Global crises are no anomaly in recent history and multilateral institutions have generally emerged stronger in their wake.
The Covid-19 crisis shows that the current global system has not been able to find solutions or establish a common ground against the pandemic – on the contrary, the crisis has deepened.
The question is: how will Covid-19 reshape the global order?
Many commentators have concluded with the demise of multilateralism, which is directly related to other contemporary global crises like climate change, conflicts and trade wars.
However, it is too early to say that the multilateral international system has failed and there is not light at the end of the tunnel. In contrast, we should be cautious in announcing the failure of the international system.
Global crises have historically ended with the strengthening of multilateralism to tackle crises like World War I, World War II, human right violations, economic and financial crises and climate change.
There is no doubt that World Health Organisation (WHO) has been in the eye of the storm since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When the virus was discovered in China, allegations emerged that China had not operated transparently and the WHO did not properly investigate. A tweet from the WHO on the 14th of January refers to Chinese authorities saying “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus” did the organisation no favours as that was clearly a gross misrepresentation.
Bringing the WHO’s credibility into question triggered fresh debate on the efficiency, legitimacy and sustainability of international organisations. This is not entirely new, but arrived with renewed force because of the sense of urgency a pandemic brings.
Although critiquing the efficiency of international organisations is valid, it should be contextualised within historical analyses of modern crises.
The international system is depicted as anarchic which refers to the lack of higher authority to govern interstate relations and to resolve disputes among states on global issues. Within this picture, multilateralism emerged and was empowered to deal with the anarchic and fragmented nature of international relations.
International organisations aim to provide higher authority and a rules-based system to streamline international relations. For instance, the League of Nations (LoN) founded after World War I the first worldwide intergovernmental organisation to solve disputes between countries before they erupted into open warfare.
When the LoN was not able to stop the war and outbreak of World War II, the system morphed into what is now known as the United Nations (UN).
The foundation of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and its five principal permanent members, US, China, Russia, UK, and France was aimed at providing a maintenance of international peace and security. This institution plays a significant role in decreasing violent and non-violent tensions between the states.
In contrast to the historical role of the UNSC, there is no current solution to the wars and proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya. When, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “The era of five permanent members [on the UNSC] is over,” he was arguing that the present arrangement comes from the circumstances of World War II.
Erdogan’s criticism does not question the justification for the existence of the UN but rather points to reforming the system within a 21st century paradigm.
There is clear progress in international institutions from the LoN to the UN and the foundation of specialised agencies, including the WHO, in different areas from economic and social welfare, security, the environment and food security.
The inefficiency of international organisations does not justify simply dissolving them, but instead finding a solution within the system to further empower and refine these institutions. Fighting Covid-19 requires a strong and efficient effort from international organisations, particularly the WHO, in our globalised world.
Unilateralism vs multilateralism
The lack of cooperation between European Union member states can be seen clearly in Europe today. Italy’s suffering and isolation during Covid-19 and Germany’s comparatively impressive performance makes one wonder if the two countries are part of the same bloc – and raises questions about multilateralism and EU cooperation.
American unilateralism today, such as threatening to halt funding for the WHO, at a time when a global leadership role is expected from the US, pours fuel on the fire.
The context for critiquing multilateralism today is based largely on a Eurocentric worldview and the actions of a handful of Western countries.
However, at one time, Turkey was part of the Marshall Plan to mitigate the economic damage of World War II and today Turkey has donated medical equipment across at least 57 countries – filling a void left by conventional powers and proponents of the multilateral system.
Furthermore, Russia and China have also supported Italy during the crisis where the EU left a vacuum.
The WHO has established a community of leading scientists from all over the world to collaborate and find a vaccine for Covid-19 – an effort that requires collective action despite petty differences between states.
The fact is, global issues require global solutions and collective action as identified in the multilateral international system. In an interconnected economic, political, ecological, and technological world, Covid-19 reminds us of the necessity of an efficient international system watched over by multilateral organisations.