“At its essence, sustainability means ensuring prosperity and environmental protection without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. A sustainable world is one where people can escape poverty and enjoy decent work without harming the earth’s essential ecosystems and resources; where people can stay healthy and get the food and water they need; where everyone can access clean energy that doesn’t contribute to climate change; where women and girls are afforded equal rights and equal opportunity.” September 25th, 2015.
These are the words of the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon opening the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, motivated by the apparent and unusually unanimous conviction at the global level that we were facing the "decisive moment for humanity".
Agenda 2030: objectives and prospects for realisation
The 2030 Agenda of the United Nations with 17 Sustainable Development Goals 1 (SDGs) was approved by 193 countries in the General Assembly held in New York on September 25, 2015. It is a navigation chart for humanity that seeks to protect the planet and improve living conditions of people. The SDGs cover environmental, political and economic aspects and are expected to become reality by 2030. Reaching these goals is a huge challenge for the multilateral system and tests the political will of governments to put into practice what their heads of states have committed to. To quote some of the SDGs: End of Poverty, Zero Hunger, Gender Equality, Reduction of Inequalities or Action for Climate. In 2014, UNDP reported that poverty in the world reached 1.5 billion people or 29% of the world population. Regarding hunger, whilst in 2014 about 805 million people suffered from it, by 2017 the figure had risen to 821 million, that is the same figure for 2010. Gender Equality has become part of the political agendas in many countries, but we know how far we are from approaching parity, while income inequality shows that the richest 1% of the planet has more wealth than all the rest.
The current multilateral system
On climate change, it should be enough to remember that we are facing the longest and hottest summers since there are records. With these data at hand, the question that arises naturally is whether it will be possible to achieve the ambitious SDGs in the next 12 years. The current multilateral system that emerged at the end of the Second World War, with the creation of the United Nations in 1945, has suffered a progressive weakening that now threatens the legitimacy of the existing international order. With all the limitations they may have, international organizations have been and continue to be the space for dialogue among nations, cultures and religions, where great agreements have been consolidated for the benefit of humanity. The reasons for its current weakening are multiple, including the changes in the international scene that occurred after 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification; the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the transformations in countries that made up the socialist block. From a bipolar world emerged 73 years ago, we have advanced to a multipolar one, where new actors with economic and military power have entered the scene seeking to consolidate their presence and modify the main structures of world power, such as the United Nations Security Council.
On the other hand, the growing loss of the legitimacy of multilateralism is a by-product, among other factors, of non-compliance with resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly or unilateral decisions taken by the great powers, as was the case with the Climate Agreement or COP21 signed in Paris in 2015, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the recent recognition by the United States of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, or the vetoes in the Security Council 2. Add to this the withdrawal of the world’s main power, from international agencies such as UNESCO and the Human Rights Council, coupled with the cancellation of the financial assistance program to UNRWA 3 announced by the United States government, the recent threat of President Trump to withdraw his country from the WTO.
The ongoing trade wars, and even the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. There is also the recent statement of the Italian Vice Premier, Matteo Salvini, who threatened to stop paying contributions to the United Nations 4. All this, together with the excessive bureaucratization of the system and the global expansion of social networks, which have delegitimized the effectiveness and efficiency of the huge amount of resources that are invested in international organizations in general, both in public opinion and at government level.
The new emergence of nationalism and populism
The consequences of the loss of power of the multilateral system translate into the tendency to reinforce the national State by favoring the countries with more economic and military resources, weakening the international order, leaving the smaller ones at the mercy of unilateral decisions and without the legal protection offered by respect for international institutions or what we might call the Rule of World Law. A consequence of this is that the smaller countries seek to protect themselves militarily and / or economically, so they end up aligning with one of the global or regional powers. We are also witnesses today of the strong resurgence of the nationalism, xenophobia and growth of the extreme right in some countries where it seemed that this would no longer be possible and that nevertheless they have come through the popular vote to preside over governments and / or be present in parliaments, such as Russia, Austria, Hungary, Brazil, Italy, Sweden, Holland and Germany, to name a few.
Among the multiple causes that explain the new emergence of nationalism and populism is the international financial collapse that started after the subprime crisis in the United States and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. This triggered panic and a financial crisis at global level raising the protests of people against the economic system and political class in general, becoming a breeding ground for the discrediting of traditional political parties, creating a vacuum especially among young people and thereby stimulating populist currents. On top of this came the asymmetry in the economic recovery of the countries, the migratory process in Europe and Latin America 5, favored by political conflicts and wars, the eternal crisis in the Middle East, as well as the emergence of Islamic terrorism. We can add that the weakening of the multilateral system has also contributed to the emergence of these forces that seek to strengthen the national state by reducing the share of sovereignty that each country gives up by becoming a member of the international community. This has been pointed out by the US ambassador to the United Nations, saying that "it is not that we say that multilateralism cannot work, we say that (national) sovereignty is a priority over all that". 6 The foregoing was reaffirmed by President Trump in his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations when expressing: "We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism".
