Beset by multiple crises around the world, the UN finds itself at a crossroads.
Nations around the world have been socially distancing from the United Nations for years prior to the global pandemic, and this year’s remotely televised assembly resulted in fewer carbon emissions, as world leaders stayed home.
“We are moving in a very dangerous direction,” the United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said as he opened the UN’s 75th general assembly in a largely empty chamber.
As world leaders gathered virtually for this week’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the event was overshadowed by the continuing deterioration of the international order.
This year, the summit was forced online as countries around the world - particularly the US where the summit is held - struggle to contain the pandemic.
US President Donald Trump took the opportunity to once again speak out against Beijing urging the UN to “hold China accountable for their actions."
“In the earliest days of the virus, China locked down travel domestically, while allowing flights to leave China and infect the world,” said Trump in a pre-recorded address to the UN adding that “the Chinese government, and the World Health Organization, which is virtually controlled by China, falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.”
By openly going after a UN body and speaking indirectly to China with highly critical language, Trump is seeking to galvanise world opinion against Beijing.
In response, China's Premier Xi Jinping accused the US of attempting to be the “boss of the world,” and in a bid to garner support from the developing world, he urged the UN to become more representative.
The exchange of verbal barbs between the two superpowers has also laid bare the UN’s inability to mediate a de-escalation that threatens to split the world into rival camps.
As the global pandemic continues to cause economic havoc and humanitarian hardship, the UN’s intray of unresolved conflicts is growing.
The inability of the UN to bring together countries around the world, even in the midst of an international pandemic, has some arguing that the body is badly in need of reform.
An institution created in the ashes of the post-World War II environment, where many of today’s states were still colonies of European powers and had no say in the body’s creation, found themselves in an organisation designed primarily to reflect the victorious nations of post-1945.
Those concerns were reflected by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has urged reform of the UN Security Council to better represent the current world order.
"Failure to achieve stability in various parts of the world, especially in Syria, Palestine, Yemen and Afghanistan, is proof of this. Despite the ideals that have been set out, the United Nations system can neither prevent conflicts nor end those that have already begun," said Erdogan.
While the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the health crisis "our own 1945 moment," the vision to reform the world body that reflects the multiple crises the world is facing was, however, not forthcoming.
It’s not surprising that Guterres is constrained. The world body is a reflection of the politics of the different constituent states. Its effectiveness derives from states being themselves willing to resolve international matters, which increasingly they seek to resolve bilaterally or unilaterally.
Guterres’ warning for nations not to give in to ‘vaccinationalism’ and cut side deals with each other as they compete to find the antidote to the coronavirus, largely fell on deaf ears, with many expressing non-binding expressions of interest.
Talk of resolving some of the world's global issues continues to run into the high walls of sovereignty which states defend jealousy. For while issues like global warming require international cooperation, the actions that states need to take are too often local.
The US, which founded the UN, under the Trump administration has gone further than ever before in sidelining the international body - its pre-existing weakness is now more apparent than ever.
One member of the World Health Organisation put the UN’s future even more starkly, “The United Nations’ ideal, as envisioned by its founders, has in many important ways failed."
Whether the world is ready to fully abandon the UN is another question altogether.