A wake-up call for multilateralism

Multilateralism is a response to relatively obvious global organizational needs and incorporates major efforts to avoid conflict and enhance global development.  The aftermath of World War II was marked by a clear wish to achieve stability and progress through the building of broader alliances and multilateral relations. The visionary concept that both the defeated and victorious nations were to collaborate in a search for lasting peace, stability and economic prosperity opened new perspectives in contrast to the more historic attitude separating the victors from the defeated as had been the case after the first World War. The creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO); the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); the United Nations (UN); the European Union (EU) and the many important agreements and conventions discussed, established and ratified by an ever-growing number of nations were hopeful signs for the future. The increasing number of multilateral organizations gradually covered a broadening panorama in various fields including health, environment, human rights, education, development, labor, intellectual property and many more. While these efforts were developing constructive ways forward, their progress has been called into question by a growing number of prerogatives mainly defined on a national basis.

The gap between the understanding of the need to collaborate at global levels and the national reflexive tendencies reveals itself in a multilayered impact that proves to be of even greater concern in developing countries. While the need for more collaborative efforts is increasingly recognized as an essential tool to accompany, secure and enhance global development, today’s response mechanisms tend to ensure national interests first. The COVID-19 pandemic has given ample evidence of this evolution as well as of the various existing fractures that clearly strain the present and future of the global community. Recent efforts seeking to further improve the collaboration at multilateral levels such as the COVID-19 - Joint Declaration of the Alliance for Multilateralism of 24 States d.d. April 16th 2020, which defined the pandemic as a wake-up call for a multilateral approach, passed nearly unnoticed and remains merely ignored or forgotten. It could be said that the principle to leave no one behind has been given a ranking addendum on the global health agenda focusing first on national responses and ignoring that solutions developed within borders also depend on the solutions implemented beyond those borders. Yet, border controls were sharpened under an expressed rationale of protecting nationals from the virus spreading in other countries; the claim for vaccines proved to be a political and profit-oriented competition between states clearly prevailing over the deeper concerns to protect all of humanity.

But the pandemic is only one of the many indicators pointing at the imbalance between global concerns and national interest. Two core questions arise: are the existing multilateral structures and procedures capable of developing effective global governance and if so, what would be the tools and incentives needed to enforce nations to act collaboratively beyond the traditional win-win logics?

Time has come to leave the relative safety of ideologic promises and illusions and to collaboratively address the many faces of the global challenges.

Today’s challenges call for a global and humanity-oriented approach; for terminating the wishful thinking suggesting that further developments can still be based solely on economic profit; and for a switch in logics to urgently consider and organize a global rescue operation handling the planet with greater care and developing entirely new paths to envision and safeguard a more secure future.

Over 110 networks of Catholic inspired NGO’s active all over the globe discussed the need for a more inclusive society; they examined the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in their various fields of expertise and they recently considered together the need to support and develop multilateral efforts

All of these organizations underscore the major importance of multilateralism, but they also highlight the need to further develop these intergovernmental structures to be based on broader and more inclusive principles. The need to reinvent multilateralism and to redefine the relationships between the various stakeholders is as obvious for the participating organizations as the understanding that the collaborative efforts should not be terminated but rather strengthened by developing more inclusive relationships and better shared responsibilities.  Whatever seemed possible in times of economic growth, has become questionable since the 2008 economic crisis and the 2019 pandemic. But there are many more factors to be pointed at including the rapidly increasing global population, the ecological concerns for the planet; the interdependency of the economies and the people prominently expressing their concerns about the future and showing growing distrust of national politics.  

The multilateral remains an important means to promote new vision. Yet, it is equally felt that this calls for a closer relationship between these platforms, their participating Member States and the respective populations. Gaining trust in governance structures is a longer-term process which de facto builds on positively valued and appreciated social progress. While the pandemic could have been a means to increase solidarity both at international and national levels, it seems it is often the wrong enemy that has been addressed when arguing against the successive and at times contradictory confinement policies. Instead of uniting people, these policies essentially further decreased confidence in the law-making processes. Today’s repeatedly expressed concern over the shrinking space for civil society may also be understood as another indicator of the indispensable role and responsibility of these actors in contributing to a renewed global vision.

