The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the crisis of multilateralism and international cooperation that we already witnessed well before the pandemic broke out. Multilateralism has come under tremendous stress and strain. Much of this is due to the growing sentiments of anti-globalisation in many countries, particularly in the US and the European Union, coming from both the extreme right and left of the political spectrum. The backlash against globalisation has manifested itself in the rise of nationalism, populism, unilateralism, protectionism and xenophobia. In the midst of such discontent, globalisation and multilateralism are blamed for loss of jobs, loss of control over national borders, loss of national sovereignty and loss of confidence in the future by millions of people who have not been able to keep pace with the speed and depth in which our world has become integrated and globalised.
The intensification of the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China has also profoundly challenged the vision of an open, inclusive and rules-based multilateral order. Indeed, it was a grave blow to multilateralism when the US, under President Donald Trump’s America First policy, decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Trans Pacific Partnership, the UN Human Rights Council and held back funding for the World Health Organization at a time when international financing was needed the most in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. To our dismay, during the height of the coronavirus crisis, the US-China strategic competition politicised and paralysed the efforts of the WHO and the UN Security Council to rally an international response to the pandemic. The deliberations in the two international bodies became bogged down as the US and China resorted to a back-and-forth blaming game.
Under such dire circumstances, what then does the future hold for multilateralism as we look ahead to the post Covid-19 world? It is certainly reassuring that US President-elect Joe Biden has promised a renewed US commitment to multilateralism and multilateral institutions. Nevertheless, the new US administration, once in office, will no doubt have tough going ahead in dealing with the pressing issues on the domestic front while restoring and reinvigorating US leadership at the global level. The strategic rivalry between the two global powers will not go away but it is hoped that their relationship will be better managed in terms of finding common ground for the US and China to cooperate in addressing the challenges to global governance and the multilateral international order.
Ideally, the Covid-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call and generate the momentum for long-overdue reforms of the multilateral system that was created after World War II. International institutions will have to be restructured, taking into account the structural changes in the international order, the shifts in the global balance of power, the rise of the developing world and the transformation of the global economy due to the far-reaching advances in game-changing technologies and digitalisation. But the stark reality is that, in spite of high hopes, these much-needed reforms have floundered in the face of conflicting interests among the major powers. In addressing the challenges of the 21st century, it is incumbent on all of us to work towards forging a new international consensus on repairing and reviving multilateralism and globalism.
Perhaps we need to think in terms of a building-blocks process. Under the present circumstances, many countries are talking about new forms of and new pathways towards functional multilateralism. There have emerged concepts such as flexible multilateralism, minilateralism and networks of multilateral cooperation. Some have also touted the idea of inclusive multilateralism whereby governments engage and seek partnership with all stakeholders, particularly the private sector and civil societies. These concepts envisage like-minded countries and parties concerned with working together within, outside and across multilateral institutions and organisations to rally international cooperation to deal with common global challenges. A case in point is the Alliance for Multilateralism initiated by France and Germany aimed at strengthening the role of the UN and the WHO in combating the Covid-19 crisis.
Regional organisations such as Asean will also have to step up to the plate in shoring up the rules-based multilateral order. International cooperation in tackling the unprecedented health and economic impacts of the spread of the coronavirus has been augmented by the role of regional organisations such as the European Union, the African Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the South Association for Regional Cooperation and Asean. The regionalisation of multilateralism has been widely discussed and needs to be pursued further in practical and concrete terms. Certainly, closer partnerships between the UN system and major regional organisations can go a long way in helping to fill the gaps and voids.
In a post Covid-19 world, the spectre that confronts us is the fragmentation of multilateralism along the emerging geo-political fault lines, whereby coalitions of states are formed according to different visions of the international order. In these critical times, the international community needs, more than ever, to muster the political will and leadership to repair and revive multilateralism and a rules-based international order in an ever increasingly interdependent and interconnected world.