UN at 75: Multilateralism not an option but a necessity

Seventy-five years on, as the United Nations (UN) marks its anniversary at a time of great worldwide upheaval – compounded by growing unilateralism and the virus crisis – upholding the international system with the world body and rejecting unilateralism and the winner-takes-all mindset has become more relevant than ever before.

“Multilateralism is not an option but a necessity as we build back a better world with more equality and resilience, and more sustainable world,” the 193-member UN General Assembly (UNGA) said in a declaration concerning the coronavirus pandemic, which threatens not only global health but also the world economic development.

Indeed, this year’s COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated global geopolitical trends, including the struggles to uphold multilateralism in a climate of growing nationalism, protectionism and rising great power competition. Yet, even before the global health crisis, multilateralism was already under risks as tensions in trade, technology and foreign relations between China and the U.S. escalated.

Ties between the two big nations have deteriorated further in recent months, while the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic cries for deeper and broader multilateral cooperation among countries just when we need it the most.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the 75th annual UN General Assembly. /Reuters

China advocated multilateralism at the UNGA, vowing that “the world will never return to isolation, and no one can sever the ties between countries.” Many heads of government, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, shared the plea by China for a revival of multilateralism.

U.S. President Donald Trump has shown his skepticism of multilateral frameworks in many occasions since he came into power. He pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the World Health Organization (WHO), and stopped funding the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees – the list can go on and on which makes the rest of the world worry about isolation and a “new Cold War.”

Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the UN, said in the UN Security Council that “the U.S. should understand that a major power should behave like a major power.”

The fight against the virus and economic downturns should not be politicized and that “no country can gain from others’ difficulties,” said Zhang.

In a foreseeable future, anti-globalization and attempts at economic and technology decoupling, which started long before COVID-19, will not disappear soon. Multilateral cooperation at most of the world organizations such as the UN, the WHO and the World Trade Organization will face growing instabilities and setbacks. The U.S. election in November may push the U.S. to implement more competitive strategies towards China. The targets – the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan – would disturb regional economic and security order.

U.S. President Donald Trump in NATO Secretary General for the NATO summit in Brussels in 2018. /AFP

“The very nature of the relations between China and the U.S. has changed. The competition is the new theme after 40 years’ development of China. Given the external environment is becoming more complicated in recent months, the uncertainty of multiculturalism increases,” said Wang Yong, director of the international relations department of Peking University.

“The ‘abc’ mindset – anything but China – is quite popular in Washington right now. Anything about internet security, technologies and economies, especially trade, is threatened. I would say we should be prepared for the worst situation,” he said.

The WHO urges countries to quickly join its global shared vaccine programs. /AFP

Even surrounded by concerns lingering over the strengthening of unilateralism and protectionism on the back of the continuing spread of the virus, China’s voice is loud and clear in defense of multilateralism and global collaborations. Wang said that it is obvious that world governance would benefit most countries, and clashes can only leave serious collateral damages.

“A complete separation of the world’s two largest economies cannot happen,” said Chen Deming, former minister of Chinese commerce ministry, at a seminar in New York in June. He believes the tensions between the two countries could worsen, but there is “enough space” for the world to continue to find a way to have win-win partnerships.

In addition, COVID-19 has brought global attention to food and health security. The virus vaccine programs will need regional and international cooperation. Joint efforts in research and studies need to link various regional organizations as well as the UN system. Major powers like China and the U.S. can always play key roles in such interdependent actions.

“The relations between the two big boys must be stable, which means ‘complete decoupling is almost impossible,’ and collaborations in multiple levels and areas would be back to the right track, sooner or later,” said Wang.

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