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Will COVID-19 Strengthen Multilateralism?

The COVID-19 pandemic is underlining that our political structures are out-dated and unfit for purpose. The current crisis is our chance to change the world for the better and ensure that we have the tools and platforms needed for international cooperation to flourish. This is achievable, but we need brave and forward-looking leaders to step up to the world stage instead of inward-looking populists who avoid it.

Historically, crises have led to changes and improvements of the structures in global politics. The United Nations, formed in October 1945, was a product of the devastation and ethical fallout of the Second World War and it legitimised the idea of universal human rights to avoid acts of inhumanity in the future. It was the destruction of the European continent that led to the development of the European project, culminating in a European Union, which incentivised states to cooperate and work together instead of clashing and ultimately, waging war against one another.

The genocides in Rwanda and Srbrenica in 1994 and 1995 respectively prompted the international community to assume greater responsibility for the protection of human rights, and it paved the way for the adoption of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in 2005. History shows that crises and destruction can lead to greater cooperation among the countries in the world through multilateralism. Will the current pandemic be another addition to that list, or if instead it will be another nail in the coffin of multilateralism*?

"The UN has failed in its role as the supposed platform for cooperation and the World Health Organisation has been trapped in the global rivalry between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump."

The international political environment was already challenging before the pandemic. Unilateralism appeared to be prevailing over international cooperation and it has continued to define foreign relations during the pandemic. The UN has failed in its role as the supposed platform for cooperation and the World Health Organisation has been trapped in the global rivalry between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. The EU has continued to weaken and been unable to stand the test of yet another challenge to the European project.

Despite these challenges, this pandemic provides us with the opportunity to work for greater international cooperation and reformed international institutions. Coronavirus has shown we cannot afford to do otherwise, and even the firmest realist can see that it is also in every state’s interest to prevent a global crisis of this calibre to take place. This optimism is derived from three shortcomings during the pandemic; national interdependence, weakness of organisations, uncooperative state leaders.

Individual responses have largely failed because all countries are dependent on what other countries do. Despite lockdown successes, countries need to coordinate their departure from these restrictions to avoid another global spike in cases. The pandemic does not recognise borders; it exposes both the interdependence of our world and the need to work together to combat these sorts of challenges. That necessity will ultimately lead to a greater emphasis on international and regional cooperation out of necessity.

The current structures for international and regional cooperation are out-dated and the pandemic shows that with clarity. The WHO has been undermined by leaders who from the outset ignored its warnings and then by the political blame game between China and the United States. The EU has been criticised for not doing enough, attracting hostile headlines over the lack of economic solidarity with the hardest hit countries and the failure to coordinate PPE equipment distribution especially. This criticism does not take into account that the EU has limited power in the health sector and it is rather national leaders who have obstructed any collective response.

The UN has been relegated to a secondary role and General Secretary Antonio Guterres’ struggle to set the agenda shows that the UN is far away from its position 20 years ago.

These failures have left a vacuum, one in which national leaders are simultaneously struggling to handle the pandemic independently while blaming international organisations for not doing enough. It’s clear that countries do turn to international organisations in time of crisis which suggests that, even though they might be structurally dated, their role is far from outplayed. The vacuum from the pandemic can be filled by reformed and more flexible international organisations that are able to navigate the modern world.

"The leaders that turned their backs on international cooperation prior to and during the pandemic have failed to respond to the crisis."

The leaders that turned their backs on international cooperation prior to and during the pandemic have failed to respond to the crisis. Individual leaders cannot fill the vacuum. Two leaders have struggled most in this time of pandemic: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and US President Donald Trump. Prior to their crises, both railed against organisations like the UN and ignored recommendations from WHO, and now both have failed to get a grip on the crisis that are tearing their countries apart. The two countries now have the highest daily death rates and the health crisis has caused political chaos, with Bolsonaro and Trump repeatedly questioning health officials. 

Instead, countries with leaders who value international cooperation and a more progressive and open approach have succeeded, (New Zealand, Austria, Portugal, Germany and Finland), and have either eased the lockdowns or are in the process of doing so. The value of such an approach will lead to soul-searching in many countries and a surge in support of organisations that empower cooperation and coordinated responses to crises. The successful leaders who value international cooperation should lead this movement and help to build updated structures and procedures for regional and international organisations.

The fragility of this optimistic outlook on the crisis as a driver for change and increased international cooperation is exposed by the prospect of two serious challenges. The first is the possible re-election of Donald Trump. Such a re-election would likely perpetuate the trend towards protectionism and unilateralism over cooperation and multilateralism. The US has a special responsibility in the world, and international organisations such as the UN are highly dependent on American support. Without it we will not be able to face cross-border challenges such as migration and climate change. The second is the desire expressed by some leaders to return to ‘normal’. Returning to normal might well mean returning to a world that enabled this pandemic to spread, a place where rising inequality is legitimised and the unprecedented number of displaced people is accepted. It may well also be a world where we continue to destroy our planet instead of tackling the climate challenge. We have pressed the pause button and the pandemic is our chance to press the play button on a better world.

Crises have led to changes and improvements before and this pandemic is not an exception. Covid-19 has reminded us what happens when we are unable to respond to a disease that knows no borders and single-handedly brings the world to a halt. It illustrates why our political leaders need to work closer together – no state is spared when a crisis like this develops. This will not be the last crisis of its kind; climate change is an obvious existential threat and it is anyone’s guess as to what other emergencies emerge in the future. In times of hardship, we need a world that ensures cooperation and solidarity rather than hampering it. This is our chance to improve the way we work together and prepare the world for tomorrows where global challenges such as pandemics will continue to threaten us. We must support those political leaders who are willing to undertake these responsibilities and question those who will not.

* National governments working together to achieve something or to deal with a particular issue.

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