Former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld famously said that: “The United Nations has been created not to take us to heaven, but to save us from hell.”

A pandemic, and the resulting economic crisis, does seem somewhat hellish. Yet the UN has been criticised greatly for failing to save nations from this fate – from the reaction of the World Health Organisation to the inaction of the UN Security Council to coordinate a response.

Tom Fletcher, a former senior diplomat and author of The Naked Diplomat, is a believer in the international system. But, as the UN celebrates its 75th birthday this year, he thinks it needs a substantial shakeup.

Reforming the UN

Overall, the international system has responded “very poorly” to the pandemic, Fletcher believes. Individual agencies such as the World Health Organisation and the UN High Commission on Refugees are “coping in very difficult situations without enough resources”, he notes, but the system for international coordination has failed.

This contrasts with the 2009 financial crisis, when Fletcher served as foreign policy advisor to the British Prime Minister. Then the G20 had an “extraordinary coordinated response” which “just hasn’t happened this time”, he adds.

The Trump administration is largely responsible for this breakdown of order, he believes. “There are many reasons, the biggest of course is the lack of American leadership, American engagement with the world”, he says. “The UN system has been orphaned by the Trump administration.”

The current UN system is also too complex, and needs a rethink. “There are too many UN agencies all overlapping. I think the bureaucracy of the UN – the people in the UN would agree with this by the way – is appalling”. So are the systems for promotion, he notes.