Paul Kennedy – the Rise and Fall of Great Powers fame – wrote one of the most important books of our time on the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) which he called the Parliament of Man. We have witnessed events in the past few days that show how apt the title is. I will discuss some of these events in this post later but, first, a few comments on the idea of the Parliament of Mankind, (let us be correct in our words!)
The essence of ‘Parliament’ is dialogue. Although I have not conducted much research into this, the etymology (history of word construction) of ‘Parliament’ suggests a root: parler, or parley meaning to talk, or to engage. So a place of engagement through dialogue, which can be polite or animated as we all know from our lives. There are two senses in which we can understand the UNGA as being the ‘Parliament of Mankind’ : First, in the institutionalist sense, that is an institution on the global scale akin to those of national scale. In this sense, the UNGA seems a very inadequate institution. Mainly because national parliament type institutions have the power of state sovereignty. The UNGA is, to put it brazenly, powerless in comparison.
The second sense is of a ‘Parliament of Mankind’ as a place for dialogue, for the interaction, if not the meeting, of minds. This is my view of what the idea should be – the idea of a ‘Parliament of Mankind’ should be construed as being wider, larger, bigger (philosophically speaking) than a mere institution to handle/manage global affairs. The current session of the UNGA offers us glimpses into how this vision of the Parliament is not just a hope but an emerging reality.
Two very positive developments in terms of the progress of world peace emerge from the present session of the UNGA. First, and more widely focused on, is the very real thaw in the US-Iran relationship. It is said that even the greatest friendships begin with a simple ‘hello,’ Rouhani’s overtures and Obama’s response is, of course, not the beginning of a Iran-US friendship but a possible opening for dialogue which could end one of the most meaningless standoffs of our times. Second, the India-Pakistan problem is an ‘issue’ of another kind! Stephen Cohen says that the India-Pakistan conflict, now approaching 70 years, is the longest between nation-states in modern times. One might agree with Cohen or not, but it is a definite struggle to find another conflict of similar duration. (Possibly Afghanistan-Pakistan, cruel as it may sound.) The Prime Ministers of the two countries have met on the ‘sidelines’ of the UNGA. One should never keep expectations too high in summits lasting few hours, but a beginning is a beginning and even the exchange of pleasantries, as in the case of Iran and the United States, is better than cold silence. In the case of India and Pakistan some positive beginnings have emerged – which deserve comment in their own right. I will leave that for an upcoming essay.
The implications of both meetings – one only a semi-meeting actually – are, of course, immense and it would require detailed analysis to unravel them both. Much media commentary will be produced, no doubt. My purpose in this short comment is to highlight the importance of the UNGA as a ‘place of meetings,’ or, the importance of such a place on the global scale. No doubt, both these meetings would not have been possible without the ‘happen-chance’ of the UNGA. It is such possibilities, small meetings within larger debates, that make the case for the ‘extreme’ importance of the UNGA in our times where diplomacy seems to be turning into a forgotten art.
This note is about the United Nations General Assembly. This is not the same as the United Nations Organisation as a whole. Any analysis of the United Nations should be on the functions and roles of its parts rather than a generalization of the whole, which is a popular, and very lazy, tendency in our media discourse. Take, for example, any number of commentaries on the irrelevancy of the United Nations. This seems to club the obscurantist Security Council with UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO. While we might question the purpose of the Security Council we should never discount the importance of these other institutional parts of the UNO in our troubled – and troubling – world.
On another matter, re-structuring the Security Council make the UNO a more effective institution? In my view, de-structuring is a better option! The UNO would be better without a Security Council with the UNGA as the primary decision making body.
A couple of decades ago Samuel Huntington wrote his notorious essay – later book – ‘The Clash of Civilizations,’ which was more or less a bad job of rehashing mythical conflicts between civilisations and cultures that have occupied propagandist minds since time immemorial. It provided a convenient frame of reference – and cloak of deception – in the wake of 9/11 to the war on terror. It was conveniently forgotten that 9/11 was an event in very sad geo-political processes which have been going on for a very long time – global terrorism was not born on 9/11; its causes, consequences and tragedies have been with us for a very long time. The idolization of 9/11 – as the banner for the global war on terror, or GWOT – was a propagandist construction – but this is an old story, let’s leave this aside.
The idea of a ‘Clash of Civilzations’ was both a handy category to drive ‘other’ motives and a lazy excuse to promote them. Would it not have been better if we had a dialogue instead of a clash? If we had not a ‘with us or against us’ but ‘we’re in this together’ – a global problem solved with global co-operation? Of course, all this can be pooh-poohed as idealism. In a way, it is. But what we call idealism are goals we set for ourselves – it’s the 100 percent score in an exam. Striving for the ideal state of things is a process, movement in the ‘right’ direction, whether we achieve it or not.
The ideal of international relations, in our age, has to be a ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ (capitalized for emphasis) and the route to the ideal is the ‘Parliament of Mankind.’ At the start of this essay, I mentioned Paul Kennedy’s assertion about the UNGA. I would not go so far as to say that the UNGA is such an institution – but it definitely, in its inherent nature as a place of meetings, contains such a possibility. Possibilities are, however, only hopes until… real, hard, conviction driven work – the actualization of potentialities, to paraphrase Hegel. But hope is always a nice place to begin. And end, as it seems.