Leadership at the World Level


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

26 Jan 2024 – Given the ongoing armed conflicts such as those of Palestine-Israel and Russia-Ukraine, there is a widespread feeling that the international system that the United Nations Charter put into place in 1945 needs to be revitalized and renewed.  In order to expand the rule of law and democratic institutions at the world level strong leadership is required.

Leadership at the national level is usually clearly structured in a pyramid with the office of the Prime Minister or the President at the top, with Cabinet Ministers, the higher ranks of the military just below.  There may be a vast informal network of influential advisors, business leaders, the press – all with leadership roles, but the formal structure of governance is hierarchical and clearly defined.  People generally expect the Prime Minister or the President to lead.  In fact, he is often judged on whether or not he provides such leadership.

At the world level, there is no such formal hierarchy.  Thus today, political caution, short-term national concerns, and a certain fatigue with international causes have combined to produce a dearth of leadership on major international issues.  The very magnitude of global problems such as armed conflicts, the consequences of climate change, massive migration, and persistent poverty seem to have daunted potential leaders at the world level.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations can on a few issues help set the “world agenda” – those issues which require attention of all governments and as much of the non-governmental forces as the U.N. can reach.  Such “agenda setting” is often done through U.N. conferences on specific topics: population, women, education, cities, social development.  Yet often such conferences have little follow up as we have seen with earlier conferences such as those on land reform or food.

At one time, it was hoped that the President of the U.N. General Assembly, who is in the post for a year, could play a leadership role, but such hopes have not been realized in practice.  It would be difficult to find many people who could name the last five presidents of the General Assembly or to cite much of what they have done other than presiding over meetings.  Nevertheless, the role of the President of the General Assembly has some potential and could be developed.

There is a need for constant leadership and a sense of direction, a need to maintain and rebuild enthusiasm, to reset the course when policies do not work out as expected.  To keep up a momentum and an enthusiasm, the leaders within the U.N. system must be able to reach beyond the governments – at times over the heads of current governmental office holders – to the people of the world – the emerging world civil society – the growing array of non-governmental organizations.  There is also a possible role coming from transnational corporations, but they may be motivated largely by making money rather than improving the world.  Non-governmental organizations have provided leadership on many of the major issues of our time – the role of women, the need for ecologically-sound development.

There is a need to develop a tighter framework of human rights and international humanitarian law.  The challenge is there.  The positions of leadership are open!


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 29 Jan 2024.

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