Multilateralism and Global Citizenship: Ban Ki-moon at The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong 27 January 2020
Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

This is the Part One of the TCS exclusive with Ban Ki-moon at The Cambridge Union. Stay tuned for Part Two — the interview with Ban Ki-moon!

The Cambridge Union erupted in thunderous applause as Ban Ki-moon walked in, waving sheepishly to a starry-eyed audience. This is a resounding testament to every milestone he had paved the way for in the 10 years he served as Secretary-General of the United Nations. An advocate for free speech and human rights, Ban was admired and respected for his tireless diplomatic efforts, championing peace, human rights, climate action and perhaps most proudly, feminism. Even after stepping down, he remains actively involved in peacekeeping activities on the global scale, be it the non-profit Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens that he founded or as chairperson of the International Olympic Committee’s Ethics Commission. Most recently, Ban called for the de-escalation and dialogue to resolve tensions between Iran and the United States, and also conveyed the importance of North Korea seizing opportunities to engage the United States in talks, particularly formal denuclearisation negotiations.

Ban started his speech with the portrayal of a rather bleak picture of the world today, highlighting the issues of inequality, conflicts, climate crisis and societal instability. Referring to the Australian bushfires, Ban laments that “as the new decade begins this year, it seems like our planet is on fire, both literally and figuratively”. He quotes Irish poet William Butler Yeats — “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” — arguing that not only are we living in a pronounced period of uncertainty and global risk, expanding protectionism and bilateral tensions are destabilising order in the globalised world.

Ban laments that “as the new decade begins this year, it seems like our planet is on fire, both literally and figuratively”

Tapping onto his immense wealth of experience, Ban shared his thoughts on moving in the right direction at this uncertain crossroads. First, multilateralism is the “glue” that Ban believes must bind our targeted efforts together. Contemporary challenges are inherently global and sustainable solutions must stem from multilateral cooperation and global partnerships, especially in the context of populism and nationalism. The pride Ban had for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) clearly shone as he made multiple references to it, that everyone has to be on the same footing and on the same upward trajectory of development, regardless of one’s position or background. He stopped midway through his speech to show us a small badge that he pinned on his suit — as a reminder to everyone he meets that “all 17 SDGs must be met by 2030”. This would require close collaboration between civil society leaders, scientists, governments, businesses and the people to “expand knowledge bases, improve resource efficiencies and increase transparency and accountability in governance”.

Given the uneven progress presently, Ban, a self-proclaimed feminist who shared his hopes of a female UN Secretary-General in the near future, focussed on the notion of empowerment. Without half of the global population on equal footing, how possible is it to meet the 2030 target date of the SDGs? “Women and youth are also disproportionately affected by global issues like climate change and poverty.” Ban ranks gender equality high on his agenda for bilateral meetings, commonly asking the Presidents and Prime Ministers he meets the number of female cabinet ministers the country has.

In light of the shifting power dynamics on the global stage that is upending the post-World War II order, Ban acutely points out that the problems today are too enormous to be left in the hands of a few leaders. He expressed disappointment with the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accords and UN Human Rights Council — “how can it justify its role as the world’s most democratic country?” To Ban, such manoeuvres are “politically short-sighted and scientifically wrong.” He reiterates the idea of a “global citizen”, maintaining that everyone is an agent of change.

“Courageously stand for your future and forget about your nationality.” Everyone can and should participate in development, to have a global vision and a strong passion and compassion for a future that is “sustainable, equitable and peaceful”.

Several interesting questions were fielded from the audience, such as reunification between North and South Korea, the participation of stateless citizens, and the limitations of the United Nations as an institution. Ban took a relatively cautious stance in his answers, pushing for greater dialogue and collaboration between countries and “global citizens”.

Although his optimism of world peace is laudable and admirable, his responses, and to some extent, his speech even, lacked a degree of reflexivity to me.

It is very easy to use overarching ideas of global citizenship and partnerships to represent ideas of inclusivity and development, but his poor acknowledgement of systemic issues — including corruption, asymmetrical power geometries, political inertia and neoliberal capitalist ideologies — fails to accurately characterise the messy, complicated nature of global development and peace that we are striving towards.

No doubt, world peace and the attainment of the SDGs are goals that we must prioritise and put at the forefront of development, but it would have been more constructive and meaningful had Ban acknowledged the obstacles involved and how to work around them. Nonetheless, Ban’s clarion call for multilateralism and participation through global citizenship is a refreshing turn from the pessimism common today and perhaps, a reinvigorated sense of commitment is truly what we need.

Ban’s clarion call for multilateralism and participation through global citizenship is a refreshing turn from the pessimism common today and perhaps, a reinvigorated sense of commitment is truly what we need.