The need to collaborate is probably a lesser contested question compared to the more challenging question on the possible modes of such collaboration.  Organizations strongly believe the principle of subsidiarity in the intergovernmental field of work cannot remain limited to the relations between these platforms and the Member States but needs to include a praxis approach wrought by a closer understanding and evaluation of social realities as perceived by the major implementing actors.  Starting a process meant to upgrade the existing interaction with a more comprehensive grassroot reading would contribute to enrich the dialogue, ensure a better organized approach and help avoid a number of less adequate policies.  

Therefore, there is the viewpoint that a better and official integration of the policy-evaluations as submitted by civil society actors would improve the outcome of the decision-making processes. Catholic-inspired organizations are confident that non-governmental actors and civil society in general can offer series of practical indicators in these processes as well as in the evaluations of the various implementation levels. What is needed is a stronger structural embedding of their grassroot expertise in the multilateral dialogue.

Defining and more adequately integrating the grassroot expertise and responsibility of the many societal actors will contribute to the promotion of the common good and to the respect for human dignity at both national and international levels; it will effectively confirm the respect for cultural diversity and further promote the quality implementation of international public laws as well as of international human rights, including for the most vulnerable. It will enrich and help carry the development of a new global paradigm for education, contribute to building global paths to integrity and trust; to the reorientation of economic systems to serve equity and fraternity[1] and prove to be an asset in the multilateral developments to leave no-one behind. NGOs may also be of support in reinforcing the proper discernment and follow-up at national levels of the Conventions and internationally signed agreements.  

In lieu of advancing a new multilateralism on all fronts at the same time, it is believed that topics such as the ecologic challenges, global migration, and global education are key focal points to assess the value of such remodeled collaboration. Most important is the concept of sharing responsibility in building the new ways forward. These should not be driven by Eurocentric logics or by any state power, which are often too distant from people’s voices and not in a position to properly confront populism.  It is our conviction that governing power today is no longer defined by electoral promises but by the quality to collaboratively and properly address the various global challenges.

Addressing the key issues should therefore not first depend on finding the means to secure new implementation levels.  Solutions are not to be identified first in terms of creating new taxes or reviewing budgets but much more in terms of shared commitments and solidarity. If change is really wanted, financial means will not prove to be the most important threshold. Solidarity and humanitarian commitment remain too often understood as “bridges” meant to cover the gaps and overcome specific emergency situations. Yet they often are revealed to be reactive to the initial outburst and not responding to longer-term and ongoing crises, which is to say that they often prove to be too narrow to serve the purpose of achieving the necessary assistance, fuller equity and avoidance of similar or comparable situations in the future. Rather than focusing first on the needed income to build more of such bridges, there is a need to share a vision based on the respect for all and to effectively leave no-one behind.  That is not so much a matter of creating overpasses meant to cover existing gaps but rather of adequately filling the voids, reducing the negatives and lowering the need for such emergency responses.  All this calls for a change in mentality, for more people-centered attitudes and for policies that may effectively contribute to the fading or receding of existing global fractures of political, social and economic nature. Global solidarity is proper to humanity and includes the concept of shared responsibility, not to be ruled by and between nations and financial means only.

Questioning and evaluating existing systems is part of a healthy process. This is also valid for the multilateral processes but the rapidly growing number of subjects and pressing issues urge us to think in more proactive terms and achieve new and improved levels of governance. There is no way back, only a way forward which today calls for vision beyond “win-win” attitudes.  The care for our common home, the international consensus to leave no one behind, the border crossing digital realities modifying national organizational concepts and budgets; the pursuit of truly international migration policies and even the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are among the many topics loudly beckoning for new ways of developing governance. This calls for safeguarding and developing universal answers not to be colored by occasional or temporary considerations. Rather than discussing the power plays of global governance, there is a need to develop the governance of the future substantiated by shared responsibility, solidarity and equality.

Johan Ketelers

Forum International

May 4th, 2021

[1] Intervention of His Eminence, the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin at the high-level virtual event on: Fraternity, Multilateralism and Peace: a presentation of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter “Fratelli tutti”, 15.04.2021.