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Irina Bokova (left), Arun Singh (middle), and Catherine Ashton (right) spoke at the event. (Photos by Maureen Lynch/UNDP, Office of Governor Mark Dayton & Lt. Governor Tina Smith, and European External Action Service | CC BY 2.0 and CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Three veteran diplomats met at a virtual Perry World House event to discuss the future of the United Nations amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the global rise of nationalism, calling for more international cooperation to preserve the integrity and relevance of the U.N.

The Wednesday afternoon event featured three seasoned diplomats: Catherine Ashton, former European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Irina Bokova, former Director-General of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; and Arun Singh, former Indian Ambassador to the United States.

The event was the final event in Perry World House’s three-day “The UN at 75: Coronavirus and Competition” series held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the U.N. The panel was moderated by Trudy Rubin, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s foreign affairs columnist.

Ashton, who played a key role in negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, emphasized that because recent crises like the pandemic and climate change are global in scale, U.N. members must collaborate to solve these issues. 

Bokova, also calling for increased global collaboration, outlined a broader definition of multilateralism, which typically involves establishing relations between multiple states, that highlighted the need for other actors like non-governmental organizations, private corporations, and academic institutions in global decision making.

“I would say in very simple and clear terms that unilateralism cannot be the answer of the challenges of our time,” Bokova said.

Singh, who also emphasized the need for international cooperation, said the absence of strong global leadership has prompted informal alliances and international aggression. He specifically condemned Russia, China, and the U.S. for provocative actions in recent years, including the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear ddeal and China’s military aggression in the South China Sea.

The panelists echoed former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, who also spoke at the Perry World House on Tuesday. Power also emphasized the need for international cooperation and criticized the Trump administration for rejecting diplomacy and for pulling out of the World Health Organization, a U.N. agency, during a pandemic.

Concerns over the future of the U.N. mount as a wave of right-wing populism has caused major global powers, including the U.S., to turn against international institutions and China has sought to expand its global influence while violating sovereignty and human rights norms. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, which to date has infected nearly 36 million people worldwide and killed over a million, has triggered further division in the international community, particularly as the WHO has been criticized for delayed and contradictory messaging in response to the virus.

“The United Nations is an organization of member states,” Singh said. “So if it is working well at any point in time, it is because member states are able to come together and cooperate with each other. If it’s not working well, it’s a reflection of the fact that member states are not able to work out the coordinated positions.”

All three speakers agreed on the importance of the U.N. as a framework for a productive global order. Despite their varied diagnoses for the future of the organization, they all pointed to the U.N. charter’s founding principles of sovereignty and collaboration as a way forward.

“It’s really inspiring to hear that you can take individual action without joining the United Nations or becoming an ambassador,” Angela Shen, College and Wharton first year and a Daily Pennsylvanian staffer said. “If you work in the private sector, if you work in the nonprofit sector, if you work in academia, all members of society can contribute in some way to global progress.”