Strengthening Multilateralism:

The sovereignty debate at the UN

Kennedy Graham

My first column (9 Oct.) noted the ‘bipolar mind-set’ discernible among national leaders at the UN General Assembly debates in recent years.  An ‘intellectual rivalry’ was playing out between two apparent doctrines – ‘patriotism’ and ‘universalism’.

Both address the issue of a rules-based order, though from apparently different premises and reasoning. The debate revolves around two central principles of the UN Charter: national sovereignty and international law.

The debate is not new, but the modern pace of change and the onset of existential challenges put the framing of global problem-solving in starker relief than before.  The UN, with 193 Member States, is founded on the mid-20th c. principle of national sovereignty, yet three-quarters of a century later the emerging global community faces global problems unanticipated back then.  How is this handled by today’s leaders?

At last year’s 73rd UNGA session, the differences were clearly enunciated:

  • US: … America will always choose independence & cooperation over global governance, control, and domination. We reject the ideology of globalism & embrace the doctrine of patriotism.  … responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination. …. protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.
  • NZ: This generation is a borderless one – at least in a virtual sense; one that increasingly see themselves as global citizens. We face what we call in New Zealand ‘wicked problems’; ones that are intertwined and interrelated.  …   New Zealand remains committed to continue to do our part to building and sustaining international peace and security; to promoting and defending an open, inclusive, and rules-based international order based on universal values.

The most explicit, if oblique, rebuttal of ‘patriotism’ as described by the US, came from France:

  • … France promoting universal values … exact opposite of the egotism of a people who look after only their interests, because patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is a betrayal of it. In saying ‘our interests first and who cares about the rest!’, you wipe out what’s most valuable about a nation, what brings it alive, what leads it to greatness and what is most important: its moral values.  Let’s again take the UN oath to place peace higher than anything.

The issue of national sovereignty in a globalising world surfaced again in this year’s 74th Session’s Debate.

Warning against a ‘great fracture’, the UN Secretary-General opened with a call to avoid zero-sum politics and revive UN values.  He expressed fear of the world’s two largest global economies creating separate and competing worlds, each with its own dominant currency, trade and financial rules, Internet and AI capacities, and its own zero‑sum geopolitical and military strategies. 

Everything possible must be done, said Guterres, to stop the world from splitting in two. He called on ‘global leaders’ to maintain a universal system governed by universal respect for international law and strong multilateral institutions.

The theoretical merge between multilateralism and nationalism in the 21st c. was articulated by Slovenia.

  • Clearly, the world is in transition and international organizations are trying to follow accordingly. In adjusting to shifting paradigms, it would be a grave mistake to do away with the fundamental principles that have guided the international community for nearly a century: sovereign equality, collective security, international law, good faith, pacific dispute resolution and human rights.

Other Member States, however, gave specific national reasons for promoting sovereignty. Stronger multilateralism was described as the key to tackling global challenges, but not at the expense of state sovereignty, a ‘bedrock principle’ of the UN Charter. 

  • Latvia argued that a strong multilateral, inclusive and rules-based international order was essential for global peace and security. But the multilateral order demands respect for sovereignty by all Member States.
  • Belarus suggested the world today is ‘closer than ever to disaster’.  Modern issues such as ensuring peace and security, promoting sustainable development, and addressing climate change demonstrate the inadequacy of States acting alone.  Global challenges require effective, ambitious joint solutions. The UN should lead this because of its universal composition and mandate.  The 75th session in 2020 ‘must not be for show’ or everyone will lose as the ‘sinister spectre’ of a third world war becomes a reality.
  • Cambodia said that the emergence of a multipolar world should pave the way to peaceful coexistence.  But some powers, ‘under the pretext of universal values’, are fomenting a new form of global division. Using humanitarian reasons as a pretext to interfere in domestic affairs or provoke regime change was deceptive and deceitful. Increasingly serious threats to global security and the planet’s future are a direct consequence of weakening multilateralism.
  • Myanmar warned that while the UN is at the heart of multilateralism, it must avoid the mistake of unilaterally extending its powers ‘without corresponding due diligence’.  Multilateral institutions should never be used as a tool for targeting Member States.  Such institutions should uphold the sovereignty of nations; none should have its value in the UN dependent on its wealth or influence. 

