From pandemic crisis to a new global governance
Suddenly, everyone is a multilateralist. Commentators, analysts, and editorials long scathing about international organizations now confidently opine that the only solution to combating the coronavirus pandemic is a global one. Conveniently absolved of their prior sins of malign neglect, they go back to business as usual, bashing the WHO as a corrupt handmaiden of China’s virus cover-up. The trouble with calling up global governance to solve borderless problems while relying on institutions no longer fit for purpose is that we are left building the plane while flying it — through severe turbulence.
In theory, every country would be happy with a low-cost global governance that serves its national interests without impinging on its sovereignty. In practice, this amounts to all countries practicing an a la carte multilateralism by which they pick and choose which entities to support and which to ignore.
The 20th century view of international problem-solving holds that centralized multilateral bodies such as the United Nations need to be renewed and strengthened. This pipe dream stands less chance than ever as the world economy contracts by at least 3 percent and great powers play the virus blame game. We should salvage what is worth keeping from this great multilateral plane crash.
The Bretton Woods bodies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have an opportunity to resurrect themselves. Until recently, the IMF was somewhat in retreat, focused mostly on basket case economies such as Argentina. Suddenly, more than 100 countries representing most of the world’s population have applied for emergency credit lines likely totaling $1 trillion. The IMF works because countries are to a large degree drawing on their own contributions, and the IMF acts fast to release funds, working more or less seamlessly with the Federal Reserve and other central banks. For its part, the World Bank is finalizing a $160 billion relief package targeting 65 low-income countries. Both have lobbied for a suspension of debt payment obligations for the world’s poorest countries as well. The lesson: Allocating resources where they are needed is better than bloated bureaucracies that prove their value neither in good times nor in bad.
That is how we might describe most of the United Nations system such as the Secretariat, General Assembly, and Economic and Social Council. Centered on New York and Geneva, many of these bodies embody such profane irrelevance to the real world that money spent on their diplomatic privilege is corruption in plain sight.
The UN Security Council stands out as representative of this feckless inertia. Long esteemed as the highest body signaling the wishes of the great powers, it is more a club representing the arbitrary settlement from World War II nearly 75 years ago. The veto power of its permanent five members was actively abused by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, and now even more so by Russia and China acting in concert to block any resolutions with constructive intent. The “P5,” as they are known, continue to include at best second-tier powers such as France and Britain (rather than India, Japan, or Brazil), and is also distinguished as a collection of the world’s largest arms exporters.
Organizations that can be hijacked or derailed by a single state acting in naked self-interest and have proven irredeemably beyond reform are better discarded. Their disappearance would be a welcome sign of the democratization of global governance.
Transatlantic allies have also sought to take their agenda outside the UN framework through the G7, but with little to show for it. The G7 has degenerated into little more than group therapy for Western leaders, and last month failed to issue a statement on the pandemic because of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence that COVID-19 be called the “Wuhan virus.” The G20 is on paper far more representative, but in practice generally fails to give meaningful guidance. As if statements are what matter anyway.
The coronavirus pandemic has deepened the divide between those mechanisms of global governance that work and those that don’t. Those that do have an inclusive approach, getting all hands on deck — whether governments, companies, or philanthropists and civic groups — in multi-stakeholder coalitions. They are also decentralized, pushing funds and solutions to those in need rather than hoarding them in headquarters for salaries of fat-cat bureaucrats.
While the WHO had an early track record of success in contributing to the eradication of smallpox and polio, voices from within have not held back in criticizing its overly bureaucratic structure and politicization by a wide range of member-states and private donors. Despite the U.S. being the largest single source of donations — including nearly 15 percent of the budget coming from the Gates Foundation — the WHO mishandled both the 2013 Ebola outbreak and the coronavirus. While the Trump administration’s announcement to halt its WHO contribution may be poorly timed in the midst of a crisis, it is a reminder that we should demand much higher performance from organizations with $5 billion budgets.
Bill Gates has also pledged to spend billions of dollars across seven different efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. The “science diplomacy” thriving right now as public and private laboratories share DNA sequences and test results are a reminder that cloud computing is a better metaphor than a Rolls-Royce for the global governance we need. Like the internet itself, teams cluster and share data across webs, with users worldwide downloading medical guidance, code for contact tracing apps, and designs to 3D print protective equipment.
Moving forward, we should apply this lesson to climate diplomacy as well. Transferring technologies to clean up the factories, cement plants, and electricity grids of heavily polluting countries is far more useful than more summits in Paris, Cancun, or Bali.
Less talk, more action. The best diplomacy is diplomacy of the deed.
Parag Khanna is founder and managing partner of FutureMap. He’s a former fellow at the Brookings Institution and at New America, a think tank focused on national security, technology and other public policy issues. A former senior geopolitical adviser to U.S. Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, his latest book is “The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century” (2019).