Does the world need the UN or WHO anymore?
Overcoming the challenges of the future needs robust global institutions, with an underlying spirit of internationalism and solidarity. The world of 2030 needs a UN, IAEA or WTO – but with suitable reforms to reflect the needs of 21st century. India has a key role to play in the reforms process and subsequent global leadership.
The US has famously withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
French President Macron has declared the NATO “brain-dead” while lamenting the fragility of Europe, seemingly locked in an eternal bromance with the UK as they negotiate life after Brexit.
The Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is severely short of judges in its Appellate Body and has virtually stopped working.
And just earlier this month, US President Donald Trump vowed to cut funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in light of what he said was its incompetent handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and brazen protection of China.
So is the future of multilateralism over or does the idea of a global community still stand a chance as the world emerges from the worst pandemic in recent memory?
Need for sustained joint action
The events of the past year or so outlined above would make us believe that the days of multilateral heavyweight institutions might indeed be long gone and instead nations are returning to their silos, preoccupied with health and economic catastrophe unfolding on the domestic front and increasingly relying on the “walled city” model of government to battle their crises.
And yet – despite the unanimous agreement that multilateralism is possibly at its weakest point today – the need for sustained joint action at the global level has never been any stronger.
“If I had to select one sentence to describe the state of the world, I would say we are in a world in which global challenges are more and more integrated, and the responses are more and more fragmented, and if this is not reversed, it’s a recipe for disaster… If one looks at global politics and geopolitical tensions, with the global economy, and the mega trends – climate change, the movement of people, digitalisation – the truth is that they are more and more interlinked, interfering more and more with each other. And indeed the problems are global but the responses are fragmented.”
Those are the words of UN Secretary General António Guterres, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019.
More than a year later, with the world in the throes of the deadly pandemic, we can safely say that those challenges have only become more exacerbated – the world today is in dire need of genuine global guidance and leadership.
And it is India which has demonstrated to the global community, with its unprecedented humanitarian action since the onset of the pandemic, that it’s ready to fulfil that role in concert with other like-minded and willing global partners.
As far back in March – when the pandemic was just beginning to assume its globally destructive persona – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had indicated that New Delhi was a firm believer in the power of the many, especially on the international arena. While speaking of the Covid-19 crisis, he told the Global Business Forum: “Like today, the world is facing a huge challenge in the form of Coronavirus. Financial institutions have also considered it a big challenge for the financial world. Today, we all have to face this challenge together. We have to be victorious with the power of our resolution of ‘Collaborate to Create’.”
But if the answer to overwhelming global crises is not winding up multilateral agencies but making them more effective, relevant and accountable, then what are their key drivers for the future?
“To reduce the further spread of the virus, to develop effective medical treatments, and to curtail the worst effects of the inevitable recession that is already in the offing, cooperation among nations will be necessary… We believe that India may be uniquely positioned to help resuscitate multilateralism,” according to internationally-acclaimed professors Amitabh Mattoo and Amrita Narlikar.
“With the United States facing multiple internal challenges including the prospects of a deeply divisive Presidential election in November, New Delhi (together with like-minded partners even beyond the usual suspects) could assume leadership in strengthening constructive transnational cooperation. At a time when China is facing a global crises of credibility, India may even consider a last-ditch attempt at mediation; to temper what is increasingly seen as Beijing’s unilateralist revisionism; revive the promise of the gradual socialisation of China into the international system; and its acceptance of the norms and rules that regulate the principal multilateral institutions,” the duo wrote in an essay for The Hindu.
What are the challenges that will shape our multilateral future?
According to a group of researchers at the Deutsche Institute, four major forces are likely to shape the world for the next decades: climate change, geopolitical shifts, technology and inequalities, and any reforms for multilateral agencies, institutions and partnerships must take these into account for their journey ahead.
However, the most immediate driver is obviously global health security and its allied impact on national economies in light of the coronavirus Black Swan.
An indication of the turbulence ahead came on Wednesday as the International Monetary Fund announced that the coronavirus pandemic has caused wider and deeper damage to economic activity than first thought, prompting the institution to further reduce its 2020 global output forecasts. The IMF said it now expects 2020 global output to shrink by 4.9 per cent , compared with a 3.0 per cent contraction predicted in April, when it used data available as widespread business lockdowns were just getting into full swing. A recovery in 2021 also will be weaker, with global growth forecast at 5.4 per cent for the year. But in case there’s a major new outbreak of the virus in 2021, it could flatten next year’s growth to ignoble 0.5 per cent .
“We are definitely not out of the woods. We have not escaped the Great Lockdown,” IMF Chief Economist Gita Gopinath told a news conference on Wednesday night. The IMF views the current recession as the worst since the 1930s Great Depression, which saw global GDP shrink by more than 10 per cent . This time around, advanced economies have been particularly hard-hit, with US output now expected to shrink 8 per cent and the euro zone 10.2 per cent in 2020.
