Old alliances don’t serve our new multipolar world

Delegates walk past the UN building in New York (AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD)
Delegates walk past the UN building in New York (AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD)

The International Organisation of Francophone countries (OIF) recently held a summit in Dakar. While the debate inside the conference centre in the Senegalese capital over who should be the new head of the 57-nation group was intense, TV news crews found few outside who were interested in the meeting. Including observer countries, the OIF represents 900 million people, which sounds impressive, but when an Al Jazeera reporter talked to locals this was the typical response: “Frankly we don’t understand what La Francophonie is. We’re not paying attention. We’ve heard people talking about it, but nobody has explained what it is.”

Such apathy is not surprising given that the OIF, based around a core of French-speaking countries, is essentially an effort by France to continue to project the great power status that it lost in 1940, after the capitulation to the Germans. That was the reality, as the well-known Parisian commentator Andre Geraud acknowledged seven years later. “As a factor in power politics, then,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine, “France counts for very little”.

Membership of supranational bodies like the United Nations Security Council has, however, given a different impression. The same, to an extent, applies to Britain, which was also to lose an empire and struggle to find a role, to paraphrase the US secretary of state Dean Acheson. When the UN was set up in 1946, permanent membership of the security council was awarded to the US, Soviet Union, China, Britain and France on the grounds that they were the victors of the Second World War. The truth of the matter at the time, as the American historian James E Cronin points out in his new book, Global Rules: America, Britain and a Disordered World, was that “Only three states really mattered in 1945 – the US, the UK and the USSR – and the Soviets had a limited agenda focused primarily on defence. The other states to which a veto was accorded in the UN Security Council – China and France – were in no position to lead.”

But China clearly had the capacity to rise again, and it maintained France’s feelings of self-worth, just as the Allies had allowed Paris to “liberate itself”, as General Charles de Gaulle preposterously declared, to help put aside the less palatable facts of collaboration.

Nearly 70 years later, that special status on the security council is unchanged, and it is still a body that counts. It is, after all, the P5 – permanent five – plus one (Germany) that leads the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

But all of this is very outdated. If one were to create the UN from scratch again today, Britain and France would not enjoy such privileges. If further evidence were necessary, the two countries’ pretensions to being serious international players have been laid woefully bare by the current chaos in Libya.

After leading the calls to remove Colonel Qaddafi in 2011, British and French forces swiftly found themselves running out of munitions once the intervention started. Today, they seem to regard the extreme instability in the country as an unfortunate matter for which they bear no responsibility.

Surely countries such as India and Indonesia, the world’s first and third largest democracies, or emerging giants such as Brazil, have just as strong if not stronger claims to a seat on the security council.

There are any number of ways in which the UN Security Council could be strengthened by being diversified, helping to ensure the future legitimacy of its role as the international body of ultimate sanction. Why limit its members only to countries? Why not find a role for regional groups like the GCC, Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) or ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States)? At the very least, it would make more sense for Britain and France to cede their places to the European Union.

Similarly, the duopolistic nature of the World Bank and IMF, whereby the former is always headed by an American and the latter by a European, needs to be broken.

The last time a new managing director was appointed to the IMF, after Dominique Strauss-Kahn had to resign amid scandal, there were serious candidates from developing countries, but the old formula was retained. Christine Lagarde, like her predecessor also French, is very highly regarded. But as Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight, told the BBC at the time, it was “against all good principles of governance for a global institute to only have its leader from Europe”.

As we move into an era of a multipolar world, with the newly assertive China and Russia making greater claims on their respective “near abroads” and even talking about a Nato of the East, we need effective supranational bodies more than ever. It is therefore more important than ever that we reform those bodies so that they represent the globe as it is today – as opposed to still being based on the victors’ spoils of a world war that ended nearly 70 years ago.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant based in Doha and Kuala Lumpur

Published: December 9, 2014 04:00 AM

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