Multilateralism Must Deliver

December 2020

The world’s most pressing problems are global and require multilateral responses. The basic tools for this already exist. But to better fulfil the existing and emerging tasks, multilateral institutions should provide space – not only for governments – but also for scientists, civil society groups, and other actors that can contribute to problem solving.

By Danilo Türk

United Nations Security Council UNSC Multilateralism
UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The world is facing two major types of dangers: the one produced by the ongoing shifts in relations among global powers, and the other resulting from diverse transboundary threats, such as the current pandemic. Nationalism, a familiar response to uncertainty, has gained momentum almost everywhere.

Unsurprisingly, a world characterised by all of these troubles is hard to manage. There is a real possibility that the future will see further sliding into a downward spiral of unbridled contest and power politics. But this is not inevitable. Global problems such as the Covid 19 pandemic and global warming simply demand global solutions. Multilateral cooperation has a vital role to play. The question is: how?

The basic tools of multilateral cooperation already exist

Let us start with the basics. The multipolar world of the present and the future will be marked by competition and cooperation – both taking place simultaneously. This is a world without natural enemies or forever allies, a world of a multitude of players and variable-sum games. Describing the current situation as a “second cold war” is erroneous – notwithstanding the growing tensions between the U.S. and China, the two principal powers of our era. Their relations will remain central to the global political dynamics and are likely to remain tense. However, much space will be left to others, including medium and small powers whose responsibility for creative ideas and collective action will be more important than ever.

An important evolution will take place at the level of international institutions. The basic need for the United Nations will remain. The UN is the world’s only truly universal organisation. The importance of the basic principles of the UN Charter remains unaffected, notwithstanding the current limitations in the organisation’s operational capacity. The UN’s rich and varied experience, its precious convening power, and its unique legitimacy will continue to be needed. At the same time, the importance of regional organisations will grow. New regional organisations will continue to emerge. In addition, the G20 has retained its potential for key consultations and global crisis management. So, the basic tools of the much-needed multilateral cooperation already exist.

The quality of multilateral organisations is measured by the quality of results

This is the situation in which the World Leadership Alliance – Club de Madrid held its annual policy dialogue at the end of October 2020 and devoted it to the questions of multilateral cooperation. The result of the consultation was a short but strong document with a telling title: “Multilateralism Must Deliver”. The basic conclusion of the policy dialogue is that ours is not a time for despondency, let alone despair. This is the time for “delivery” – the time for collective leadership and strong-willed international action.

The quality of politics and of policies is measured by the quality of results. That applies to the world of multilateral organisations as well. Hence the emphasis on the “delivery aspect” of multilateralism. Some among the multilateral organisations already produced results that must not be overlooked. The agreement reached last July within the European Union – one of the leading multilateral organisations of our era – has promised to enable the EU and its members to succeed in dealing with the pandemic and its consequences. The decisions taken by the International Monetary Fund with the aim of alleviating the debt burden for the least developed countries were a good, albeit not entirely satisfactory, beginning. The achievements of multilateral organisations must be recognized while, at the same time, they should be encouraged to do more.

The recent virtual summit of the G20 fell short. Further efforts will be necessary. The world needs to overcome the current state of “vaccine nationalism” and incentivise the production of the newly developed Covid-19 vaccines at scale. Their worldwide distribution must be done at affordable costs and assistance provided to states with weak health care systems. Moreover, serious and well-coordinated efforts are needed to empower the World Health Organisation. This will have to include strengthened authority and resources to counter infectious diseases more efficiently to prevent future pandemics. The future contribution of the G20 members will be critical in this context.

Planning the green recovery

The world is only half-way, at best, in other priority areas of cooperation as well. The commitments for the green recovery made by the EU and the recent encouraging statements made by the leaders of Japan, China, and Russia regarding the movement towards carbon-free development by 2050 or 2060 have to be translated into short and medium-term programs covering the period until 2030. The coming COP 26 in November 2021 in Glasgow will offer an early opportunity for a strong push in that direction.

And there are areas of international cooperation where the world is seriously lagging. They include a series of questions in the field of arms control and disarmament, as well as the need to address global tax evasion, tax havens, and related corruption. And above all, much more multilateral effort is required for the global management of digitalisation, artificial intelligence, and the future of the Internet. Ideally, this should lead to a multilateral agreement, sometimes metaphorically described as the “Bretton Woods of Digitalisation”.

Provide space for other actors

All of this constitutes a tall order. Multilateral institutions will have to be better equipped to fulfil the existing and emerging tasks. They will require increased participation and inclusion of a wider array of actors. They should provide space – not only for governments – but also for scientists, civil society groups, business sector, labour unions, and other actors that can contribute to problem solving and improvement of the world.

None of this diminishes the importance of diplomacy. Quite to the contrary, this is the time for energised and innovative diplomatic action. The recent U.S. election opened an opportunity for progress in that direction. The Alliance for Multilateralism, initiated by France and Germany in 2019, represents an opportunity for collective leadership. Obviously, excessive expectations must be avoided. But new opportunities are emerging and they must be seized.

The Robert Bosch Stiftung was a partner of Club de Madrid’s Policy Dialogue 2020.

Danilo Türk Club de Madrid

Danilo Türk is the President of Club de Madridan organisation of 116 former, democratically elected presidents and prime ministers. From 2007 to 2012, he was the President of the Republic of Slovenia.

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