The world needs a new, constructive multilateralism to achieve the SDGs

The last four years have seen a fractured and antagonistic approach to global affairs. What are the prizes to be gained from global leaders working together towards common goals? Is a new era possible?

Global governanceGlobal

Women peacekeepers from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on community outreach in a market in Tyre. © Pasqual Gorriz/UN

Long gone are the days of the so-called ‘Westphalian order’ in which countries sought the ‘balance of power’ (preventing any one state from gaining enough military power to dominate all others) as the framework to regulate the international system. We had to wait until the horrors of the first world war for a Copernican change in world governance. The idea was to abandon the old system of alliances and ententes that arose from that desired balance of power. In its place would be a system of collective security in which all actors would take responsibility in the search for a new, more just and peaceful order. It did not work immediately and the League of Nations could not prevent the atrocity of a second world war accompanied by the barbarity of a holocaust that brought humanity face to face with its own destruction. Never had the human being descended to the hells of his maximum evil. 

It is true that a perfect multilateralism never existed. For it to work, a ‘directorate’, the Security Council, had to be inserted to lead the work and developments of this new world governance. A good synthesis was achieved: universal participation of all the Member States of the international community was achieved through the UN General Assembly, while the Security Council, with five permanent members, mobilized and controlled the development of events. 

This was more than 75 years ago. Today, the United Nations, the ultimate symbol of multilateralism, needs and seeks reform of the entire multilateral system. The need to adapt the model that emerged in 1945 to the new realities and challenges of the 21st century is obvious. There is unanimous agreement on the urgency of reform to make the multilateral system more effective and credible. The COVID-19 crisis has only corroborated, highlighted, and amplified the inadequacies and contradictions of multilateralism today. 

It is true that in the face of this global health challenge, no one could deny a call for the need to strengthen and reinforce multilateral bodies as much as possible. This is what Secretary-General António Guterres tried to lead. During this pandemic, his appeals, initiatives, and proposals have always been aimed at providing the entire multilateral system with resources and support. 

The response has been ambivalent. On the one hand, we have generally witnessed declarative support for multilateralism. Except for the unilateralism of the previous American administration, most of the main actors proclaimed their support for and adherence to the value of multilateralism. On the other hand, this support was often limited to diplomatic declarations that were later called into question by nationalist and unilateralist behaviors and conducts, where ‘every one for themselves’ seemed to win the day.

Contradictory measures, a lack of international coordination, vaccination campaigns where the common good of humanity was not contemplated: all this combined with deep discriminatory social ruptures where sectors of the population felt marginalized because of gender, race, ethnicity, or religion.

New crossroads

In these circumstances there seems to be no escape. Humanity in general and nation states in particular are facing new crossroads very similar to the ones that occurred after the two world wars. The world is increasingly interconnected, more global than ever, and totally interdependent. We can only wonder how we will have to act to order and regulate collective coexistence in the coming decades of this century. 

This is where multilateralism emerges as the unavoidable response to this new reality. All analysts agree that the global challenges of the 21st century cannot be resolved unilaterally. What is needed is a world governance in which effective, democratic, and sustainable multilateralism can provide a response to all of them. 

This new multilateralism must take note of and draw inspiration from the lessons of the past and from some recent initiatives that have yielded good results. 

I refer particularly to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and its Leadership Council. Under the leadership of Jeffrey Sachs and with the support of then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, this advocacy initiative was launched to firstly achieve the adoption of a forward-looking agenda, and then to support the advancement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The idea of creating a Leadership Council composed of about a hundred people from different spheres of expertise marks a revolutionary innovation in the way problems are addressed within the United Nations. Academics, scientists, politicians, businesspeople, representatives of civil society, and others formed this council to raise awareness in our societies, adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and then provide practical solutions to the problems that would appear when trying to advance the Agenda. 

There is now unanimous awareness of this agenda. Most countries have begun to incorporate it into all their national policies. 

Lessons learned

Effective, democratic, and sustainable multilateralism can only be achieved if we are able to avoid falling into the old traps of the past. 

The first is to avoid at all costs the resurgence of new ‘cold wars’ or ‘bipolarities’. The last few years, and in particular the latest diplomatic episodes, show us a new hegemonic struggle that all of us who advocate genuine multilateralism would like to avoid. We cannot set the new multilateral framework of the 21st century if we find ourselves with a belligerent attitude among the main actors of the international community. 

The relationship and competition between the two leading powers, China and the US, must be constructive and with a shared purpose: to promote the reform and adaptation of multilateral structures for the benefit of all humanity. Without the ‘G2’, we cannot imagine a new sustainable multilateralism. However, neither can we be satisfied with what might be called a multilateralism à la carte where the two major players agree only on a few essential issues but disagree on the other elements of this new governance. It is not enough to be multilateralist only in favor of the fight against climate change and the eradication of pandemics while at the same time being nationalist and unilateralist in trying to resolve the other challenges facing the international community. 

It is not a matter of standardizing the thinking and political action of each of the Member States and of the main actors that can drive the new world. Instead, it is about reaching a level of understanding on the major principles and values that multilateralism in the 21st century needs.

The second mistake is to ignore the radical changes that have taken place over the last few decades and to approach the reform superficially as ‘business as usual.’ Technological, scientific, economic, cultural, and social advances have totally modified the reality and behavior of all our societies in recent decades. Therefore, any new reform of the world’s organization must build on the participation of the multiple actors that shape the day-to-day of our political action. We cannot continue as if nothing has changed. The nation states are the main subject of the international concert, but alongside them are a whole series of new actors who legitimately demand their participation on this new multilateral stage. We cannot seek solutions today and guarantee their successful implementation if we do not incorporate private sector, scientists, academics, civil society, media, artists, athletes, etc. as the essential subjects of the new reality in this new multilateralism in a more democratic way.

There is therefore no alternative. The global citizenry, that single humanity, is the one that must mobilize. Through this, their respective states and governments can better understand the present challenges, and sapiens can continue to advance and develop all their human capacities without fear of falling into political or technological totalitarianism. The answer lies with the almost eight billion citizens of the world who, at the end of the day, are the ones who suffer from wars, conflicts, hunger, misery, pandemics, and acts of terrorism. These are the same eight billion citizens who wish to save the planet and humanity. We can only achieve this through effective, democratic, and sustainable multilateralism.

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