Global unity or disorder?
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare a grim feature of the global environment today – the lack of international solidarity to deal with a common challenge. As COVID-19 wreaked havoc across the world, there was little evidence of the international cooperation that was needed to address the unprecedented health crisis. Vaccine nationalism reinforced this unedifying trend and underlined the absence of a collective response when the virus was overwhelming nations the world over. Vaccine distribution has been very uneven with richer countries having access to supplies while poorer states still have to wait.
The ongoing crisis has shown how interconnected and interdependent the world is with no country able to deal with the challenge on its own. But it has also exposed the deep divisions between and within countries as they have struggled to defeat an unforgiving enemy.
Several times during the pandemic, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for international cooperation. “To prevail against the pandemic today, we need heightened solidarity,” he said. While he urged unity in the face of “one of the world’s most dangerous challenges” needing “common action across borders,” global cooperation has remained in short supply.
The lack of international solidarity and a weakened commitment to multilateralism predates the pandemic even though this has been reinforced by the coronavirus crisis. Multilateralism has been under assault for well over a decade now which has led to the erosion of a rules-based international order. Last month – on April 24 – the UN marked the ‘international day of multilateralism’ which prompted Guterres to underscore the “clear and urgent need for multilateral solutions” to the problems of our times. Observance of an international day of multilateralism which began as an annual UN feature in 2019 was a response to the pressures international institutions were under and a call for states to renew their commitment to multilateralism amid a fraying international order.
What are the factors that lie behind the retreat from multilateralism? Can the trend be reversed? What stands in the way of a sustainable return to multilateralism?
Tensions between the two global powers, the US and China – who have the world’s most consequential relationship – are fueling a turbulent international environment. Resurgence of intense competition between the big powers is contributing to an increasingly fragmented international system. Fierce trade and tech wars are dividing, not uniting the world.
The rejection of internationalism has much to do with the rise of rightwing populist leaders and regional ‘strongmen’ pursuing ultra-nationalist policies and acting unilaterally. Former President Donald Trump’s ‘America-first’ stance and actions greatly contributed to this trend by renouncing treaties, withdrawing from UN bodies and reneging on international commitments. He wasn’t alone in showing disdain for global organizations and disregard for legal norms. Other big and regional powers also pursued unilateralist policies in defiance of international law and tried to re-write the rules of the game in their areas of influence. Populist leaders espousing an intolerant form of nationalism sought to channel widespread public frustration with the status quo at home into rejection of the international order. Meanwhile the anti-globalization sentiment sweeping the west and adoption of protectionist policies further intensified the strains on multilateralism.
The advent of the Biden administration with its avowed commitment to internationalism raised hopes that Washington would lead a global effort to renew multilateralism and revitalize multilateral institutions. Certainly, the US return to the Paris climate agreement, rejoining WHO and entering talks to recommit to the Iran nuclear deal have been welcome moves in this regard. But the Biden administration has moved cautiously and less boldly on the international front than it was expected to not least because it has been so preoccupied by pressing domestic problems.
There are other more plausible reasons why multilateralism is continuing to face challenges. The renewal of East-West tensions is a key factor that is inhibiting strengthening of multilateral processes and institutions. Tensions between the two global powers, the US and China – who have the world’s most consequential relationship – are fueling a turbulent international environment. Resurgence of intense competition between the big powers is contributing to an increasingly fragmented international system. Fierce trade and tech wars are dividing, not uniting the world.
There is another significant factor. As the most important embodiment and expression of multilateralism, the UN has over the years been increasingly seen by people across the world to fall way short of its ideals and unable to play the pivotal role expected of it in key areas. There is rising public skepticism about multilateral institutions and whether they are fit for purpose to deal with 21st century challenges.
If a strengthened UN is at the heart of strengthening multilateralism, overall reform of the body is essential. Multilateralism itself must adapt to the new dynamics of a transformed world to revive the faith of both governments and people in the value of international institutions and cooperation.
It is far from certain what kind of international order will evolve from the present fraught situation. The deep divisions of a fractured world, erosion of faith in multilateral organizations and hyper nationalism all make addressing global problems through collective action more difficult. Yet the challenges the world faces today, the continuing pandemic, economic recovery, climate change, ending conflicts, fighting terrorism, fostering peace and alleviating poverty all require collaboration among nations. The alternative to global cooperation is the spectre of even more global disorder.
The UN has attracted the greatest criticism being the most important and universal international organization. Much of the disillusionment is with the Security Council’s role as it is the world’s crisis management body charged with the maintenance of international peace and security. But the Council has not lived up to this role as it has often been polarized and paralyzed on key issues. Therefore, unless the Council is reformed to make it more democratic and accountable, little will change.
*Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha