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The resurgence of the phoenix: Covid-19 and the fate of multilateralism

At the time of writing, the author is confined to her home as a consequence of the state of emergency adopted by the Government of Spain, in response to the Covid-19 health crisis. On March 11, Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that Covid-19, originating in the city of Wuhan, China, can be characterized as a pandemic, given the alarming levels of spread and severity, and called for urgent and aggressive governmental actions. As of April 23, the majority of countries have implemented house confinement measures in order to contain the spread of Covid-19 infections and many sectors of the national economies have suspended their activity. According to Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, “we are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations — one that is spreading human suffering, infecting the global economy and upending people’s lives.

Options for the future and the faith in multilateralism

Thus, in spite of the uncertainty as to the exit scenario for this crisis, there is no doubt that the economies of all countries, regardless of their respective level of development, will be severely affected, as has always happened after a global crisis, and that we will witness a profound change in the current World Order.

In order to face the challenges ahead, countries have two options: on the one hand, to advocate unilateralism and protectionist economic and social policies and thus returning to the pre-1945 Westphalian world of national sovereignty and Nation-States or, on the other hand, betting on the strengthening of multilateral organizations, which implies a clear willingness to cooperate among as many member-states as possible in accepting and further promoting a mutually-agreed “common good”.

In the past, most great changes in the World Order were caused by the outcome of military conflicts and economic crises. Faith in multilateralism, in international cooperation and in international organizations with a universal vocation was decisive almost a century ago in overcoming the disaster caused by one such war (WWII). This approach proved just as critical to the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and, in light of the current health crisis, may well constitute the still-elusive remedy to the havoc wrecked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alas, the lack of willingness to play the multilateral, cooperation game from both the United States and China, a necessary pillar on which to build global resilience, is jeopardizing chances of a prompt resolution of this crisis.

Old hostilities

One of the key moments to understand the current enmity between China and the United States is the accession of the former to the World Trade Organization in 2001, which acceded as a non-market economy on the condition that, after a 15-year-transition period, it would to adapt its economy to the core rules of the WTO. Almost 20 years into its membership, China is plagued by numerous allegations of violation of multilateral trade agreements, given the amount of state-owned enterprises, government subsidies and state intervention in various economic sectors. China has been sued on numerous occasions before the Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO, mainly by the United States. Furthermore, it is estimated that losses from China’s violations of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) amount to about USD 600 billion. The US, in particular, has come to repeatedly accuse China of promoting or permitting unauthorized cyber intrusions to seize technology and patents from Western companies.

The ascension of China to the level of a full-fledged world power, the election of Donald Trump as a President of the United States and the lack of progress within the WTO have led to a harsh trade war between the two countries and an escalation of disputes that could prove impossible to settle in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. The prospect of seeing both powers cooperating to overcome this crisis has never looked so remote in the short term. Instead, the most probable scenario as a consequence of the pandemic is that competition between the two powers will intensify in the future and will become more violent and dangerous as the United States become more fearful of China´s catching up and China turns more assertive in its power projection.

In this context, it becomes imperative to look for more constructive alternatives.

What about regionalism?

Regional cooperation and regional organizations could be the most obvious alternative to the escalation of tensions between the US and China. Nevertheless, this alternative faces two major hurdles.

First, some of the most seasoned regional organizations with the theoretical capacity to overcome such a crisis (such as the European Union) are far from showing an example of unity in the face of the pandemic and its human and economic consequences. Some have even become textbook examples of fragmentation and free-for-all attitude. Experts go as far as pointing out that this pandemic could result in an even bigger political and economic upset than Brexit… Other regional organizations, however, seem more determined to act in a coordinated way (such as ASEAN), but their lack of experience and funding are hampering efforts for a coordinated response.

Moreover, the good intentions of these regional organizations may be limited in scope and depth by a second problem: the future configuration of the regional blocks. The World Order is about to change, new strategic alliances are being forged, and the influence of the most powerful countries on those that compose the said regional organizations can truncate the stated objectives, essentially emptying them of substance. Several ASEAN member countries have clearly turned their sights to China, deciding to embrace the Chinese model and accept its leadership, in return for “generosity” in development assistance and infrastructure investment. For their part, Japan, India and Australia are firmly sticking to the United States, as demonstrated by the renewed affirmation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”), an effort to encircle China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific realm.

So, again, it is necessary to look for yet another alternative.

Going full circle: turning need into virtue

The United Nations should be celebrating their 75th anniversary this year. However, it is presently more concerned with the harsh criticism it is receiving for its poor management of the global health crisis. Covid-19 has shed a cruel light on the shortcomings of the UN and its specialized agencies in solving unprecedented international threats that require strong international leadership.

Nonetheless, in its commitment to multilateralism, the United Nations should turn need into virtue and consider structural changes in order to face not only current challenges, but also possible future crisis. Experts have made such proposals, such as the creation of a subsidiary body of the United Nations to detect possible threats, with the capacity to anticipate and monitor the factors causing global crises, whatever their nature, as well as the ability to make recommendations to reduce the impact of these factors. According to one such proposal, this subsidiary body would have to be composed of experts from different fields and sectors, both from public and private institutions. Also, changes in the rules regarding the composition of the main organs to avoid state influence should be taken into account.

The outlook for most multilateral international organizations can equally be bright on the condition that they focus their re-organization efforts on propping up resilience, courageously take the necessary measures and act with determination and independence in the fight against Covid-19 and in the subsequent economic reconstruction effort. The WTO, which is currently in a deep state of crisis and could yet prove to play a crucial role in the recovery of international trade, can come out of this situation stronger on the condition that its member states work towards a new set of rules adapted to the current reality. This author’s opinion remains that multilateralism can be effective because it is legitimate per se.

Therefore, multilateralism can be the phoenix that rises from the ashes time and time again, no matter the nature or the scope of the crisis it faces.

Picture credits: Brian Stauffer / Foreign Policy

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