Global Governance
Multilateralism After the Coronavirus 

The future of multilateralism is far from assured, but in a world of weak poles of power, multilateralism may end up being the best option to rebuild a stronger and more resilient world, writes Valdai Club expert Jean-Marie Guéhenno, United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General in 2000-2008.

What is the future of the multilateral system after COVID19? Much will depend on the geopolitical configuration that will emerge from the crisis, and on the role that multilateral organizations will be seen to have played during the crisis. For the moment, the role of multilateral organizations is eclipsed by national efforts. Each country has its own national health response, and the bulk of the effort to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the crisis is also with states. All major powers have adopted similar, although uncoordinated, fiscal policies. They are all injecting massive amounts of money in the economy, so as to create a safety net for households as well as for businesses. The final volume of that support will depend on the duration of the stoppage of the economy, but even if that stoppage was to be relatively short, there is no doubt that public debt worldwide will increase by a very significant amount: the IMF expect the gross fiscal debt of the world to grow to 96,4% of GDP this year, from 83,3% in 2019. This will happen at a time when the two biggest economies of the world were already very leveraged. Public+private debt represents 310% of GDP in China, 210% in the United States. Meanwhile, depressed prices of commodities and energy will hurt countries in which they represent an important share of revenues, like Russia, several Arab and African countries.

Confronted with that situation, will the major powers eventually turn to the United Nations and multilateralism? The performance of international institutions will certainly influence their decisions. WHO is showing its importance as a platform to share information and offer advice and support to weak countries that need it the most, but it has been criticized for not being independent enough, and it has been further weakened by the attacks of President Trump. Nothing at this stage guarantees that it will emerge as a stronger actor after the crisis. On the economic front, it remains unclear how much of a role the World Bank and the IMF will play. On the political front, the Secretary General has issued a call for a global ceasefire, but not much has changed on the ground and many conflicts continue unabated. The Security Council has been largely invisible.

UN Secretary General António Guterres Meets with the Valdai Discussion Club

The world may become more multipolar, but it will be a multipolarity of weak poles, in which each pole will be more inward-looking and will prioritize its own recovery. The pandemic will compound the effects of an erratic leadership in Washington, but it is unlikely that any country will be in a position to reap the benefits of that weakened US position for itself. China, apart from the looming demographic challenge of a rapidly diminishing workforce in coming decades, will need to accelerate the rebalancing of its economy so that it is less export-driven, as its key trading partners re-evaluate supply chains. In Europe, Germany is also likely to adopt a less export-driven economic model, and the European Union as a whole will be more inward-looking, focusing on protecting strategic industries, of which it will probably give an expanded definition. Power is being more evenly distributed but the horizon of every country has shrunk.
The test of multilateralism will come when the major powers realize, like patients who have suffered a severe bout of COVID19, that they are all durably weakened, and that the COVID19 crisis has not made any winner, just many losers.

Global trade and global growth are indeed likely to remain inferior to what they were in the previous period, which will benefit none but will be particularly hurtful for the weaker countries in the developing world. As major powers move to a more defensive and domestically-focused national posture, they will face a stark choice: they may opt for what could be described as the “power politics of weakness”, or alternatively acknowledge that a more cooperative posture will benefit them in the medium term.

The “power politics of weakness” would undoubtedly weaken multilateralism, but they have their attractiveness. They provide an opportunity to practice power politics on the cheap, exploiting the potential adversary’s weaknesses rather than building one’s own strength, which is a lengthy and complicated process. In that scenario, the United Nations are likely to wither away, through indifference, rather than active hostility. The United Nations cannot transform itself without a strong push of its member states, and the absence of active support will be enough to gradually weaken an organization that is difficult to reform; its structures already show their limitations in dealing with emerging transnational issues for which it was not conceived, whether it is terrorism, decaying states, or the impact of new technologies. In such a scenario, the United Nations is likely to be marginalized, as the world fragments. The retreat will be much more dramatic than the one witnessed at the beginning of the Cold War, because the UN has acquired since the 1950’s a major operational role.

Why Today We Need Multilateralism More Than Ever
Lassina Zerbo
The CTBT is perhaps one of the greatest illustrations of what we can achieve through multilateralism in international peace and security. By putting an end to nuclear explosions, the CTBT places critical restraints on the development of nuclear weapons, and will play a key role in any future nuclear disarmament framework.

An alternative scenario could however develop if a critical group of member states of the United Nations reaches the conclusion that they will benefit from a moderately effective United Nations. In a world in which power will be more evenly distributed than it has ever been, no country will be strong enough to shape the UN system according to its national priorities, and the United Nations will enter an unprecedented phase of its history, in which its strategic role will be the result of a negotiation between powers that have very different worldviews but nevertheless want the UN to play a significant role.
They could agree on a scaled down agenda; a rules-based order with some degree of cooperation makes for a more predictable world, which benefits all, and especially global powers whose prosperity is linked to their integration in the world system.

Peace and security would remain a core UN mission, but a new balance would have to be found between the ambitious concepts elaborated during the first decade of this century, such as the responsibility to protect, and the much narrower prescriptions of the UN Charter relative to the use of force. An interesting test would be the evolution of peacekeeping. There is a shared interest among major powers in stopping the expansion of ungoverned spaces which can become safe havens for terrorism. Member states, without fully endorsing the democratization agenda that underpinned several peacekeeping operations in the early 2000s, might agree to provide comprehensive support to states on the brink of collapse, and use the UN framework to provide that support.

If anything, the COVID19 crisis has shown how connected the world is, and how most challenges cannot find a solution on a purely national basis. If the United Nations is to usher in a new phase of multilateralism, it will not limit itself to its core peace and security role. Climate, pandemics, cyber, artificial intelligence are global challenges that require global coordinated responses. Specialized agencies in that context will need to be modernized and strengthened. Lastly, the COVID19 crisis demonstrates that in any major global crisis, an effective response must integrate technical, economic, financial, and political dimensions. A legacy of the COVID19 might well be a closer relationship between the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions.

The Day the United Nations Ceased to Exist
Andrey Kortunov
Tensions in Syria continued to escalate throughout 2019. Hostilities were stepped up again throughout the country and the conflict’s total toll approached a million. A new wave of Syrian refugees swept through Turkey and flooded Europe. Russia blocked US and British resolutions on enforcing peace on Damascus in the UN Security Council nine times.

Which scenario will prevail? Among the various powers that could tip the balance towards a cooperative model, China, the United States, Russia and European countries will have different perspectives. China and the United States will be driven by their bilateral strategic rivalry, and while they may eventually decide that they are better off with a functioning UN, they are unlikely to drive the process. Russia and Europe are in a different situation. There is no long-term benefit for them from an increased polarization between the United States and China, in which they risk becoming junior partners. Although they might tactically benefit from it, their strategic interest is to avoid such an outcome. The members of the European Union have additional reasons to support a cooperative model: their model is predicated on cooperation and a rules-based order, and they have a strong interest in embedding it in a broader framework, all the more so as, after an uncertain start, the COVID19 crisis, rather than weakening the European Union, now seems to lead to deeper fiscal and financial integration within the Union. The future of multilateralism is far from assured, but in a world of weak poles of power, multilateralism may end up being the best option to rebuild a stronger and more resilient world.

Bretton Woods at 75
Alan W. Cafruny
One lesson from Bretton Woods is the historically close association of hegemony with international monetary stability, a thesis that, not surprisingly, has been virtually axiomatic among U.S. scholars ever since the early 1970s. Notwithstanding the rhetoric, post-war cooperation was based on U.S. power and preferences.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.