Academic journal article Global Governance

John Holmes Memorial Lecture

Academic journal article Global Governance

John Holmes Memorial Lecture

Article excerpt

I DID NOT KNOW JOHN HOLMES, BUT I THINK I WOULD HAVE LIKED HIM. HIS long service to academia, the United Nations, and the government of Canada is emblematic of the ties that the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS) seeks to foster between research and practice. And his own humility and humor provide inspiration to us all.

I recently reread his 1988 keynote address, "Looking Backwards and Forwards." (1) Holmes perceived--in those dying days of the Cold War--that the UN had reached a crossroads in its history. But he also cautioned that a moment filled with promise and uncertainty should not give way to reinvention without a due understanding of what had come before. Those times--thought by some to herald a "new world order"--required visionary leadership in global affairs. They offered the UN a chance to reclaim the purpose of its founders. Our own times, you might think, bring more uncertainty than promise.

It is true that the foundations of the global order are creaking under the weight of myriad challenges--from militant extremism to climate change. Such phenomena not only confront us with direct threats, but also risk an erosion of our faith in the potential of the UN to act in the interest of the global collective good. It seems that, while the need for more effective global governance is more pressing than ever, those actors with the potential to provide it are faltering. Indeed, global governance, a term itself emblematic of the post-Cold War order and the beginning of the new century, is in a state of deep crisis.

Just as in 1988, the challenge falls to us to renew the promise of the world organization. Holmes and his colleagues undertook to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." (2) This timeless duty is now ours.

To my mind, a particularly useful framework to assess the current health of the UN is the prism of security and justice.

The Interaction of Security and Justice

The UN Charter is redolent with concern for security and justice. Their mutual and complementary pursuit forms the basis of the Charter's Preamble, which not only avows to banish war but also to "establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained." I think it is important to highlight the alignment of aims in the UN's foundational text because too often we conceptualize security and justice as aims in opposition to each other. Too often the UN is viewed narrowly as either a great-power security pact or a putative attempt at world government. Such an inflexible view stems in part from conceptual rigidity and disciplinary divisions.

Until relatively recently, security was synonymous with the pursuit of order. It appeared to imply a concern, above all, with the absence of chaos, be that within the boundaries of a state or at the level of the international system. And in keeping chaos in check, authorities--be they domestic political leaders or concerts of powerful states--were understood to resort to methods that overrode the rights of the individual. Justice, on the other hand, was seen by some as the goal of the idealist, or even the legalist. Narrowly conceived, it is viewed as a mechanism for righting historic grievances, regardless of prevailing political realities or the long-term consequences. For such reasons, notions of "global justice" tend to connote a certain utopian romanticism.

These caricatures--for they are just that--are unhelpful, but they must be addressed because too often they stand in the way of a more useful understanding of the interconnectedness of security and justice. It is my view that societies--and the international society they form--can truly thrive only when justice and security work in tandem. In practice, without justice, security is a chimera; it is rule by the sword, which is never a rule that lasts. Without security, justice can never be delivered--or, once thought to be blossoming, will wilt like the autumn leaf. …

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