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.
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.
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.
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.