If the United Nations stopped its operations today,” Michael Møller told me, the repercussions “would be felt by each and every one of us. All seven billion of us.”
Over the course of our conversation, Møller – who is Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva – displayed again and again an unimpeachable belief in the mission and purpose of the United Nations (UN), expressing too a faith that it will continue to exist and be an arena for its 193 members to discuss and negotiate.
A faith that almost surprised me, seeming, as it does, all the rarer every day. Just last March, a scathing article by a former assistant secretary general was published in The New York Times, titled ‘I Love the UN, but It Is Failing’. Referring to a ‘sclerotic personnel system’, decisions being driven by ‘political expediency’ and a bloated bureaucracy, the article’s author, Anthony Banbury called the UN ‘a Remington typewriter in a smartphone world.’
Not, of course, that Møller is not critical of the UN, an organisation he described as still reflecting its 70-year-old nature; and hence unfortunately gripped by archaism in its operation. The UN, he said, has become bloated. “If it is to be around in 30 years, hopefully it will be as leaner and more efficient.”
In fact, almost as often as he expressed a belief that the UN served an important purpose as a place for discussion, advice, and cooperation, Møller pointed out that our world today is tremendously different to how it has been in previous decades.
“The structural changes that we’ve seen,” he told me, “the pace of technological development, climate change, migration: because of these things, the United Nations needs new, interactive solutions – new ways of solving problems.
“I see [the UN] growing into a more advisory body, coming to work more closely with these other forces that have cropped up” – referring to civil society and business – “no longer the sole force for tackling these kinds of problems facing the world, as it was when it was created.”
As he spoke, we passed Balliol and Trinity colleges. I interviewed Møller over the course of a long walk, and never did he resist my pace: I noticed occasions on which I sped up but he matched me, in order that I would best be able to capture his point. There was a passion in his discourse, a quiet one perhaps, but nonetheless an emotion one might not have expected from a top UN official – deal, as he must with the bureaucratic obligations of “being the glue that keeps the Office at Geneva” together.
He is also, as he added, assistant Secretary General of Disarmament – although above disarmament, Møller concentrates on climate change as the most pressing issue facing the world today. “Everything else” he told me, “must come as a secondary consideration.” Given the threat climate change poses it seemed to think all else pales in comparison.
And he referred repeatedly to the Paris Agreement, the climate change accords of last year, as a major achievement of the UN – having been the impetus for the talks. “In the last year, we saw the Paris Accords,” he said when I asked about the UN’s recent accomplishments, “which ended up being more of a success than we initially thought possible.” At multiple other points, he raised the Paris talks as evidence, as well it is, of the United Nation’s potential impact even today.
Another trend that I noted as he spoke was an almost visceral dislike of the power and influence larger countries wield over smaller ones, quickly positing on a couple occasions first, that the United Nation’s Security Council – which consists of five permanent members, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Russia, and China, as well as ten others, chosen by rotation – needed institutional reform, and second, more fundamentally, that it is unfortunate the system allows for some nations to dominate others.
He also described the United Nations’ peacekeeping efforts, which Banbury criticised harshly as well, as being underfunded. He said that without reform there too, it is uncertain the peacekeeping arm of the UN can continue to operate 20, 30 years from now – although he said he thought it would.
Perhaps most of all, Møller thought the UN must harness its powers of interactivity and be vigilant in its mission to modernise and reform, as he claimed it has begun to do under its last ten years of leadership (the current Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has served since January 1, 2007). Indeed, Møller seemed to be gripped by the challenge, even relishing it.
And though I consider myself as cynical as the next too-clever-for-his-own-good-and-hence- prematurely-jaded Oxford student, I could not help but find myself starting to give the United Nations a second chance, to recognise that it does, in fact, fill an important place in society.
I found myself doing so as a result of what I considered most admirable about Møller: that even at this point in his career, he sounded as idealistic as ever about the potential of the UN. In other words, he seemed a happy synthesis of maturity in experience on the one hand and a still youthful ambition on the other.
It is my conclusion that Møller is exactly the advocate the United Nations needs if it wishes to remain relevant and serve an important role in coming years. That above all else, the UN needs to show that there still remain those, unlike Banbury, who have been exposed to the bureaucracy of the UN, but not consequently dissuaded – and convince everyone else that idealism in the UN’s democracy is not misplaced.