as a leader in reforming global governance, but his absence at the U.N. and recent G20 meetings and participation in the summits of China-oriented blocs like BRICS demonstrates Beijing is primarily concerned with advancing its own interests. Of the permanent members, all except Russia have made sincere calls for Security Council enlargement and reform. Unfortunately, they cannot agree on exactly what these changes would look like.

Adapting the Security Council to the realities of today’s multipolar world, with new international leaders and increasingly diffuse power dynamics, is essential but it is not sufficient. U.N. agencies, funds and programs have been instrumental in driving global development, but they urgently require restructuring to address the evolving challenges of our times. The increasing shortfalls in funding jeopardize the effectiveness of development agencies. Thus, it is imperative to bolster the financial capacities of multilateral development banks and other developmental bodies to ensure they can meet, or come close to meeting, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and further aspirations.

Moreover, in the face of escalating disaster risks like the recent floods in eastern Libya, humanitarian agencies require increased support and the establishment of standing capabilities for swift responses in high-risk zones. The specialized agencies of the U.N. — encompassing sectors from agriculture, health, space exploration, aviation and internet governance — among other things are at the heart of advising governments on technology governance. As innovation continues its exponential growth, these agencies become increasingly crucial in averting potential threats. Strengthening these facets of the multilateral system is essential to prevent catastrophic instability, which could escalate into violent outcomes, leading to a further surge of wars across the globe. To avoid such a grim future and in echoing the charter of the United Nations, we must reaffirm our commitment to saving succeeding generations from the "scourge of war."

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