Rebooting Multilateralism? Lessons Still to be Learnt

By Amrita Narlikar - 29 September 2020
Rebooting Multilateralism? Lessons Still to be Learnt

There is an urgent need for convincing narratives, backed by data and grounded in fact, that can show people why multilateralism is worth preserving.

Multilateral institutions were no different from their member states in that the COVID-19 pandemic caught them completely off guard. But compare the initial responses of most international organisations to those of some well-functioning states, [1] and history — if written with due diligence — will not judge multilateralism kindly.

When the pandemic struck, most multilateral institutions failed to rise to the existential challenge that the disease posed to people across the world. There are several lessons of the pandemic that are yet to be learnt if multilateralism is to be reformed and made fit for purpose.

First response: Stories of dismal failure

Supporters of multilateralism have a standard justification for the existence of international organisations: in a globalised, interconnected world, there are just too many problems that cannot be solved by any one country alone. Multilateral institutions are supposed to facilitate collective action towards the provision of global public goods (such as free trade and global public health) and limit the ill-effects of public bads. Prevention of the spread of a highly contagious disease — one with high fatality rates, and many unknowns about potentially long-term damage to survivors — is exactly the kind of problem that multilateral organisations should be able to address. If prevention fails and pandemics nonetheless develop, it is reasonable to expect that the relevant multilateral organisations are able to curtail the hoarding of medicines and essential equipment, and limit the exploitation of scarcities and vulnerabilities by countries for geostrategic gain. On these fronts, the nodal multilateral organisations failed in their initial responses.

The most glaring failures came from the organisation that was directly mandated to address health issues — the World Health Organisation (WHO). These early failures came at a time that was particularly critical to curtailing the spread of COVID-19, and thereby contributed to the transformation of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, into a global crisis. Anne Applebaum summarises the sins of omission and commission from the WHO in the following words:

“…the WHO failed the world in some important ways during the early days of the crisis. Certainly the organisation adhered far too closely to the narrative of a Chinese government that initially sought to conceal the nature and spread of the coronavirus. As late as January 14, the organisation’s leadership ignored evidence from Taiwan — which is not, thanks to Chinese pressure, a WHO member — that the novel coronavirus could be transmitted from person to person. … Other mistakes followed: the WHO’s strange insistence that face masks were not necessary, for example, even as mounting evidence has shown that they can cut the transmission of the virus quite effectively, and the WHO’s decision to wait until March 11 to declare the existence of a pandemic, even though the disease had already spread. The WHO’s determination to compliment China in its public statements, and ignore Chinese mistakes, was equally strange…” [2]

ORF_Logo_RGB-1%20(1)%20(1).pngThe WHO had failed to contain the rapid and global spread of the disease, with dire cost to human life (at the time of writing this, almost 880,000 lives have been lost to COVID-19).

As the death count mounted, many countries began to turn inward, hoarding key medicines and personal protective equipment for their own people or agreeing to trade these only with key allies. Even the European Union (EU), which prides itself on its soft power and commitment to values, such as human rights, labour standards, and environmental standards, decided to put up emergency export restrictions on hospital supplies for non-EU members. This move threatened devastating consequences for many third countries, besides potential supply chain disruption for medical equipment for the EU itself. [3] Discord also erupted with neighbours of the EU. Recall, for instance, the Serbian president’s bitter reaction to the declaration of export restraints from the EU; he said, “European solidarity does not exist. It was a fairy tale on paper” and announced that Serbia would turn to China instead. [4] Polling data further revealed high levels of disappointment with the EU even amongst its own members. [a],[5]

Amidst this disruption that was taking place in global supply chains, the organisation that should have been able to step in and limit the damage was the World Trade Organisation (WTO). But the WTO, already beleaguered in its negotiation, monitoring and dispute settlement functions, was not in much of a position to act. [6] And even if the organisation had not been beset with these multiple problems, there was little in its rules to put a stop to the export restraints that were being put in place, or indeed the different ways in which trade was being used for geostrategic gain. So, it stood by helplessly and watched the crisis deepen.

