Reforming the Multilateral System: Without Trust, Nothing Else Matters


Reforming the Multilateral System: Without Trust, Nothing Else Matters

Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations
New York—10 Jan 2017

Many today are wondering whether the United Nations and the international system are up to the challenges of the moment.

The rise of non-state actors, the resurgence of nativism and xenophobia, the displacement and migration of populations at historic volumes – the challenges are numerous and rapidly changing.

Yet among the obstacles facing the international community, the Independent Commission on Multilateralism recently highlighted one as particularly problematic:

Repeatedly, the Commission heard reports of a deep lack of trust. There is a lack of trust both among states and between states and the UN Secretariat. There is a lack of trust between governments and their citizens….And there is a lack of trust within the UN itself among the various departments, agencies, funds and programs.[1]

The problem, they suggest, is not that we are unable to work together effectively. Rather, it is that we frequently refuse to. Whether as individuals or members of families, communities, demographic groupings, or nation-states, we are disinclined to rely on others, to depend on them for aspects of our well-being. Humanity is faced with a deficit of trust.

The reconstruction of trust

This is one of the foremost problems facing the international community today.

If citizens and their elected institutions distrust each other, the affairs of society cannot be beneficially ordered. If governments distrust each other, meaningful progress on global challenges cannot be achieved – aspirational rhetoric notwithstanding. If ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic groups distrust each other, solidarity and social integration are little more than empty wishes.

Put simply, societies can neither endure nor advance without trust.

This is nothing new or revolutionary, of course. Nevertheless, numerous aspects of the multilateral system are shaped by the dictates of power politics and expediency – constraining or motivating actors ranging from nations and UN departments to civil society organizations and individual activists.

What becomes clear is that while the importance of trust is generally recognized, its construction is rarely prioritized. Whether the work is too long-term or its mechanisms insufficiently understood, its results too diffuse or not flashy enough, too few tangible resources are committed to this objective.

A central focus of civil society, United Nations agencies, and Members States alike in the coming years will therefore need to be addressing and reversing deficits of trust at all levels of the multilateral system. An explicit commitment, universal and resolute, must be made to the global reconstruction of trust.

From trust to trustworthiness

How does this happen?

Trust can be understood as a logical response to conditions of the world. In this sense, it cannot be changed at will. If we sincerely believe that a coworker, organization, department, or nation cannot be depended on, or is opposed to our well-being, the answer is not to simply trust them anyway. To do so would be to controvert the imperatives of reason and judgment.    

This conundrum can be avoided by focusing not on increasing trust, but trustworthiness. Our energies, in following this path, are centered not primarily on determining how much we can trust others – though this is of course necessary - but rather on how much others can trust us.

Can others trust that the reasons our organization or country gives for taking a certain course of action – true though they may be – are actually the ones that prompted the decision?

Can our colleagues trust that we will accomplish what we commit to – even when complications arise, resources are reduced, or priorities shift?

Can our national leaders trust us as individuals – though we will likely never meet them – to judge matters of national policy on their merits, and not content ourselves with helping to score cheap political points?

Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time. It is not about a particular technique or methods of working; rather, it is about a way of being. It is the moral fiber upon which an individual, community, institution or nation rests its core.

Giving attention to issues such as these contributes to the construction of a culture of trustworthiness, in which behavior of this kind becomes assumed and expected – simply the way things are done. And this, in turn, nurtures the expansion of trust so needed throughout the multilateral system.

Trustworthiness and the human heart

Trust and trustworthiness are qualities whose effects are practical and concrete. The Commission’s report gives more than enough insight into the real-world damage caused by the erosion of trust among various segments of the global community. 

But these are ethical principles as well, reflecting the transcendent dimensions of human reality, and this is a truth that should not be forgotten. Indeed, many would understand trustworthiness as fundamentally a spiritual principle, central to both the human soul and the life of society. As the Baha'i Writings state:

“Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquility and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend on it.”

Religious terminology does not, of course, appeal to all, and its use is not necessary to explore such concepts at depth and with sincerity. What is important to acknowledge, however, is that the reestablishment of trust within society – acting with trustworthiness, upholding integrity, striving to interact honorably with others – necessarily transcends the narrow confines of cold pragmatism and expediency.

The very act of turning to trustworthiness as a means of fostering long-lasting global progress requires a degree of faith in the capacity of human nature to overcome the siren call of self-interest and egoism. It is a form of trust itself.

The human heart is both the beginning and the end of trust and trustworthiness. And in this sense, we all – whether individually or as members of communities, organizations, or social institutions – hold the power to begin building healthier patterns of interaction among the members of the global community. Let us rise to this challenge.

-- Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations

[1] “Pulling Together: The Multilateral System and Its Future” Report of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism