Climate Diplomacy
Global Issues
Katarina Schulz, adelphi
Pandemic stress test reveals multilateralism’s worth
© Keith Hardy/

The novel corona virus has had the world in its grip for months. Most countries’ immediate response was to focus on internal issues: they resorted to nationalistic approaches, closing borders and even competing for equipment, even though a multilateral approach was necessary. In the longer term, will this crisis strengthen the ties between nations? Or exacerbate the flaws of today’s multilateralism?

When the coronavirus first struck, most nations looked inwards rather than thinking of their friends and allies. Even in the European Union (EU), one of the world’s best examples of international cooperation and a major proponent of “solidarity”, some member states shut borders, hoarded medical supplies and approved major spending plans regardless of EU rules. As Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, put it in March: “When Europe really needed an ‘all for one’ spirit; too many initially gave an ‘only for me’ response.” Yet after this rough start, the EU eventually pulled together, agreeing to share some of the costs for propping up their economies and to work to keep internal borders open.

On the global level, the knock-on effects of the spread of COVID-19 were similar. Founded on the mantra of “all for one”, several multilateral organisations are undergoing a stress test in times of COVID 19. First and foremost, it was the World Health Organisation (WHO) that faced a major crisis due to the corona virus outbreak, one that culminated in Donald Trump withdrawing US funding for the organisation. There were claims that the WHO doesn’t want to exercise its authority as it was struggling to get its 194 member states to follow its guidance. WHO officials lamented that some countries disregarded their loud and clear warnings, while other members politicised the virus.

Without any executive powers, the WHO relies on diplomacy. However, the diplomatic order that is required to sustain such an organisation had already frayed before the corona outbreak as aggressive nationalism became more normalised around the world. During the current crisis, the WHO is not only facing by far the biggest pandemic in history but also having to defend itself from the nation on which it most depends.

The delayed response by the G7 and the G20 is another example of the strains on cooperation in the face of a sudden-onset global crisis. Both bodies had been expected to respond much more proactively as it lies in their hands to lead global governance in crisis, to safeguard the global economy, address international trade disruptions and enhance global cooperation. Yet it was not until the end of March that the G20 pledged cooperation to address the pandemic’s health, economic and trade implications. After that, the World Bank and the IMF responded by deploying a number of instruments to provide a relatively high degree of liquidity to developing countries at short notice. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) too stayed silent for weeks on the corona virus outbreak, struggling to agree on whether it should take any action. Only after three months did the council unanimously endorse the Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire. With this tepid response to the COVID-19 crisis, the UNSC is falling behind its previous responses to pandemics, such as HIV/AIDS and the 2014 Ebola outbreak, when it declared the outbreak a threat to international security.

The pandemic put the international order to a test and has led some experts to paint a dark picture of the world after COVID-19, predicting that many institutions will be perceived as having failed. The corona crisis shows just how important transparency and trust are for multilateralism to be successful. As long as governments are questioning multilateralism, it will be hard to defeat the virus and the pandemic’s knock-on socio-economic effects. No single country can defeat the virus by itself; diplomacy plays a key role in overcoming the COVID-19 crisis. Cooperation is crucial for addressing existing challenges. Only when multilateralism thrives will it be possible to tackle global crises.

This truth applies equally to the climate crisis, even though the impacts of the climate crisis are not as apparent and tangible as the effects of the COVID-19 crisis - at least for the people living in those countries where COVID-19 spread the fastest. Still, the aftermath of the sudden shock of this health crisis is an ominous sign for climate cooperation: the climate crisis will contribute to increasingly serious local or regional events, such as the fires in Australia or California, the floods in the Sahel or the diesel oil spill in Siberia. What needs to change so that shocks like these trigger communication and collaboration within the international community? If a sudden health crisis can’t shock multilateralism into action, what can? If a raging forest fire can’t shock multilateralism into action, what can?

António Guterres (UN Secretary-General) at the 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, 21 July 2020

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres underlines the importance of learning from the failures of multilateralism amid the COVID-19 crisis. He emphasised at his press conference at the opening of  this year’s UN General Assembly (UNGA75) that the world needs a new model for global governance to succeed in eradicating poverty, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and fighting climate change.

Is the hope that this health crisis will change the broader perception of climate change too far-fetched? It seems evident that those who work together, who follow scientific advice, follow the rules and use common sense are getting through this crisis far better than others. Some seem to be acknowledging this. More member states than ever took part in this year’s UNGA and many world leaders recognised in their video statements that multilateralism presents the most effective system to address global challenges. In time, this realisation may not only help the world navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the climate crisis.


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