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The resilience of multilateralism

Published on 03 June 2020
Updated on 05 April 2024

During the COVID-19 crisis, for the first time in history, billions of people on all continents and at sea, underwent an identic experience, irrespective of country, race, nationality, or gender. No war, no crisis, no pandemic, no revolution in the past produced such a social and psychological impact, across all borders. The fear and uncertainty brought on by the virus triggered almost identical reactions from individual human beings and communities.

It is too early to draw any definitive lesson. Humankind has proved, once more, that prophecy is not within its powers. The experience of this pandemic was too surprising and troubling to be deeply understood at present, when we are still under the immediate impact of fluctuating emotions. Pretending that we can predict what will or should happen is presumptuous, to say the least. If anything, the pandemic has been a severe blow to the contemporary vanity and arrogance of the human species. We claim to understand what the Neanderthal man thought, and plan to colonize the Universe. We reached new summits of innovation in creating products we have never needed before, but we could hardly produce ordinary masks and ventilators.

Nevertheless, humility and restraint do not exclude personal reflections. Mine are on multilateralism. All of a sudden, the multifariousness of the international community, as represented by the United Nations system, was reduced to a simple dichotomy: those who believe in multilateralism, and those who consider it an encumbrance on their power.

On the one side, a majority of governments looked around and tried to understand what was going on and what solutions were needed. They placed their trust in the World Health Organization (WHO) as a reliable entity, where the exchange of information, objective analysis, collective wisdom and policies could converge. WHO was the natural locus for international co-operation and solidarity.

Admittedly, the organization is neither a super-doctor, nor the supreme problem-solver: it is the resultant of the means and mandates given to it by its member states. WHO did not have an ace up its sleeve. Yet, the knowledge it represents is higher and more comprehensive than that of any individual government alone. Despite its hesitations and errors, WHO has been a quick learner and a trustworthy provider of advice on how to deal with the virus. It brought some sense during the initial panic and chaos. Multilateralism proved, once more, its usefulness.

On the other side, there are leaders who despise multilateralism as a matter of principle. They believe that they are omniscient and omnipotent. Those leaders are convinced that what is right comes from them, and what is wrong comes from others. They started by holding the first warnings in derision. Faced with the calamitous impact of COVID-19 on their own people, they ended by blaming others, hoping that, behind the smokescreen, their own errors will be forgotten. WHO was among them, and it was an easy target. Undoubtedly, multilateralism was hardly struck, again. Yet, the current health crisis was just one more occasion to justify hostile decisions. WHO, in particular, and the United Nations system, in general, will suffer the pain, but its moral force will remain. Fortunately, those who can afford to undermine multilateralism are not numerous.

Multilateralism is not perfect. It is the worst form of international order, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

Petru Dumitriu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are strictly personal, and do not represent the position of any organization with which the author is currently or previously associated.


Dr Petru Dumitriu is a member of the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) of the UN system and former ambassador of the Council of Europe to the United Nations Office at Geneva. He is the author of the JIU reports on ‘Knowledge Management in the United Nations System’, ‘The United Nations – Private Sector Partnership Arrangements in the Context of the 2030 Agenda’, ‘Strengthening Policy Research Uptake’, “Cloud Computing in the United Nations System”, and “Policies and Platforms in Support of Learning”. He received the Knowledge Management Award in 2017 and the Sustainable Development Award in 2019 for his reports. He is also the author of the Multilateral Diplomacy online course at DiploFoundation.

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