Just when the world needed it most, multilateralism failed us at enormous human and economic cost. [b]

Lessons to be learnt

There are two tough lessons that the pandemic has been teaching us, and it remains to be seen whether the guardians and supporters of multilateralism are willing to learn them. This includes well-intentioned world leaders, international civil servants, members of civil society, and others who believe that multilateral cooperation is still worth pursuing.

The first lesson comes from ‘weaponised interdependence.’ [7] And while the “weaponisation of interdependence” did not begin with COVID-19, the pandemic has reinforced the very real dangers that derive from this phenomenon. Our post-war multilateral order was founded on the assumption that peace and prosperity are inextricably and causally linked. A liberal economic order would contribute to increased trade, growth, development and thereby also peace. The end of the Cold War seemed to confirm the promise of a liberal peace, and to strengthen the expectation that former rivals could now be socialised into the system via greater economic integration. But this multilateralism was not built for a world where the very ties, that were supposed to bind nations together in peaceful harmony, could become “weaponised.” And while we have seen cases of weaponised interdependence in the last years, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the extent to which countries can exploit global value chains to their own advantage, even when dealing with life-and-death matters. Against this background, calls by global leaders to not close one’s economies, preserve global value chains and reinforce multilateralism, ring desperately hollow, especially to those who have seen friends and families directly affected by the pandemic. If multilateralism is to have a chance, these concerns need to be addressed head on.

The second lesson is also not a new one, but once again, the pandemic has brought it into sharp focus. This lesson has to do with the importance of narratives and domestic politics. An important reason why we have seen such a strong backlash against multilateralism in the last years is the fact that some politicians (from both the Left and the Right) have successfully harnessed (and fanned) the disappointment and anger of those who believe that the gains of globalisation have passed them by. US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ narrative is an example of this, and it is one that appealed to a good proportion of the American electorate in the 2016 presidential election because it claimed to take their pain seriously. In contrast, many narratives about the benefits of having a rules-based multilateral system have been solid but largely technocratic in content. As such, for some years now, pro-multilateralism narratives have been criticised for being too far removed from ordinary people and representing the interests only of a “global elite.” Today, amidst the death and destruction spread by the pandemic, calls to renew multilateralism are even more vulnerable to such charges. There is an urgent need for convincing narratives, backed by data and grounded in fact, that can show people why multilateralism is worth preserving. To do this well, we must be able to show how multilateral cooperation will help every individual within our societies. This needs to be done by engaging stakeholders within states at the local, regional and national levels, and also by working closely with like-minded states and transnationally. And while the importance of having convincing narratives would have been useful in previous years as well, [8] it is especially important at a time when people across different parts of the world are fighting not only for their livelihoods, but also for their lives.

One of the very few organisations where there is evidence of recognition of both lessons — weaponised interdependence and narratives — is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). In this case, we have seen rapid updating throughout the pandemic on both issues of weaponised interdependence and narratives. The NATO reacted relatively early to the pandemic, worked to ensure that “the health crisis does not become a security crisis,” and maintained its operational readiness. Its forces also provided support to civilian efforts to cope with the pandemic. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called for a more “global approach” on three fronts — COVID-19 (including addressing the issue of disinformation, i.e. false narratives), terrorism, and, very interestingly, the rise of China. On the last point, while careful to state that China was not an adversary of the alliance, he went on to say the following:

“It is clear that China does not share our values. Democracy, freedom, and the rule of law… there is a clear pattern of authoritarian behaviour at home and increased assertiveness and bullying abroad. The best way to face each of these global challenges, to keep our societies secure and our people safe, is for Europe and North America to continue to stand together. And for us to take a more global approach. Working even more closely with our international partners to defend our values in a more competitive world. Partners near and far — like Finland and Sweden. But also Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.” [9]

One might ask why NATO represents the exception to the norm in learning the urgent lessons of the last few months. There are several explanations, including those of the specific workings of the different institutions, leadership and nature of membership. Moreover, NATO, by definition, is a non-universal organisation and its mandate on security matters perhaps allows it to take concerns of both geoeconomics and values more readily into account.