However, the impact this will have on multilateralism and globalisation is even further damaging. “Even before this crisis hit, we saw a serious questioning of globalisation and its benefits. And we also saw rising trade tensions. Now this crisis has probably exacerbated some of that. But it’s very important for countries to work together, and we have been calling explicitly for not putting export restrictions on, for instance, medical supplies and medical goods, because this is the time when the world as a whole needs it. They have to be collaborative and have to work together. The system is not perfect, the multilateral trading system needs improvement and countries should work together to improve that… Going backwards, and moving your production inwards is not a good strategy for growth and not a good strategy for alleviating poverty around the world,” Gopinath told news agencies.
Climate change can reshape future
In the long run, the most powerful driver of global is obviously climate change. “A world of three degrees warming over pre-industrial times would look massively different from today: Coast lines would reshape, with cities such as Shanghai, Lagos or Bangladesh as a country being below sea level. Whole regions might also become too hot for human settlements. Such inundations would result in massive migration in and across African and Asian countries, also affecting Europe and North America. New York, for instance, was discussed as below sea level, never mind New Orleans or most of the Netherlands. Food production would be severely affected by extreme weather events and changing rainfall patterns across the globe,” according to Sven Grimm and Silke Weinlich of the institute.
As a mitigating factor, leaders and societies must understand the need to cooperate in a structured way so as to tackle the challenges together – and that’s why multilateralism will become more critical than it is today. Indeed, if not tackled as a global community, climate change might as well result in a scenario where countries close borders and switch to a self-survival mode rather than shaping a global common good.
Global dynamics can change drastically
Fast forward to 2040, and India will have established itself as a major power, alongside the US, China and other large powers such as the European Union. “There will be no single hegemon that willingly invests in multilateral cooperation and guarantees its attractiveness for others, including a more populous African continent. This will make the world politically more volatile – or flexible, depending on viewpoint. Changing between different forums (forum shopping) is more likely, as powers will seek to circumvent institutions that block their immediate interests. The Club scenario speaks more for a proliferation of smaller coalitions of interest, be that in setting like the G20, BRICS or G7, or in thematically even narrower settings. Yet it is also conceivable that some of the great powers (re)discover the United Nations, which might allow for its reform and strengthen multilateralism that is more about diffuse gains, not immediate tit-for-tat politics,” said Grimm and Weinlich.
Is technology the magic wand?
Proper adoption of technology could bring about a paradigm shift in the global arena and multilateral agencies, with more targeted actions potentially supporting the sustainable use of resources, or new forms of citizen participation. Innovation can further help humanity spot the black swans of the future. But on the flip side technology will drive a higher demand for energy and could lead to larger parts of population without work.
According to Grimm and Weinlich, the world’s increasing dependence on technologies “also turns key infrastructure, such as electricity grids, transportation or water supply, into vulnerable target in conflicts”.
“Proliferation of advanced military and information technologies increase the risks of cyber-crimes and weapons based on artificial intelligence that may or may not be under the control of governments. Non-state actors gain ground, too, not least so companies that build on technology and, more importantly: data. Should markets remain largely unregulated and tech companies expand their monopolies and build oligopolies, the risks of conflict rises. Data, the most important resource, becomes property of giant private companies, creating tensions in societies who demand action from their (weakened) states,” they said.
Navigating such challenges will obviously require a common global front, since otherwise governments face the prospect of a severely diminished ability to act faced with problems of global magnitude. “Yet it seems possible that in a scenario of global cooperation, states would jointly regulate non-state actors and include them in solutions for the global common good, possibly with a Tobin tax on financial transactions. In a club scenario, states would at least work together, not least so further pushed by a likely next financial crisis,” said Grimm and Weinlich.
Multilateral is the way forward
Indeed, the intersection of cross-national and cross-domain challenges of the future demand multilateral approaches, and to face those challenges the world needs to immediately reform and renew its faith on empowered international institutions of governance. “But over the past decade and more, the world has been moving in the reverse direction,” said former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran.
“There has been an upsurge in narrow nationalism, an assertion of parochial interests over pursuit of shared interests and a fostering of competition among states rather than embracing collaboration. Covid-19 has brought these deepening contradictions into very sharp relief. This is a global challenge which recognises no political boundaries. It is intimately linked to the whole pattern of large-scale and high-density food production and distribution. It is a health crisis but is also spawning an economic crisis through disrupting global value chains and creating a simultaneous demand shock. It is a classic cross-national and cross-domain challenge,” he wrote in The Hindu.
Overcoming that challenge and the shocks of the future with an eye towards security and prosperity for all needs robust global institutions, with an underlying spirit of internationalism and solidarity and a sense of belonging to a common humanity.
The world of 2030, 2040 or even 2050 absolutely needs a UN, WHO, IAEA or WTO – but with suitable and effective reforms to reflect the needs of 22nd century, not the relics of 1948 geopolitics.