This year’s gathering of world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly in New York has been called off. The news of the cancellation – the first in the UN’s 75-year history – came a week after a planned G7 meeting at Camp David was scrapped, and a month after the G20 abandoned plans for a virtual summit. At a time when the global nature of today’s most pressing challenges is more apparent than ever, the instruments of multilateralism are not just underperforming. They have stopped functioning.
The implications are even worse than they initially seem. Of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic – an unprecedented public-health crisis that demands cooperative action, not least to develop and deploy a vaccine quickly and widely. And the most severe economic slump since the Great Depression will probably pop an unprecedented global debt bubble.
But that is only the beginning of the world’s woes. Geopolitical tensions are also on the rise, including on the Korean Peninsula, along the border between China and India, and between the United States and China. Even the transatlantic alliance is under serious strain, with US President Donald Trump’s recent decision to slash the number of American troops in Germany just the latest sign of fraying ties.
Furthermore, strategic competition in the Arctic is escalating. Climate action remains woefully inadequate. Outer space is being militarized. And the forward march of transformative technologies like artificial intelligence is generating serious – and potentially dangerous – uncertainty.
Each of these developments, individually, would be worrying enough. Taken together, they imply catastrophic risks. If there was ever a moment when multilateralism was needed, this is it. And yet there is little reason to believe we will get it, for a simple reason: in today’s G-Zero world, no leader possesses the will, vision, and influence to make it happen. In other words, there is no “convening power.”
But that does not mean that we should resign ourselves to a Hobbesian future defined by intensifying competition and narrow national self-interest. Instead, we must make do with what is possible: pursuing a multilateralism that takes a more organic, bottom-up approach and makes much better use of coalitions of the willing, public-private partnerships, and civil-society participation.
This approach to multilateralism is undoubtedly messier and more parochial than the traditional top-down, directed approach. And it can work only when countries’ interests overlap. The good news is that such overlap can be seen in a wide variety of areas, from COVID-19 to climate change to AI. The bad news is that the institutions needed to facilitate such multilateralism – including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the World Health Organization – are being rapidly eroded.
A G-Zero world means that no country has enough power or influence to construct a new global framework for cooperation. It also means that no actor has set a direction for the world. The US – and, to be clear, only the US – retains enough influence to create such a shared agenda focused on reforming existing frameworks to make them fitter for purpose.
Yet Trump seems intent on dismantling those frameworks instead. Soon after entering the White House, Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which had been negotiated under the auspices of the UNFCCC. And far from working with the WHO to address the COVID-19 crisis – which has hit the US hardest of all – Trump has terminated America’s relationship with the body, severely undermining its ability to coordinate an effective global response.
At this rate, by the time Trump leaves office – even if he is voted out this November – multilateral frameworks could be on life support, or worse. Whoever succeeds him will struggle to undo the damage. Like a building, a multilateral framework is much easier to demolish than it is to rebuild.
It is up to the rest of the world to ensure that existing frameworks for global cooperation, which are essential for bottom-up multilateralism, are still functioning, even if at less than full capacity. The first step is to ensure that international organizations have truly competent leaders. Powerful countries cannot continue to treat such institutions like fiefdoms by placing pliant figures at the helm. The most recent example is the US attempt to place an American as head of the Inter-American Development Bank for the first time in the IDB’s history.
The ongoing process of selecting a new World Trade Organization director-general offers a crucial opportunity to change this practice, particularly given the importance of international trade and the moribund state of the WTO. The successful candidate should be someone who knows the institution from inside out and can hit the ground running.
In the near term, it may also be necessary for international institutions to make compromises to keep uncooperative but powerful countries engaged. If such pandering sounds cynical and seems anathema to good global governance, so be it. The issue is survival, not perfection.
Eventually, effective global leadership will reemerge, and the world can get to work building a better multilateral system, underpinned by common interests and a sense of shared responsibility. In the meantime, political leaders must defend those interests and uphold that responsibility by doing whatever it takes to keep the current multilateral system, flawed and limited as it is, alive and viable.
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