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OP-ED: Is multilateralism dying?

  • Published at 01:24 pm June 27th, 2020

Covid-19 may have hijacked the global agenda

Across the globe, multilateralism appears in a grave crisis. Scepticism of the benefits of a multilateral order grounded in underlying liberal principles is manifesting throughout the Western world. The United States, the system’s imperfect cornerstone, has continued to scorn a growing number of multilateral institutions and norms each day. 

Within Europe, Brexit and discord over the European Union’s (EU) future has also undercut the EU as a regional multilateral pillar, alongside the supranational bloc’s capacity as a global actor. 

Simultaneously, a more assertive China and Russia are seeking to reshape multilateralism, challenging the foundational liberal principles that have guided the post- Cold War multilateral order to which the world has become accustomed. A degree of chaos is not surprising, given the dramatic shifts that are starting to divide the world into competing spheres of influence. Let’s take the economy. 

Since 2000, China’s share of global GDP at market rates has gone from less than 4% to nearly 16%. Its technology giants, such as Alibaba, Tencent, and Huawei, are spreading Chinese digital infrastructure abroad, especially in emerging markets. China is the world’s largest exporter, and although a relative newcomer (having joined the club only in 2001) now presents itself as chief defender of a WTO under assault from America. 

In finance, though the dollar still dominates, the yuan is poised to gain ground. At the IMF, China remains underrepresented, with a quota and voting share of only 6%. But as the fund strives to support a stricken global economy, China will be a core consideration, whether in the design of debt relief (China is reckoned to have lent more than $140bn to African governments and state- owned enterprises since 2000) or in increasing quotas. 

These upheavals spill over into the diplomatic and security dimensions that are the focus of this special report. Are the UN, and the collaborative global governance it embodies, doomed to be less relevant in a world of great-power competition? It is surely too soon to give up on them. But to retain its clout and character the liberal order needs restored leadership and difficult reforms. 

The multilateral system has important strengths. One is that it is patently needed. The biggest problems cry out for international co-operation -- as the pandemic powerfully illustrates. The world needs to work together on vaccines, on economic recovery, and to support the most vulnerable countries. 

The head of the World Food Program David Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, has said speedy action is necessary to prevent “multiple famines of biblical proportions.” Concerted efforts are also needed on climate change, another challenge no country can tackle on its own. 

The risk of nuclear proliferation is growing. A second advantage is that the UN is not unpopular. It has made shameful mistakes. It failed to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica. UN peacekeepers are blamed for bringing cholera to Haiti and sexual abuse to many of the places they were meant to protect. 

The UN’s oil-for-food program with Iraq led to a $1.8bn scam. Yet it is more trusted than many governments, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer. Across 32 countries surveyed by Pew last year, a median of 61% had a favourable opinion of the UN, against 26% with an unfavourable view.

A comfortable majority of Americans think well of it, though there is a growing partisan divide: 77% of Democrats approve, but only 36% of Republicans. In another survey last year, by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, seven out of ten Americans said it would be best if the country took an active part in world affairs, close to the highest on record. 

That points to a final force that should not be underestimated: the potential for American re-engagement. America remains a more powerful economy with greater reach in hard and soft power than any rival. It could again be the standard-bearer for a liberal world order. It would be naive to expect sudden enthusiasm for multilateralism from Trump -- and even beyond him. American suspicion of foreign entanglements is as old as the republic. 

Frustration with the WTO, NATO, and the rest was mounting before Trump tapped into it. The divisions at home that have deepened under his presidency make leadership abroad harder. Still, victory for Joe Biden in the presidential election in November would be, if not exactly a game-changer, at least a game-restarter. “We will be back,” Biden promised at last year’s Munich Security Conference. 

The UN wants to use its 75th anniversary for a grand consultation on the future of multilateralism. Covid-19 has hijacked the global agenda. But it also creates an opportunity. Rather than destroying the system, the upheaval could spur countries into strengthening it. That will require planning for the future while tackling the crises of the present. 

The post-Cold War moment had witnessed a tremendous flourishing in multilateral cooperation. Nations employed multilateral architectures with unprecedented success to manage and reduce real shared global problems. Individuals, understandably, are rallying to defend this multilateral order against rising strains. 

However, multilateralism can only operate in the geopolitical context within which it exists. The unfortunate return of great-power competition, so noticeably dampened during the preceding decades, is eroding the very foundations on which the multilateralism of the post- Cold War era stood. Today’s leaders need to emulate what their predecessors achieved so magnificently, at the close of WWII.  

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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