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Global Governance and Peace in Times of Catastrophic Risks

By: Adriana Abdenur

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and Global Governance

In global governance, the culture of encounter–here understood as the "engagement of difference with a stance of humility, generosity, and patience toward those who think and live differently, drawing on the fundamental human unity that lies behind political, social, and religious divisions"–requires dedicated channels for dialogue. Providing global public goods through activities that transcend national boundaries demands international public spaces built on mutual understanding and negotiated solutions.

In that sense, the United Nations (UN) can be understood as the main institutionalized space at the global level for fostering a culture of encounter. It is nearly universal in membership among countries, with 193 sovereign states spread across six continents as of March 2022. Regional and other international organizations have permanent observer status, as do the Holy See and Palestine. In addition, the UN engages with civil society, private actors, and subnational governments through a variety of mechanisms and frameworks with global reach. Key frameworks include the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. While the UN is not without flaws, it provides multiple channels for people, communities, and organizations of all backgrounds to negotiate and implement initiatives of regional and global reach. Overall, the UN is the most universal and legitimate forum for negotiating global norms and setting common objectives for humanity. It represents an overarching mechanism for peace by offering institutionalized mechanisms and spaces for regulating conflicts, if not doing away with them altogether.

Yet, in 2022, the UN finds itself mired in a crisis of multilateralism that is unprecedented since World War II, as reflected in myriad discursive attacks and budget reductions–even as the world faces an increasingly large roster of problems, including a number of catastrophic global risks. Older threats to human well-being, from nuclear proliferation and deep-seated socioeconomic inequalities to increasingly intractable armed conflict, are resurfacing and becoming intertwined with emerging risks, such as climate change and the ecological crisis, as well as the negative effects of poorly regulated new technologies. The result is a heightened sense of uncertainty, including that around existential threats.

Within this context, the breakout of major new wars with the potential to escalate into regional conflicts or into crises with lasting global repercussions poses new challenges to the credibility and efficacy of the UN–and therefore, to human well-being.

The UN emerged out of war, in order to prevent war. Thus, its capacity to fulfill its function as a space for the culture of encounter finds its utmost meaning–and, at the same time, one of its foremost challenges–in the outbreak, escalation, or prolongation of major wars of international scope, such as the conflicts in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and, more recently, Ukraine. War, particularly when fueled and expanded across international borders by geopolitical interests, can rapidly shrink opportunities for positive encounters, from the local to the global levels. Instead of nurturing a culture of encounter, warring parties foment its polar opposite: violence. Encounters give way to clashes, destruction, social exclusion, and hopelessness.

International responses to wars of international proportions or its repercussions deeply restructure social relationships and affect spaces that were imagined and built for the culture of encounter. The militarization of borders, the deployment of troops and mercenaries, and the imposition of sanctions isolate states; leaders isolate their own states; the flow of arms into the conflict space and its surroundings magnifies violence in the present and (likely) in the future; the deaths, the wounded, and the forced displacement of millions tear up the social fabric of communities in ways that cannot be immediately repaired. This is especially true of the present context, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has the global health crisis led to breakdowns in everything from trade to communications; the necessary responses have entailed around social distancing. Combined with the prolonged, recurring, or newly erupted wars taking place in 2022, a rethinking of global governance is needed–not only in order to make it more effective, but indeed, in order to save it altogether.

From where, then, can we draw hope that channels for the culture of encounter can be reestablished, revitalized, and expanded in the present context? Since its founding, the UN has developed mechanisms to build upon whatever pools of solidarity are left, through both remedial and preventive approaches. Communities and organizations (including those of the UN system) often come together, even crossing international borders, to provide humanitarian assistance, and to help evacuate the victims of war, support refugees and other migrants, including the most vulnerable groups. At a local level, there are countless examples of courage and solidarity not only among organizations, but also among people–from national to community leaders. The UN's capillary reach into conflict areas, whether through bodies like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or through partnerships with local and regional organizations, can harness the ties of solidarity born out of resilience to amplify the impacts of humanitarian assistance.

More broadly, the UN can insist on twin concepts that undergird a lasting peace: the peaceful resolution of conflicts and conflict prevention. UN mechanisms for mediation, good offices, and community violence prevention offer opportunities to re-establish the culture of encounter in conflict-affected settings. When successful, peace agreements and other mediation efforts can help communities and societies overcome the wounds of war, bring justice, and lay the foundations for peacebuilding and, ultimately, lasting peace. For ongoing or imminent conflicts, peaceful resolution may not always succeed at first, but it must always be prioritized, lest the boiling over of geopolitics undermine the culture of encounter at a global scale. Disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation must be brought back center stage. Development must be pursued in sustainable and more equitable ways. Human rights cannot be relegated to secondary status.

And finally, innovations such as climate-sensitive peacebuilding–not only in post-conflict settings, but rather along the entire spectrum of violence and conflict–can offer new ways of avoiding armed conflict in the first place. More than that, a legitimate commitment to peace through preventive approaches can help establish the base for a longer lasting and farther reaching culture of encounter.