PREMIUM TAG BLOG: Multilateralism Buckles Under Corona

The post-1945 order was in bad shape before the Coronavirus swept across the globe. In the midst of the pandemic, it is barely surviving with few prospects of being revived.

By Judy Dempsey

The West’s leading countries should have risen to the challenge as soon as it became clear that the coronavirus was going to be a pandemic. But they didn’t.

One by one, the leaders and members of the multilateral institutions established after 1945 failed to think and act strategically and globally.

Whether or not globalization will return to the status quo ante once the virus is conquered – and it’s not going to be very soon according to experts – is an open question. What is not in question is the inability of multilateral institutions to perform during globalisation’s first pandemic.

Consider the United Nations and its World Health Organization arm.

The former’s role during the virus has been abysmal. The United Nations Security Council couldn’t manage to agree to discuss the pandemic. China, a permanent member of the council blocked it. The other members should have taken a tough stand by speaking up, rallying support and demanding that the UNSC adopt some policy. They didn’t. It might have helped had the United States been more supportive of the UN. But the Trump administration has had only disdain for it. Since January, the UNSC has been toothless.

So has the WHO. Its leadership was irresponsibly cautious. Chinese pressure played a big role. The longer the WHO prevaricated, the more countries delayed in making preparations to deal with the infected. So much for that multilateral institution.

President Donald Trump has had few kind words to say about the WHO’s performance. His administration decided to withhold funding for it. Other western countries were mealy-mouthed about the WHO’s handling of the pandemic. But because several European countries are now so critical of Trump’s policies, they chose not to openly criticize the WHO. This is a pity. The organization – indeed the entire United Nations – is in desperate need of reform. The Europeans and other countries should have spoken out.

As for the World Trade Organization, that’s been on the death bed for some time. Again, the Trump administration has been far from helpful in trying to reform it while China has blocked all efforts at reform. The Europeans and Japan have repeatedly come up with proposals. But because all these multilateral organizations work by consensus, the WTO has become almost paralyzed. When it comes to trade issues – and this is such a major casualty of the coronavirus – it might as well have not existed.

The Group of 7 industrialised countries, when they recently virtually met, it lead to naught. Yes, Trump doesn’t have much time for G7 or the bigger G20 – but that doesn’t mean major, rich countries cannot be much more vocal about what is happening to the dismantling of the post-1945 world order.

The list goes on.

Just consider NATO. It pats itself on the back when member states air lift medical supplies to allies. But what has NATO been doing in terms of resilience, which was until recently the buzz-word of the Alliance and the European Union?

The alliance is not only highly vulnerable in terms of the functioning of its energy grids, transportation networks, the protection of health facilities and airports. The Alliance’s ability to fend off any attack from either Russia and China can almost be written off.

NATO still cannot move seamlessly across Europe to defend its eastern borders. The bridges and airports and railways are not equipped to allow this. In addition, this multilateral institution that is supposed to cooperate with the EU in terms of having a “NATO Schengen” that would allow troops and equipment to pass unhindered across Europe has not yet materialised.

As for China’s increasing presence in Europe, in ports, in establishing logistics centers, in using several countries for investment which is never far away from intelligence gathering, NATO is sleepwalking through these developments. Airlifts of medical supplies are no substitute for strategy and foresight.

Now to the EU. It has learned so little from previous crises. Yes, belatedly, the EU Commission is doling out billions of Euros for the health infrastructures. Don’t even think about how these funds will be monitored and used. But politically and strategically, the EU leadership has been disappointing while the member states have gone their own way. Health is the prerogative of the member states, not the Commission. But the EU could have – and still can – make a difference if there is the minimum of political will and leadership.

Briefly, here’s how. The EU cannot go it alone, even if it wanted to.

The first thing it should to is to get its friends on board – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, individual states of the United States. Several African countries have to be included as well. And reach out to Latin America. Hold a virtual summit with a tight agenda and a moderator that knows how to moderate. The agenda is about rebuilding multilateralism.

Second, blabbering elites are not needed. What is needed are experts: scientists, philanthropists, musicians, pedagogues, humanists, environmentalists.

Third, this is about the future of a world order that will either descend into a free for all or emerge with a set of values that will promote trust. China, Russia and other authoritarian countries have to made choices as well. That’s another blog. What’s important now is redefining the West. And soonest