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What’s New about the UN’s New Agenda for Peace?

On 20 July, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will launch “A New Agenda for Peace”, a policy brief on the future of multilateral security cooperation. The report is one of a series of papers that Guterres has circulated to UN member states to lay the groundwork for a grandly titled Summit of the Future scheduled for September 2024. The Secretary-General hopes that the summit will be an opportunity for world leaders to debate how to reform international institutions to address looming global challenges. His preparatory papers cover topics ranging from global financial governance to international collaboration in space.

When Guterres first announced his intention to convene the Summit of the Future in 2021, peace and security issues did not appear to be among his main priorities. The Secretary-General and UN member states were then digesting the lessons of COVID-19. The most pressing challenges on the multilateral agenda seemed to be dealing with future pandemics and climate change. Two years later, these problems have not gone away. But Russia’s all-out aggression against Ukraine has ensured that diplomats are now keen to see what Guterres has to say about averting future conflicts. Growing signs of flaws in the UN’s existing peace and security architecture – such as Mali’s June decision to demand that the Security Council withdraw UN peacekeepers from its territory – have further boosted interest in the New Agenda.

The original Agenda for Peace ... was a foundational statement of the UN’s role in stabilising the post-Cold War world.

The mere title of the report is calculated to raise expectations. The original Agenda for Peace, tabled by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992, was a foundational statement of the UN’s role in stabilising the post-Cold War world. It welcomed the end of “hostility and distrust” between the two Cold War superpowers, the U.S. and the newly dissolved Soviet Union, and outlined how the UN – guided by a more or less united Security Council – could step up its work on preventive diplomacy, peacekeeping, peace enforcement and post-conflict peacebuilding. Its vision of an activist, interventionist UN set the terms for policy discussions around the organisation in the ensuing three decades.

The New Agenda marks a break with the legacy of its predecessor, although not a complete one. It continues to emphasise the importance of conflict prevention and peacebuilding and declares that, despite setbacks in cases such as Mali, peacekeeping remains “central” to the UN’s mission. But the paper’s real focus is not on what the UN can do in conflict settings as an institution. Instead, it is in good part an essay about what the organisation’s members need to do themselves to stop geopolitical risks from heightening further and what steps states can take to address internal violence. Through much of the document, UN agencies and officials are cast in a supporting role – available to convene discussions of difficult issues, offer impartial expertise and channel funding to worthy peacebuilding efforts – rather than lead actors in prevention and peacemaking in their own right. It is a paper about multilateral cooperation in an increasingly fragmented and unequal international order, in which Guterres believes that the UN must adapt to facilitating international cooperation, not aim to lead it.

 

A New Agenda for a New World

The New Agenda opens by announcing that the conditions that shaped the 1992 Agenda no longer apply. In contrast to the old document’s emphasis on an end to distrust, it notes that tensions between and within nations “have sown distrust in the potential of multilateral solutions to improve lives and have amplified calls for new forms of isolationism”. The paper is bracingly honest about how the post-Cold War era has given way to a new phase of geostrategic and geo-economic competition. Violence is on the rise globally, and new technologies such as cyber-weapons and artificial intelligence are creating daunting new dangers.

To a greater degree than the 1992 paper, the New Agenda links these security trends to obstacles to international economic development. It stresses the linkages between inequality and conflict, although it admits that these are often “non-linear and indirect” and highlights that UN members are making poor progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (which are supposed to culminate in an end to extreme poverty worldwide by 2030). All in all, the analytical sections of the New Agenda for Peace are designed to make uncomfortable reading.

The New Agenda places less of an emphasis on intervention forces.

If the underlying mood of the New Agenda is much bleaker than its namesake’s, its proposed solutions to the challenges of the moment also differ significantly. The first Agenda for Peace devoted considerable space to the various types of security operations that the Security Council could authorise, going so far as calling for a new generation of “peace enforcement units” that would be on call to deploy to quell future crises. The New Agenda places less of an emphasis on intervention forces. While encouraging UN missions to make technical improvements – such as better leveraging data and information technology – it also calls for UN members to “undertake a reflection on the limits and future of peacekeeping”.