The most forceful political articulation of national sovereignty came, unsurprisingly, from Brazil:

  • The Amazon has been mistakenly called a ‘world heritage’ and its forests the ‘lungs of the world’.  In so doing, countries have disrespected Brazil in a colonialist spirit, questioning its most sacred principle, our sovereignty.  …  We are not here to erase nationalities and overrule sovereignty in the name of an abstract global interest.

National sovereignty, it seems, can be used as rationale for a variety of causes. It can be used to embrace the global interest – territorial integrity, multilateral sanctions, climate stability and maritime law.  

  • Ukraine: Every country has its own problems, but there is no longer such a thing as somebody else’s war.  We cannot think globally while turning a blind eye to small things.
  • Lithuania: We need a stronger UN to respond more effectively to the illegitimate use of force and violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
  • Laos: The embargo on Cuba should be lifted so that this sovereign country can enjoy economic and trade freedom.
  • Tonga: Our sovereignty should not be compromised by the effects of climate change.
  • Marshall Is: Illegal fishing is not only an economic menace, but a threat to sovereignty.

Yet it can also be used in defence of national sovereignty over global trends – against migratory flows, trans-national criminal jurisdiction, international electoral observation and global species-control.  

  • Hungary: The issue of migration again rules the issue of global affairs.  The UN has a responsibility to uphold international law.  Migration is not a fundamental human right, yet the UN promotes migration.  Instead of promoting human rights, the Global Compact promotes the movement of people.  This is unacceptable. The UN promotes the idea of encouraging migrants to violate sovereign borders. 
  • Philippines: While some claim that States erode multilateralism by asserting their excessive sovereignty, States are bound to protect their populations ‘by any means necessary.’ Multilateralism is threatened by its own vain attempts to usurp State functions and return the world to the anarchy of the pre-war period preceding the UN.
  • Burundi: The electoral process in Burundi is an internal matter that comes under the remit of national sovereignty.  Any support to the process must be requested by its Government, in accordance with the UN Charter.  Any attempt to define a new role or redefine an existing role for the UN to address the Burundi elections would be a violation of national sovereignty and a breach of the Charter.
  • Botswana: The Government is working with neighbouring States under the auspices of CITES to find sustainable solutions.  It proposed a one-off sale of ivory, which was regrettably rejected. Attempts to extend the scope of the Convention in a way that would infringe on sovereignty are equally disheartening.

What to make of this? The debate, as expressed, is between levels of identity and prescriptive behaviour. Is it amenable to an analytical-prescriptive framework that might facilitate a reconciliation of views?

From the statements made by Member States, there appears to be three levels of conceptualisation in international relations, with some nuanced differentiation within each. 

  • Universalism universal values; global citizenship; global governance; global interest
  • Globalism economic, financial & trade globalization; incursion into national economies
  • Multilateralism strengthened rules-based international order; UN institutional reform
  • Internationalism cooperation for common ends; collective security; international law
  • Nationalism national independence; sovereign equality; territorial integrity

International relations at the United Nations can be analysed in the above context.  Each conceptual level needs to be clearly defined, and the inter-relationships among them identified and explained, before a prescriptive framework that encompasses all recorded views can be advanced.

Introducing a degree of confusion is the concept of ‘patriotism’. Traditionally this has applied to national identity. But patriotism it is not an analytical concept; it is a political affiliation that can be applied to any level of analysis according to taste. 

This is not to denigrate the notion of patriotism, but rather to acknowledge that the American and French exchange reflects a legitimate debate.  The added value from New Zealand is that a new generation will influence that debate, reflecting an emerging global community, over the next few decades.     

The purpose of the Centre for Global Studies is to develop a framework for reconciling these apparent differences of view advanced at the UN with prescriptive comment - respecting national sovereignty and abiding by international law, while resolving global problems through genuine global solutions.    

We intend to develop a project to that end over the coming year.

Dr Kennedy Graham is Director of the NZ Centre for Global Studies  



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