Rio Conference of the United Nations
In 2012 the so-called Rio Conference of the United Nations laid the foundations for what are today the Sustainable Development Goals or goals that the organized international community has set to achieve a better world. It was fully aware of the challenges that humanity faces along with the possibility of achieving them. That 821 million human beings suffer hunger 7 in a planet that produces more food than it consumes, is a contradiction and consequence of the economic system that privileges profits without caring for the rest. It is, therefore, a political problem and could have a relatively simple solution if those who govern wanted to find one. But in addition, it would not be enough to reduce hunger to zero, rather it is necessary to maintain it at that level, which is also a huge challenge for public policies.
It is striking that among the SDGs one has been overlooked that seems fundamental: the reduction of weapons production – what should be SDG no. 18. Conflicts and wars are the biggest brake for reducing poverty or eliminating hunger. However, it was not considered. The sale of weapons in the world moved 1,686 billion dollars, equivalent to 2.2% of world GDP, or 227 dollars for each human being (SIPRI). The truth is that the military industry, especially in developed countries, generates thousands of jobs and huge profits for producers. No exporter is deprived, for ethical reasons, of selling arms. The most recent example we have seen in Spain, where the new socialist government annulled a contract of 2015 for the sale of 400 precision bombs to Saudi Arabia because they could be used in the war in Yemen. The Saudis immediately threatened to suspend the purchase of 5 corvettes ordered from the Madrid government for 1,800 million euros. The Minister of Defense had to rectify and point out that she was alone in the "review process", and then proceed to lift the veto on the sale of the bombs. 8 The underlying issue is that the military industry will continue to grow, and it is not clear that this will have limits. In the real world in which we live, characterized by capitalist production and to which no alternative is envisioned, the reduction in the manufacture and commercialization of arms becomes an illusion or chimera.
The loss of legitimacy
The remaining 12 years to reach the 17 SDGs set by the United Nations are thus a major challenge, where also the credibility of international institutions in the face of global public opinion is at stake. Strong multilateralism would facilitate the achievement of the SDGs and, on the contrary, a weakened system will drive them away. The current situation of the multilateral system will deepen if there is not the political will to seriously revise the international order. Organizations such as the United Nations and its agencies exist for the contribution of member countries that contribute according to the size of their economies. They cease to be effective if their large taxpayers subtract from paying the fees.
The loss of legitimacy occurs when the votes of the General Assembly, resolutions of organizations such as the WTO or the International Court of Justice are not respected. It is clear that the President of the main world power, Donald Trump, seeks to reshape the current international system and little by little adds new allies in different parts of the world without defining what he wants, without proposing a global alternative, which generates more uncertainties than certainties. If there are no changes in US policy, or if the current President manages to be re-elected, the international system as we know it could end up disintegrating with unpredictable consequences. Another possibility is that international institutions continue deteriorating progressively to become irrelevant entities, without power and influence in the future of humanity.
1 ODS: No poverty 1, Zero hunger 2, Health and well-being 3, Quality education 4, Gender equality 5, Clean water and sanitation 6, Affordable and clean energy 7, Decent work and economic growth 8, Industry, Innovation and infrastructure 9, Reduces inequalities 10, Sustainable cities and communities 11, Responsible production and consumption 12, Climate action 13, Life below water 14, Life on land 15, Peace, justice and strong institutions 16, Partnerships for the goals 17.
2 The fall of the Berlin Wall together with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact extended democracy to practically all of Europe. The same happened with the democratization of a large part of Latin America that left behind dictatorships. In both Asia and Africa, democracy seeks its place. Paradoxically, where democracy does not come, it is the Security Council of the United Nations that is the controller of international order.
3 United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, created in 1949, serves about 5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
4 Italy pays 100 million euros to the UN per year, said Salvini after indicating that his country will evaluate whether it makes sense "to continue contributing to the financing of waste, embezzlement and theft" in the international body. El Mercurio, Chile, 13.09.18.
5 The crisis in Venezuela has caused the displacement of more than two million people, mainly to Colombia, Peru, Chile and other countries.
6 "The isolationism of the Trump era." Interview with Nikki Haley, reproduced in El Mercurio on 24.09.18, p. A-4
7 2018. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. FAO
8 “Despite participation of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, the German government approved exports of military equipment for 295 million dollars in March and September 2018. German Press Agency DPA, quoted by El Mercurio on 02.10.18.