Ten Challenges for the UN in 2023-2024

It has been a hard year at the UN, with major-power tensions rising, and more difficulties likely lie ahead. Nonetheless, there are several important steps the body’s officials and member states can take in the interest of international peace and security. 

What’s new? World leaders are visiting the UN the week of 18 September for the annual high-level meeting of the General Assembly at a testing time for the organisation. Major-power divisions are shrinking the space for multilateral cooperation, and the organisation’s role in managing international peace and security crises is increasingly uncertain.

Why does it matter? While UN peace operations and humanitarian assistance are helping contain conflict and suffering in many countries, the organisation’s political influence is decreasing. Hamstrung by political divisions and resource gaps, the UN’s leadership and member states must develop new strategies for mobilising the organisation’s strengths to meet peace and security challenges. 

What should be done? The UN must be pragmatic, endorsing tools like blue helmet peacekeeping in some crises and ad hoc, regionally led responses in others. The UN will sometimes be limited to delivering humanitarian aid and seeking modest political traction. UN platforms can also help address threats like climate change and artificial intelligence.

I. Overview

World leaders will convene in New York during the week of 18 September for the annual high-level session of the UN General Assembly. The meeting’s formal theme is “restoring trust and reigniting global solidarity”. Both have been in short supply. The breakdown in Russia-West relations is taking an increasingly serious toll. The Security Council has been slow and indecisive in reacting to crises in 2023 to date. Developed and developing countries in the General Assembly have sparred at length over the global economy’s direction. As leaders consider how the UN can serve peace and security in the year ahead, their bywords should be flexibility and adaptability. In some places, such as South Sudan, the organisation can keep using traditional tools like peacekeeping operations. In others (like Mali, Sudan and Ukraine) such tools have been found wanting or infeasible, and just finding a political foothold from which to help contain crises will be a tall order. Global challenges also require attention: for example, the UN can and should also play a role in helping manage risks posed by climate change and artificial intelligence.

The geopolitical constraints on the UN are not new, but their effects on the organisation are intensifying. There were deep rifts among Russia, China and the Western powers in the Security Council before Moscow’s all-out invasion of Ukraine. Yet while debates over Ukraine dominated UN business from February 2022 onward, the Council was initially able to keep working on other issues more or less constructively. It was even able to innovate in thorny cases, passing its first full resolution on Myanmar and establishing a new system of humanitarian exemptions to UN sanctions regimes in late 2022. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres also played a notable part in mitigating the global fallout from the Russian-Ukrainian war by helping broker the Black Sea Grain Initiative. But as the war has ground on through 2023, the room for residual major-power cooperation through the UN has started to narrow, and diplomats have found it harder to make compromises on difficult issues than in 2022. Russia quit the grain deal in July. It has acted as a spoiler in the Security Council with growing frequency. 

As the geopolitical picture darkens, the [Security] Council has managed only lacklustre responses to many of the crises of the last year. 

As the geopolitical picture darkens, the Council has managed only lacklustre responses to many of the crises of the last year. It has done little more than make statements of concern on cases ranging from the collapse of Sudan in April to the coup in Niger in July. Regional actors have increasingly aimed to take the lead in resolving these situations, albeit with little success, leaving the UN on the sidelines. The government in Mali has underlined the Council’s weakness – and the vulnerabilities of UN blue helmet missions – by demanding the withdrawal of peacekeepers from Malian territory, despite the attendant risk of new violence. 

Outside the Council, many UN members have pushed the organisation to focus on global economic problems rather than peace and security issues. The General Assembly frequently debated Ukraine in 2022. In contrast, the countries of the so-called Global South have insisted that the Assembly should concentrate on development in the run-up to the high-level meetings, with a focus on making the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) more responsive to poor and middle-income countries’ needs. Although the U.S. and its allies have resisted parts of this agenda, they have acknowledged the need to update the international financial system, not least to counter Chinese and Russian influence among developing states.

With the Security Council divided and UN members’ attention elsewhere, the organisation’s future as a player in international peace and security looks uncertain. In outlining challenges for the UN in the year ahead, this briefing highlights cases – including Mali, Sudan and Ukraine – where the organisation’s primary objective is now to regain political traction after the failure of previous crisis management efforts. In contrast to the immediate post-Cold War decades, when the UN often had significant military and economic assets at its disposal, international officials have to make the best of limited resources. Given the limitations of its peacekeeping and mediation efforts, the UN’s main source of influence in many cases is humanitarian aid. But as this briefing’s section on Afghanistan shows, budget cuts and political pressures also place ceilings on what aid officials can achieve.

Nonetheless, there is still space for the UN’s members and international officials to make inroads and even innovate on peace and security issues. After long debates about insecurity in Haiti, for example, Kenya delighted several Security Council members by offering to lead an international police mission to the Caribbean nation. As blue helmet missions like that in Mali wind up, there appears still to be room for states to pursue ad hoc interventions of this kind. The Security Council is also considering a framework that would allow the AU to tap into UN assessed contributions to fund its peace missions – a step that has been under discussion for years but that appears to be gathering new momentum.

While acknowledging the weaknesses of UN crisis management tools, the Secretary-General has attempted to stir up an even broader debate about the organisation’s role in global security. His report on this topic, entitled “A New Agenda for Peace”, released in June, in some ways only emphasises the enormity of the challenges facing the UN. In addition to mobilising UN resources to combat sources of inequity (for example patriarchal power structures), Guterres is emphatic about the role the UN must play in helping meet global challenges such as climate change, as well as the security risks associated with advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and other new technologies. There seems little doubt that even as existing UN mechanisms appear to be struggling, the world needs new diplomatic processes and cooperative frameworks to handle such emerging threats. Although finding political agreement on such arrangements is likely to be exceptionally hard in today’s geopolitical circumstances, the only way to make progress is to begin the work. 

Despite enduring a difficult year, and facing the probability of another hard year ahead, the UN still has significant operational and diplomatic roles to play in managing both traditional and emerging threats to international peace and security. The world leaders who gather at Turtle Bay in September should look for common ground on international security issues, as well as economic ones, and take up the Secretary-General’s call to face the new generation of global threats together – rather than accept the decline of multilateralism as inevitable.

International Crisis Group