There was no better pair to launch the Aspen Ministers Forum’s Fireside Chat Series than Madeleine Albright and Jan Eliasson. They both served as foreign ministers and ambassadors to the United Nations for their respective countries—the United States and Sweden. And both are widely admired for their statesmanship and deep commitment to strengthening international cooperation. In diplomatic circles, they are often introduced as their “excellencies.” That they are.
The conversation focused on the reform of international institutions. With the declared victory of President-elect Joseph Biden over the incumbent Donald Trump, what they had to say about these subjects could not be timelier and more relevant today. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to add that their exchange was a call to action. The incoming Biden administration must re-engage with the international community across a broad range of urgent, critical issues. As Minister Eliasson said, “We are seeing right now a great stress test for international cooperation.”
To pass that test, institutional changes will be needed, and the place to start is with the “key symbol” of the global community—the United Nations. The UN and other world organizations were created in the aftermath of World War II. Seven decades later the evidence shows that the UN has been part of a liberal international order that has delivered greater stability, prosperity, and freedom to many around the world. But, as Secretary Albright diplomatically pointed out, “People and institutions in their 70s need a little refurbishing.”
Few would disagree. As the UN turns 75, it is facing profound questions about its own effectiveness, and even its relevance. A case in point is the current inability of the UN to orchestrate a coordinated battle plan to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, which knows no borders.
Major critiques of UN reform ultimately fall on the composition and workings of the 15-member Security Council, with its five permanent members: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Demands to restructure the Council to reflect the political and social composition of today’s world have met strong resistance, principally from the five permanent members who have the veto power to prevent any change.
The two ministers discussed the Security Council reform at some length. “We need to broaden the discussion of what national security is, what the international responsibility is, and try to make the UN more responsive to the issues.” Secretary Albright said. “And that means getting the member states to be more responsive.” After all, the United Nations is only as strong as its members.
Minister Eliason concurred. “We have to build back better. We can’t go back to the old. Security is not only military. The Security Council must accept that the problems of pandemics, the problem of climate change belong in the Security Council,” he said.
Despite the grave challenges facing the UN and other international organizations today, Eliasson remained optimistic because of what he calls his four hope factors: the role of women; the voices of young people; the power of science and technology; and international cooperation.
“The bottom line is we have to look forward,” concluded Albright. “We need to understand our principles, but also to understand the importance of flexibility in dealing with our problems—new thinking in a new century.”
It is this new thinking that the Aspen Ministers Forum and their fireside chats will pursue and explore. Watch the full conversation below.
Ambassador Karl F. Inderfurth served as the US Representative for Special Political Affairs and Deputy Representative to the UN Security Council from 1993-1997.
The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.