Now is the time for global leaders to decide: Will we succumb to chaos, division, and inequality? Or will we right the wrongs of the past and move forward together, for the good of all? We are at breaking point.
These were the words of the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres in his bold and memorable Nelson Mandela Lecture in July this year. In September, the UN-leader was at the helm of the UN Summit celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Organisation. World leaders were gathered virtually at a time of great turbulence and trial.
Not only are we faced with a record breaking global recession as a result of a pandemic now reaching all corners of the world, but also an increase in conflict, migration, levels of poverty and inequality, and threats of famine and climate change. None of these challenges can be resolved by individual countries alone. They can only be addressed working together.
The UN was born out of this acknowledgement after World War II. And since then the achievements have been many, building a rule-based international system benefiting us all. Many of today’s global challenges are different, however. Yet, they are growing, and they affect both rich and poor countries. To resolve them we need a stronger multilateral system, not a weaker one. Indeed, it was concerted collective action and increased assistance that delivered most of the Millennium Development Goals. In 2015, this prompted a renewed collective commitment to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The slogan of “Leaving No-one Behind” was a call to action to everyone, making sure that the international response touched the lives of the poorest and most marginalized.
Five years later, the global outlook has changed significantly. There is a waning of concerted support, growing self-interest and chauvinism. In its 75th anniversary, the UN is being undermined by geopolitical competition, polarized politics, and unilateral action. Multilateralism is facing a severe crisis. This is deterring the world from being able to resolve many of its complex challenges.
That is why the campaign “Alliance of Multilateralism” is such a promising initiative. Germany and France launched the initiative during last year’s UN General Assembly, and it has since received massive support by a vast number of member states. The goal is to promote global cooperation at a time of rising nationalism and isolationism. The primary objective of the campaign is to show that countries that support multilateralism and the UN remain strong and relevant in the world.
While such a campaign primarily constitutes a rallying call in support of the UN, its broad outreach shows the mobilization capacity of the vast majority of member states. This should be used strategically going forward.
Nothing illustrates this better than the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only can the virus be likened to an x-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built, as the UN Secretary General says. Worse, it knows no borders. If we are to protect ourselves, we also need to protect others. This interdependence should be used actively to strengthen multilateralism. Not through international competition, but through international cooperation, mending the fractures and repairing the rifts.
Access to vaccines against the virus is maybe the first opportunity to turn the tide. The race towards an effective vaccine should be followed by international cooperation and solidarity in allocation, making sure that poor countries have equal access. In the same way as the most vulnerable and at greatest risk should get the vaccines first in our own countries, developing countries should be assisted according to their risk levels. And access should be provided for everyone. Failure to do so will only mean that the pandemic will continue to spread and come back to haunt us in new mutations.
Paradoxically, as Covid-19 has exposed all the weaknesses of our fractured world, to win this battle, we need to count on values that go beyond ourselves, reaching out to others, sharing equally across borders and continents. The pandemic can become an opportunity for change. But only if we all put our shoulders to the wheel.
This and other multiple challenges call for immediate and collective action. In the recently agreed Leaders’ Declaration on the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, world leaders promised change:
The urgency for all countries to come together, to fulfil the promise of the nations united, has rarely been greater. (…) All this calls for greater action, not less. (…) Multilateralism is not an option but a necessity as we build back better for a more equal, more resilient, and more sustainable world. The United Nations must be at the centre of our efforts.
Indeed, if we are going to fully recover from the impact of the pandemic, build back better and stand a chance at delivering on our promise of leaving no one behind, international cooperation is imperative. It is the only way to make the world a safer and more equitable place for all. This is the time for leaders to show which side of history they are on, and to act accordingly. It is time to make the breaking point the turning point.