This idea is not exactly new: numerous expert panels have reflected at considerable length on the state of UN missions since the 1990s. But there is a strong implication that the Security Council should take a cautious approach to standing up new blue helmet missions. By contrast, the New Agenda underlines the need for the UN to offer the African Union (AU) and other African organisations “systematic” financial support to launch field operations of their own. Resolving this funding issue (which as Crisis Group has noted has been a subject of debate at the UN, on and off, for over fifteen years) is a priority for Secretary-General Guterres and already a topic of extensive discussion among Security Council members.

Inter-Governmentalism

Many of the most striking parts of the New Agenda do not concern such operational and institutional concerns, but centre instead on the need for the UN’s member states to resolve tensions and restore trust among themselves. While announcing that the post-Cold War era is over, and acknowledging the reality of major-power competition, the paper does not declare that the world is embroiled in a new Cold War between the West and Russia or the U.S. and China. Instead, it envisions a world in which states of all shapes and sizes aim to achieve “strategic independence,” and multipolarity rather than bloc politics is the order of the day.

Against this backdrop, the New Agenda underlines the basic point that “the driving force for a new multilateralism must be diplomacy”. The UN is a “platform” for states to engage one another, even when other channels have broken down, while the Secretary-General and UN Secretariat can act as impartial facilitators of confidence-building measures among member states. (This emphasis on impartiality will be welcome to many non-Western officials who feel that the Secretariat has tended to follow U.S. and European agendas since the 1990s.)

A recurring message in the paper is that states have to come together in new formats to negotiate new mechanisms – or refresh existing mechanisms – to address urgent challenges. Cooperation will be especially important in the realm of new technologies, which take up a lot of the report’s intellectual energy. The New Agenda urges UN members to formulate new norms and guidelines, and in some cases draft new treaties, to reduce the risks of cyber-attacks, avoid an arms race in outer space, prohibit the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems, manage the military applications of artificial intelligence and address evolving biohazards.

[The Agenda] does not propose new multilateral institutions as the inevitable answers to global problems.

Forging agreements on such issues is very much the competence of states, even if the Secretary-General and UN agencies can assist. Guterres promises to offer his good offices “to reinforce disarmament and in new potential domains such as outer space and cyberspace”. He also suggests setting up an “independent multilateral accountability mechanism” to track abuses of cyberspace. Nonetheless, this document does not propose new multilateral institutions as the inevitable answers to global problems. Instead, it underscores that states must bear the responsibility of establishing new frameworks to deal with these problems.

Given this emphasis on inter-governmentalism, readers might expect the New Agenda to go into depth about how to improve existing inter-governmental institutions such as the Security Council. On this subject, however, the report is wary. It recommends “urgent progress” on Security Council reform, which will elicit a wry smile from anyone who has worked on the issue – a perennial focus of UN hands that very rarely seems to go anywhere – even if the topic is high on the agenda in New York after Russia’s assault on Ukraine. It encourages the General Assembly to be more active on peace and security issues, and it favours “elevating” the work of the Peacebuilding Commission, a forum where states can look for international support on dealing with peace and security issues. These are solid if aspirational proposals, but Guterres avoids getting into the weeds of structural reforms to the UN peace and security architecture, probably on the assumption that institutional debates will divert attention from more urgent matters.

Even leaving institutional blind alleys aside, it is fair to ask if the UN members can live up to the New Agenda’s call for greater inter-governmental engagement on global risks. There are already various committees and working groups scattered around New York and Geneva discussing cyberspace and other new technologies. They make slow progress at best. The Secretary-General presumably hopes that the leaders who gather for the Summit of the Future will inject new political energy into such processes – or take discussions of technology and security to a higher level. He can point to warnings from tech leaders, who have made dire predictions about the dangers posed by artificial intelligence in particular. Nonetheless, Guterres must be aware that some of the New Agenda’s proposals – such as a complete abolition of nuclear weapons – are politically far from feasible at present. As the New Agenda for Peace in effect acknowledges, UN officials can urge states to act in their common interest but cannot compel them to do the right thing.

Civil Strife, Gender and Climate

A further question posed by the New Agenda’s endorsement of state-to-state diplomacy is what Guterres believes can be done to prevent conflict within states. For most of the post-Cold War era, the UN’s main security focus – and the most common task for blue helmet peace operations – was dealing with civil wars. The New Agenda is clear that internal conflicts remain widespread. In fact, it aims to expand policy debates beyond civil wars to encompass “violence perpetrated by organized criminal groups, terrorists and violent extremists, even outside of armed conflicts”. But it approaches these threats with caution, warning that discussing such violence can look like “a call to internationalize domestic issues”.

Guterres is at pains to emphasise that the UN should not presume to interfere in its members’ internal affairs. Prevention, he notes, “is often perceived as a cloak for intervention”. The paper aims to disentangle the idea of conflict prevention from this difficult heritage, arguing that the UN’s primary role should be to back “national infrastructures for peace”. It urges governments and non-governmental organisations to develop strategies to address problems inside states on their own initiative – rather than following the dictates of the Security Council or international donors – while looking to the UN for expertise and funding. Relatedly, the New Agenda calls upon donors to accelerate efforts to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals, so as to put states on a sound footing to meet domestic challenges.

Sceptical readers may justifiably wonder if this vision of nationally led conflict prevention is of much use in fiercely divided countries or in those with brutally repressive governments. Some may also worry about whether it will lend encouragement to authoritarians – who often clothe their abuses in references to “internal affairs”. The New Agenda appears to anticipate this problem, stipulating that governments should stay within the guardrails of international norms, highlighting the importance of human rights and an inclusive approach to civil society, though it acknowledges the “shrinking space for civic participation” in much of the world.

The paper expresses particular alarm about a “backlash against women’s rights, including on sexual and reproductive health”.

The paper expresses particular alarm about a “backlash against women’s rights, including on sexual and reproductive health”. This point is welcome, as there were rumours while the New Agenda was being drafted that gender issues would receive little attention in the text. In rhetorical terms, at least, gender gets its due. The paper breaks with previous UN terminology with a call to “dismantle the patriarchy”. It does not quite match this bold language with concrete proposals, repeating past UN calls for greater inclusion of women in political processes and more funding to promote gender equality. Nonetheless, the New Agenda makes a political case for stressing these themes in a period in which many UN members – including China and Russia in the Security Council – are trying to set them aside.

The New Agenda also demonstrates a modicum of political courage by emphasising the impact of climate change on peace and security. This topic has been sensitive since 2021, when Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution tabled by Ireland and Niger calling for a more systematic UN focus on climate security, arguing that evidence for a causal relation between global warming and insecurity is insufficient. Although large non-Western UN powers, including China, India and Brazil, have also voiced doubts about climate-security linkages, a solid majority of UN members have continued to express concerns about the effects of extreme weather, droughts and rising sea levels on international stability (Crisis Group has consistently argued that the UN should pay more attention to these matters). The Secretary-General takes his cue from this majority, enjoining both the Security Council and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to pay greater heed to the topic, as well as calling for new UN regional hubs to advise countries on climate risks, which would be a step forward from the organisation’s current practice of attaching climate security advisers to individual peace operations.

 

A Mix of Caution and Boldness

The New Agenda touches on an enormous variety of issues (going well beyond those noted above), and UN members will probably address them in a haphazard fashion. In some cases, such as the discussions of UN-AU funding arrangements, the paper simply endorses diplomatic processes that are already under way. Conversely, some proposals – such as those touching on new technologies – will take time to put into practice, if they can be carried out at all. In the short term, diplomats will likely look for a package of ideas from the New Agenda that they could include as part of a broader outcome document at the forthcoming Summit of the Future. As an example, many speculate that bolstering the Peacebuilding Commission is a good institutional priority for 2024, as it will be vastly easier to agree on that measure than on Security Council reform.

Regardless of how the coming year’s diplomatic haggling plays out, the New Agenda is an interesting snapshot of the mood inside UN headquarters today. In many ways, it is a modest, cautious document, emphasising the limits of the UN’s operational tools and attempting to bury the legacy of the post-Cold War era of interventionism. It acknowledges that as states search for greater “strategic independence” they will question the UN’s established power structures, implicitly including the Security Council, with its dominant five permanent members. But it is also a clear statement of what is wrong with the international system and, notably in its call for multilateral regulation of new technologies, it offers a bold outline for what the future of international security cooperation could look like in some areas. If the paper’s vision were to translate into reality, it would mean a significant shift in the UN’s place on the world stage. It points to an organisation that may deploy fewer blue helmets but could still carve out an important, durable role in helping states navigate major global changes.