Past successes, future questions as United Nations turns 75

Perry World House held a series of virtual talks with global leaders looking at the organization’s current efforts, ongoing struggles, and future.

A view of the United Nations along the East River, with the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in the background.
The United Nations’ 75th anniversary comes at a turbulent time in the world.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, an organization forged in the rubble of World War II to prevent future global conflict. The milestone comes at a deeply troubled time, as the increasingly polarized world battles the coronavirus pandemic, tensions between the United States and China are on the rise, and the planet continues to warm. 

Perry World House hosted its annual Global Order Colloquium with the theme “The U.N. at 75: Coronavirus and Competition,” welcoming nearly 1,000 people to a series of virtual talks with global leaders looking at the organization’s current efforts, ongoing struggles, and what the future holds.

“The international cooperation that created the United Nations is strained to say the least,” said Penn President Amy Gutmann as she introduced Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., on the second day of the colloquium. “These strains put important global coalitions at dire risk. ... A strategic Penn priority is global engagement, and during these virtual times Penn and Perry World House now convene a ‘Who’s Who’ of global leaders, policymakers, and scholars to focus on the biggest problems facing the global order.”

Two people in separate screens on a Zoom call.
Penn President Amy Gutmann (left) introduces Ambassador Samantha Power during the virtual Perry World House event.

Gutmann called Power “a trailblazer” for international human rights. 

“When she was appointed ambassador to the United Nations, she was the youngest person in our nation’s history to serve in that role. She has seen the worst this world can offer,” said Gutmann. “But the worst is no match for her humanity and compassion.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with CNN’s national security correspondent Vivian Salama, Power discussed the current administration’s pullback from the World Health Organization and its attacks on multilateralism, China’s growing influence in the international community, and how the U.S. can restore its global leadership role.

“I think the only way to talk about a ‘restoration’ of U.S. global leadership is to start at home,” Power said when asked what a top priority should be for U.S. in engaging with the U.N. “Returning to the Paris Agreement, for instance, is a symbolic move unless and until we have put in place incredibly stringent car rules and rules for clean power plants, rules that may return what Trump has undone.”

Asked what some of the U.N.’s biggest accomplishments have been, Power highlighted the U.N. charter, which focuses on “saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war and building an institution predicated on the idea that there have to be higher principles to hold states accountable.” But she also noted that although there hasn’t been a war on the scale of World War II, there are increasing conflicts around the world and tremendous backsliding on human rights, particularly in established democracies.

“We are experiencing more conflict than at any time since the end of the Cold War,” she said. “There’s a very disturbing pattern of what has been called the human rights recession.”

Power sees it as positive that there have been more protests happening around the world in the last two years than in any 10-year period in recorded history. 

“Every place from Chile to Sudan to Belarus to right here with the unprecedented protest movement in Black Lives Matter,” she said, the outpouring shows a “universal longing that exists to hold governments accountable.”

As for the Trump administration’s push against multilateralism, Power said it’s essential to understand how all nations’ fates are connected, with COVID-19 as a main example.

“I think one of the primary dividing lines in our country today is between those who recognize that our fates are connected to the fates of people who live outside our borders and those who believe that we can build walls, whether virtual or physical, to ensure that we can advance our own interests while keeping the outside world at bay,” she said. “COVID itself is the biggest devastating and deadly and heartbreaking reminder of how connected our fates are.”

She also touched on the lack of high-level U.S. diplomacy in the effort to de-escalate violence against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region of Azerbaijan, including Azeri attacks on civilian areas. 

“I think it’s just one example among many of what happens when your diplomatic bench gets depleted, as has happened at the State Department,” Power said. “This is not a partisan point to recognize that there’s no conflict that is too small to demand the attention of senior U.S. policymakers.”

Audience questions included what it was like working for President Obama, whom she described as ferociously competitive, and what advice would she give women interested in a successful career in public service.

“I have a saying in my book …‘never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides,’” she said. “All the dudes may look like they’ve got it all sussed out, but they too might have those thought bubbles, but they just fight through them and make their voices heard. Just know that you don’t have a monopoly on self-doubt … knowing that others are experiencing something similar may just give you that added gumption to fight through it.”

The third day of the colloquium began with remarks from Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female prime minister, former director-general of the World Health Organization, and current co-chair of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB). This colloquium was taking place in “troubled and turbulent times,” said Brundtland, with the pandemic overlapping with ongoing attacks on the organizations designed to promote health, security, and prosperity, ranging from the U.S.’s departure from the WHO and China’s resistance to provide information in an open and timely manner, both for COVID-19 and during the 2003 SARS outbreak. 

Brundtland said that better global governance will be essential to addressing new crises in the future, citing the need for stronger global health regulations, increased country compliance, and developing a WHO that can react quickly and firmly during a crisis. “Leaders who have seen the devastation caused by this global plague must use the U.N.’s 75th anniversary as an opportunity to revive multilateral cooperation as the only effective way to tackle key global challenges,” she said. “No present leader has had the experience that we now are going through now, so this is why I am optimistic that change will happen.”

a zoom screenshot from top left clockwise gro harlem brundtland, deb amos, and ezekiel emanuel
In his introduction of Brundtland, PIK professor Zeke Emanuel highlighted the importance of her insights as a country leader, medical professional, and a leading thinker in global preparedness. 

In conversation with NPR correspondent Deborah Amos, Brundtland also discussed her work on the GPMB, which published a report last fall on how poorly the world was prepared to respond to a pandemic involving a respiratory virus. She also fielded audience questions on the challenges of communicating during a public health crisis, the future of sustainable development, the importance of making COVID-19 treatments and vaccines available globally, and the role of partnerships between governments, NGOs, and the private sector in addressing other global crises such as climate change. 

Looking forward, Brundtland is “hopefully and realistically” assured that a safe and effective vaccine will be developed but emphasized the importance of multilateral organizations to help distribute these vaccines globally. She also hopes that this crisis will help leaders better understand how the benefits of preparedness outweigh the costs. “We made the comparison between the billions that need to be invested in preparedness and the trillions that will be lost if we don’t make that investment,” said Brundtland about the GPMB’s report from last fall. “What gives me hope is that those who decide on budgets will realize that simple calculation.”

The colloquium also featured a talk between Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Helene Cooper of The New York Times about the response to COVID-19 and contributions by both public and private institutions. The final event featured global leaders, diplomats, and policy makers sharing their thoughts on the future of the U.N., including Catherine Ashton, former European Union high representative for foreign affairs and security policy; Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO; and Arun K. Singh, former Indian ambassador to the U.S., moderated by Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“There’s no issue I could name that any nation can solve on its own,” Ashton said of the continued need for the U.N. “You can’t tackle climate change or a pandemic without collaboration.”

Videos of the events can be found on the Perry World House YouTube channel at, including Mark Suzman; Ambassador Samantha Power; Gro Harlem Brundtland; and the Global Leaders event