UN Day address from Colin Keating– Premier House Wellington Thursday 24 October 2019
3 November 2019
I also extend my welcome to you all. And I thank you for coming to support UNANZ and to
mark United Nations Day
It would be very nice to be able to stand here tonight and simply propose a toast to the
United Nations, confident that all was well, confident that our multilateral institutions were
in good heart and that we could therefore relax and enjoy a celebration.
But this is 2019. All is far from well. The United Nations, and all of our multilateral
institutions, are facing serious threats. The short-term outlook is bleak. Current trends are
reminiscent of the behaviours in the 1930s that destabilised and ultimately destroyed the
League of Nations.
Over the past 70 years there have always been a few regimes that have cynically sought the
benefits of UN membership while rejecting the fundamental principles of the UN system.
Typically, these have been corrupt and cruel dictatorships, espousing toxic versions of
personal power and unconstrained sovereignty. Such leaders have fought tooth and nail
against UN norms, against international law, against human rights and against multilaterally
agreed principles of good governance and environmental sustainability.
Today we are in an era where this mantra seems to have infected the political discourse and
the leadership of a much wider group, including some important democratic states. Until
recently, these were strong supporters of multilateralism and the shared values of the
United Nations system.
This infection is spreading. Even in New Zealand. Listen to talk back radio. Read what the
internet and social media trolls are writing. Some really despise the UN. Others project
hatred of the values it stands for.
There used to be a political consensus in New Zealand to support multilateral institutions
and the UN in particular. But it is of real concern that all of our political parties in New
Zealand seem to have drifted away from that. It is not that our current politicians are
rejecting the UN. But they are essentially silent, focusing on policy priorities elsewhere and
allocating resources elsewhere. I think it is time to recall a famous quotation. There is
debate about its origin. But on this subject, it stands true today. All it takes for evil to prevail
is for good people to stand by and do nothing.
So tonight, I think it is important to briefly explain why the multilateral system is under
threat, why the current trends are so dangerous and what you can do to make a difference.
We hear demands for states to have the freedom go their own way. Even in the UN General
Assembly, we hear demands that states be able to exercise sovereignty unencumbered by
international law or the Charter. In decision making on war and peace, unilateralism seems
to be prevailing over collective security and international law. Long term alliances and
partnerships are seen as trifling and sometimes as problematic hinderances. The UN
Security Council is being undermined. Permanent Members flagrantly ignore its binding
decisions. The Council is rapidly being rendered into a toothless talking shop. And
bilateralism seems to be rearing its ugly head, with some world leaders trumpeting their
demands for bilateral outcomes at the expense of collective ones.
It has been clear for over a hundred years that bilateralism leads, ultimately, to diminished
outcomes for everyone. We have also learned that it can create conditions that lead to war.
Bilateralism, because of its binary nature, incentivises outcomes with one winner and one
loser. Short term, this is politically attractive to leaders of large countries. Large countries
almost always prevail in these contests. It is therefore a disastrous model for New Zealand
and for the 150 or so other small or medium size countries, whose economies will inevitably
falter if this thinking prevails. But over time the model becomes disastrous also for
everyone, even the large. Global trade shrinks as the number of losers grows. Eventually a
point is reached when even the economies of the few remaining winners begin to contract.
And that is assuming that there is a long term at all. Bilateralism can breed desperation, as
happened with Japan in the early 1940s. Bilateralism comes to be perceived by the losers as
predatory. And, all-out warfare can be the result.
Multilateralism was not invented as a result of some “do gooder” mentality. To the
contrary, it was created out of a very hard-headed conclusion that the world needed an
alternative to the binary win/lose dynamic of bilateralism.
Multilateralism incentives win/win outcomes across multiple players. It also incentivises a
rules-based system with independent mechanisms to ensure that agreements are
implemented fairly and honestly. Multilateralism is hard work. It takes time and patience. It
does not have flashy short-term political appeal. But long term, it is the only safe and
sustainable mechanism for managing modern international relations.
This is true for international trade, for preventing conflict, for protecting the environment
and ultimately for ensuring our very survival on this planet. The risks of catastrophic climate
change and nuclear annihilation cannot be managed bilaterally. The awful situation in Syria
is a clear example of total failure to properly use multilateral conflict prevention machinery.
But, let us be clear. The multilateral machinery is not perfect. After 70 years the UN
machinery set up in 1945 is not a good fit with the world of today. It requires major reform.
The multilateral trade machinery is much newer. But it too needs some reform.
I also want to be quite clear that I am not saying that building bilateral relationships is bad.
At the personal level we all need one to one relationships. They enrich our lives. And the
same is true for states. But modern governance and modern economies cannot work based
on one to one relationships. And we also know very well that the moment we start to
transactionalise our friendships or personal relationships, that is when things fall apart.
And things falling apart is exactly what we are seeing at the moment in international
Let me finish with some thoughts about what you can do to help?
First, when you hear people flaying the UN or multilateralism for its failings, push back.
Remind them of why bilateralism and unilateralism are doomed to fail. Explain why, in the
interconnected modern world, we cannot solve big complex problems without a system for
agreeing rules and fairly enforcing them. Recall Dag Hammarskjold’s words in 1954 that the
UN was not invented as a path to heaven but to save us from hell.
Secondly, whatever political party you support, advocate strongly to politicians to lift their
game with respect to New Zealand’s leadership in restoring multilateralism. It is time to stop
the drift into indifference about the UN. It is time to reverse the drift of resources away
from multilateralism. On trade, on peace and security, on the environment, on
peacekeeping, we need all the political parties speaking up for reengagement in the
multilateral arena. They all know that this is in New Zealand interests. It is time to prioritise
efforts to shore up those interests.
Thirdly, don’t be naïve about the UN. Frankly, I think that one of the reasons why support
for the UN is waning in New Zealand is because too many of its supporters in the past have
sought to oversell its role and been slow to face up to its limitations and failings. It is time to
be much more upfront about the need for reform.
Reform can be a great focus for lobbying politicians. There is a problem. The UN needs
reform. New Zealand is ideally placed to be able to contribute hugely to a transformation.
So, as a fourth challenge to you all, why not demand that New Zealand set up and properly
resource a six-month project involving politicians from all parties, officials, the defence force
and civil society to make recommendations on a role for New Zealand to take a lead in
restoring the credibility and effectiveness of multilateralism.
Fifthly, reach out to the media. They are also missing in action when it comes to the big
picture about multilateralism and the UN. This is not a new problem.
Sixthly, it is great that you are all here tonight. But effective change in New Zealand’s
commitment to the multilateral system will take more than just turning up on UN Day.
Please be ready to give ongoing practical support organisations such as UNANZ.
And lastly, to UNANZ, thank you for what you do. In particular I thank you for what you do
to encourage students and young people to better understand the UN system. But today
that system is facing existential challenges. So, now is the time to strengthen and refocus
your efforts so that New Zealand can do more to ensure that the multilateral system will