The Coronavirus vs. Multilateralism: Who Will Win?

A view of the General Assembly Hall through an interpreters’ booth, before the opening of the general debate of the 74th session, Sept. 24, 2019. It is unclear how world leaders will meet this year, but more important, diplomacy-as-usual practices are over, the authors say. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

Covid-19 has pretty much shut down important negotiations at the United Nations, ranging from climate change to biodiversity. The General Assembly has not been able to meet as a group physically, but Security Council meetings have migrated online, with the Secretariat supporting the Council remotely and Secretary-General António Guterres and his people holding the (literal) fort.

The physical shutdown of the UN since the pandemic struck New York City presents a huge existential challenge to the world body. When will it be able to fully reopen, under what operating procedures and how useful will it be in the post-crisis phase? As a practical matter, how long can the UN system keep staff on salaries awaiting a reopening? Can the necessary face-to-face intergovernmental process — diplomacy — restart with some country delegations still struggling with Covid-19 exposure? What about those powers that don’t see much use in multilateralism, anyway, and castigate the UN system’s handling of the pandemic, among other things?

We have some answers.

A series of online brainstorming sessions convened in April by the Brussels-based Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability, a think-and-do tank that we abbreviate as FOGGS, assessed the initial UN system response to the Covid-19 global emergency and recommended how the system could improve. Participants spanned 15 time zones and included former international civil servants, academics and practitioners. The results can be found in “The United Nations and the COVID-19 Global Emergency: Discussion Paper” and “The UN System and the World post COVID-19: Action Plan.”

What we found was that the complex Covid-19 challenge — including the associated global economic recession and social/humanitarian crisis — has been mainly tackled at the national level despite being intrinsically global. Of course, hands-on implementation has to be primarily national, subnational and community-oriented. But the importance of joint or coordinated international actions cannot be overstated.

It took a while for the UN system, except for the World Health Organization, to start responding visibly to the novel coronavirus. In recent weeks, the UN system as a whole has become noticeably more active, as the dedicated UN Covid-19 web page shows. Nevertheless, our brainstorming participants agreed that much more needs to be done. Now is the time to challenge diplomacy-as-usual and bureaucracy-as-usual assumptions.

A narrative of hope, resilience and human well-being

At times of great uncertainty and multidimensional crises, the world needs a unifying set of values, principles and rules for action to inspire global responses. Drawing on the 2030 Agenda and the solid body of universal norms for human rights, peace and security, development and the environment, the UN and its leadership need to clearly articulate a narrative of hope, resilience and personal well-being that offers a way out of the predicament and toward a better future.

Central to a “recover better” narrative is the vision of a new economy that prioritizes the people and the planet. Extreme emphasis on efficiency and profit maximization has been worsening inequality and leaving workers and vulnerable populations in dire situations. The pros and cons of globalization and just-in-time supply chains need to be openly reassessed. The UN system and Secretary-General Guterres should not shy away from explaining this, despite any powerful pushback.

Convening the world

Guterres should immediately convene a virtual world leaders’ summit to build a spirit of global cooperation in dealing with the pandemic and to frame an orderly, inclusive recovery for everyone. Tangible results could include mutual guarantees to strengthen collective crisis-response systems and recalibrate the economy toward higher social and environmental results. Modeled after the periodic climate-action summits, this would require neither universal participation, as some leaders are intent on disrupting international cooperation or may not wish to attend, nor extensive negotiations on a formal outcome, as Guterres could use his prerogative to issue a chair’s summary. This summit can give a much-needed symbolic boost to recovery efforts and help mark a shift to a global coordinated response.

Convening global expertise

Guterres has already been talking about “recovering better” or “building back better” phase, meaning that the post-Covid-19 world should be an improvement for the globe, before the virus swept in. Such a transition would entail lessons from the medical, economic and social crises caused by Covid-19 and from the continuing climate emergency. A “Recover Better Emergency” task force could be organized with experts from inside and outside government in health, economics, finance, information technologies, agriculture, public administration, business administration and global governance to urgently advise the UN system and its member nations. The task force should be bold and use the global public-good character of affordable health care and a resilient, equitable economic system as its guiding light.

The UN system, a leader in global governance

The broad expertise and resources of the UN system should be used in the recovery stage of Covid-19 and the related economic and social crises in a coordinated, visible way. The current mechanism for coordination between the UN system heads and the chief-executives board should hold weekly meetings, some of which are now open virtually to the public. The General Assembly presidency could convene the heads of governing bodies of UN system entities to assess the situation and harmonize intergovernmental decision-making.

For the UN system to produce this ambitious but essential agenda, a fairly predictable level of resources is required. Member states should guarantee funding, according to their UN Charter and other treaty obligations. Autonomous UN income generation and the possibility of borrowing could also be considered, the latter only as a stopgap for operating purposes.

In this 75th anniversary year of the UN and 100th year of institutionalized multilateralism, the stakes are extremely high regarding the future of the world organization and international cooperation more broadly. There is no time left for a diplomacy-as-usual mind-set.

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Harris Gleckman and Georgios Kostakos

Harris Gleckman and Georgios Kostakos

Harris Gleckman is a senior fellow at the Center for Governance and Sustainability and helped convene the brainstorming sessions for the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability. Georgios Kostakos is the executive director of the organization. Gleckman and Kostakos are former UN staff members.

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