If these two lessons remain unheeded in other multilateral organisations, we risk further backlashes against globalisation. We risk the emergence of a world of shallow and meaningless multilateralism, but de facto autarkism, that will work to the detriment of almost all countries, and especially the poor in both rich and poor countries.

To address these issues seriously requires a cold and hard look at the question of the purpose of multilateralism. For far too often, we still hear a repetition of the mantra that multilateralism matters. That multilateralism matters is true, but reiterating this does not get us very far in reforming it or rebuilding it. Ultimately, multilateralism is an instrument of international cooperation — no more, no less. [10] It is up to us to decide on the values that multilateral instruments should uphold, and the goals that they should pursue. This requires re-examining, and probably re-defining, the purpose of multilateralism. This, in turn, requires much greater attention to values and like-mindedness than has been forthcoming thus far. It necessitates opening up to the possibility of a gradual and selective decoupling from strategic rivals, or at least being able to exercise such a threat credibly. Simply aggregating countries that actually stand for fundamentally different societal and political goals — for instance, liberalism and pluralism vs authoritarianism, or market-friendly rules vs rules that support high levels of state intervention — under one umbrella of universal multilateralism with a vague set of rules will no longer work. It will likely condemn our multilateral institutions to a state of ever deeper malaise and further breakdown.



Amrita Narlikar is a GP columnist and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at ORF in an honorary capacity. She is the President of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), and Professor at Hamburg University.

This first appeared on the ORF's website and was reposted with permission.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

[a] It is worth noting that under the leadership of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU came up with a package worth €750 billion in July 2020 to facilitate economic recovery, which many have hailed as a “Hamiltonian” moment for Europe. It is still too early, however, to see how lasting the effects will be, both for the economies of affected member countries as well as for the common European project.

[b] A common line of defence that one hears against such critique is that multilateral institutions only work as well as their members allow them. There is some truth to this claim, but it is rather a trite truth. The reason why we choose to institutionalise multilateral cooperation in the first place is precisely because we believe that it affords all members greater certainty and predictability than bilateral arrangements.

[1] Amrita Narlikar, “First World Problems: Choosing between Life and Lifestyle,” ORF Health Express (Delhi: Observer Research Foundation), August 4, 2020.

[2] Anne Applebaum, “When the World Stumbled: COVID-19 and the Failure of the International System,” in Hals Brand and Francis Gavin (eds.), COVID-19 and World Order: The Future of Conflict, Competition and Cooperation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press), 2020. p. 226; Samir Saran, “#COVID19: Dr Who gets Prescription Wrong,” ORF Health Express (Delhi: Observer Research Foundation), March 25, 2020.

[3] Chad Bown, “EU Limits on Medical Gear Exports puts poor countries and Europeans at risk,” Trade and Investment Policy Watch, Peterson Institute for International Economics, March 19, 2020.

[4] Shaun Walker, “Coronavirus Diplomacy: How Russia, China and EU vie to win over Serbia,” The Guardian, April 13, 2020.

[5] Katherine Butler, “Coronavirus: Europeans say EU was ‘Irrelevant’ during Pandemic,” The Guardian, June 24, 2020.

[6] Amrita Narlikar, “A Grand Bargain to Revive the WTO,” in Modernizing the WTO: An Essay Series (Waterloo: CIGI), 2020 .

[7] Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman, “Weaponized Interdependence: How global economic networks shape state coercion,” International Security 44, No. 1 (Summer 2019): 42-79.

[8] Amrita Narlikar, Poverty Narratives and Power Paradoxes in International Trade Negotiations and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

[9] Jens Stoltenberg, “Geopolitical Implications of COVID-19” Speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), June 30, 2020.

[10] Amrita Narlikar, “Germany in the United Nations Security Council: Reforming Multilateralism,” GIGA Focus Global, March 2, 2020.


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