The head of the United Nations has just presented a vision of a world where everything is very bad: inequality is increasing, there is war in Europe, fragmentation everywhere, an ongoing pandemic and technology that tears things apart as much as it unites them. .
“The world is going through very difficult times. The controversy is getting deeper. Inequality is increasing. The challenges are spreading,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday morning as he opened the debate at the 77th General Assembly. And his truth was undeniable.
But less than an hour later, two UN representatives – one Asian, the other African – were smiling in the sunny lobby of the office building, happy to be there this morning, taking pictures and laughing as they enjoyed the moment.
Hope is hard to find these days. Especially for the people who walk the corridors of the United Nations, where carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders is part of the daily task. After all, this is an organization that Ukraine’s pre-war president described as a “retired superhero who has forgotten how great he was.”
And as the world’s rulers try to solve humanity’s most pressing problems—or, frankly, prevent them from being solved—it’s easy from a distance to lose sight of hope amid a haze of negative adjectives.
Beneath the layers of existential gloom, however – and there is no doubt that this is an epidemic-weary group of people who represent a very moody world due to so many unsettling challenges – some signs of hope peeked out like blades of grass on cracks in the pavement.
“For each of us, the UN is a unique forum for dialogue and cooperation,” said Swiss President Ignazio Cassis. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. declared his country an “optimistic” nation where “solutions lie within our common borders.”
David Kabua, president of the landlocked Marshall Islands – a man with little cause for optimism – spoke of “this iconic hall, a symbol of humanity’s hope and hope for world peace, prosperity and international cooperation”.
“As humanity struggles to defend freedom and build lasting peace, the role of the UN is indispensable,” said South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.
There were many similar moments on Tuesday. Taken together, they are a remarkable thing: There seems to be a shared feeling – expressed, sometimes obliquely, by president after president – that even when it disappoints or fails, the UN must be a place of hope amid cold realism.
What is this for? In part because the UN, from its inception, has been unwaveringly committed to the principle of multilateralism, a long word that simply means treating each other well. And to treat each other well or even try when the inherited animosity comes from afar, is bloody or seems insurmountable, requires hope.
It has always been like this. But this year there is something different, something unique, typical of the moment. In the first terrifying days of the pandemic in 2020, the United Nations General Assembly was a sham, the rulers were at home making videos. Last year, despite the slogan “Rebuild Together for Peace and Prosperity”, attendance at the state was as low as the sense of a world coming together.
Now, even as the pandemic rages, the UN campus is bustling with people of all backgrounds and traditions, interacting and talking and doing what is at the heart of the United Nations: taking nations and turning them into people, as the late US senator said. William Fulbright.
Even when they are not in a meeting, they fulfill the mandate of this organization: to discover little by little what aspect of the world should be.
“This is the only place among international organizations that seeks to define what is shared in common,” said Katie Laatikainen, a professor of political science and international relations at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, who studies the UN.
“They are working to find out what it means to be part of the international community,” he said. “They have learned the language of appealing to ‘we’ and encouraging others to define ‘we’ and commit to ‘we’.”
Guterres sought to instill that sentiment in his disaster-filled opening speech. He spoke of a ship called the Brave Commander, loaded with Ukrainian wheat which, with the help of the warring nations of Ukraine and Russia, sailed to the Horn of Africa to prevent famine.
He sailed under the UN flag and the ships that followed him not only carried grain, “each ship is also loaded with one of the rarest goods today: it is loaded with hope.”
So no: hope is not absent from the UN this week. It is contained, muted, it is tentative. But there it is, although some people think it’s a naive idea. “Our opportunity is here and now,” said the president of the General Assembly, Hungarian Csaba Kőrösi.
The world is not an easy place. Was it ever? Another Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, said it better than anyone: “The United Nations was not created to take us to heaven,” he said, “but to save us from hell.”