The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the emergence of two realities that seriously threaten multilateralism: firstly the problems encountered by national governments in coordinating their responses, and secondly the growing allure of “my country first” policies. The crisis in multilateralism has been transformed from a purely latent matter into an undeniable problem. Many young people and a growing slice of public opinion no longer see in the multilateral approach an effective tool for tackling global challenges.
There are many reasons for this crisis. First of all, we have seen a decline in the global liberal order. At the end of the Cold War, the United States established itself as the hegemonic power in the international system, exporting its values and defending its own interests on the one hand, but permitting a period of unprecedented globalisation on the other. Today, however, the Western world, with the United States at its head, is experiencing a serious crisis, faced not only with continuous attacks from outside but also with growing tensions and divisions within. The result is plain to see: an international context in which many nations believe they can act alone, as no great power has either the force or the credibility to act as a true global leader. This is the condition that Ian Bremmer has defined as G-Zero, i.e. a scenario in which the law of the strongest prevails more and more. We are in a sort of “geopolitical recession”.
This decline of the liberal order goes hand in hand with rivalry between the world’s two leading powers, the United States and China, with their opposing world views. The United States, on the one hand, has distanced itself from its traditional role of hegemon, in part because this role has been increasingly questioned by other international actors. This trend was already visible under Obama, but has become official government policy under Trump. It could indeed be claimed that the President won the 2016 elections partly because of his openly anti-globalisation positions. China, on the other hand, is striving to reconfigure the rules of international cohabitation to suit its own purposes. Beijing has succeeded in becoming a key global player and has found alternative ways and means to pursue its national interests even outside the classical contexts of international cooperation. The BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) are two excellent examples. Beijing is now attempting to remodel the actions of international organisations to ensure that they do not systematically impede the pursuit of Chinese interests.
We are therefore seeing a progressive weakening of multilateral organisations, already weighed down by elephantine bureaucracies and by the absence of well-defined structures. This is the case with the G7 and the G20. When individual states begin to wonder why they should cooperate and on what issues, international organisations will inevitably find themselves hamstrung.
In these circumstances, should we believe that multilateralism is dead and buried? Is it no more than a legacy of our not-too-distant past? It is better not to jump to hasty conclusions.
In considering multilateralism, we would do well to quote Mark Twain: “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. Multilateralism is still a necessary and popular tool, for example because it allows small and medium powers to have their voices heard in the global decision-making process. Multilateral initiatives are also essential for tackling the conflicts afflicting many parts of the world, and even our own neighbourhood (Syria and Libya for example), as well as global challenges like climate change, international terrorism and migration. While this may be true, however, we cannot simply repropose the traditional model of multilateralism as we have known it in recent decades. To be relaunched, multilateralism has to be reinvented.
In turn, for this to happen, we need to find shared objectives, starting with those that public opinion sees as the most urgent and pressing. “Coalitions of the willing” could be formed even at regional levels to resolve disputes over trade or infrastructure, or to play a role in combatting climate change. To achieve this in today’s fragmented global panorama, states need to exploit digital connectivity to coordinate both objectives and policies. It is no longer necessary or possible to leave it up to the great powers: everybody must play a part within the limits of their power and ability.
If these changes succeed, multilateralism will continue to offer added value compared to purely bilateral relations in which competition is playing an ever-greater role. Paradoxically, Covid-19 has had a positive impact by demonstrating the need for international cooperation to tackle global challenges: a vaccine is perceived as a common good for all nations. International institutions are not an end in themselves; neither must they be seen as an excuse for inaction by individual states. Given public opinion, the credibility of international institutions needs to be relaunched at all levels and presented as an essential objective for all nations. For this reason, civil society as a whole, from NGOs to think tanks and from the private sector to the man in the street, has a fundamental role to play in revitalising multilateralism.
The pandemic, along with the economic and social crises it has caused, have traumatised a Western world that was simply not prepared to face its own decline. The effectiveness of international cooperation has been severely tested by the egoism of many governments, but the virus has also demonstrated the need for renewed multilateralism. Its relaunch demands not just the creation of regional structures and “coalitions of the willing” to confront common problems, but the commitment of civil society as a whole.