Dilemmas of multilateral action

Walid M Abdelnasser, Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

Why has the international community been so ineffective or inactive in its responses to today’s global crises, asks Walid M Abdelnasser


The past few years have clearly shown both the vulnerabilities and limitations of multilateral international action.

This has been demonstrated by either the delayed and ineffective responses of the international community to some major challenges and crises or the total absence of any action on its part towards other major crises and challenges that have faced humanity.

Analysts have differed among themselves in their attempts to explain or interpret such delayed or ineffective action or total inaction.

I will confine myself here to addressing how the international community, through international multilateral forums, has responded to three of these crises and challenges, namely the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the war in the Gaza Strip in Palestine, while acknowledging the varied humanitarian impacts of the three cases, with the war in Gaza being the most devastating.

The three crises took place between late 2019 and 2023. While some consider the Covid-19 pandemic to be over, others would disagree, while everyone would agree regarding the continued serious negative impacts of the wars in Ukraine and Gaza on peace and security in the regions in which they occur, and many would agree on their serious negative impacts on international peace and security as a whole.

In these three cases, the international community has been accused of either being late in its responses, and of its responses being insufficiently strong, firm, or effective, as was the case with the Covid-19 pandemic, or of lacking altogether in offering a response that enjoys worldwide support, as has been the case with the wars in Ukraine and Gaza for similar or different reasons.

However, one should be aware that international multilateral forums do not have a will of their own independent of their member states and particularly of those countries that enjoy more weight and have more influence on others on the international scene. There is an equal need to be aware that contrary to widely held belief, the secretariats of such forums have a limited margin of freedom in elaborating the agendas of meetings at the intergovernmental level and thus have little influence on the outcomes of these meetings and their various decisions.

The secretariats are expected only to provide the technical services needed by member states without having any positions or preferences of their own.

One should be able to differentiate between the margin of manoeuvrability of the secretariats of international organisations that have a broad mandate that could be called of a general and political nature and those that are technically specialised in one field or another.

While the role of the latter could be larger due to the technical nature of the subjects discussed, and hence the need for more substantive expertise and inputs from member states, the role of the former has proven to be more limited as member states are more familiar with the general and political subject matters of such international organisations and hence have tried to limit their role to service matters only without making any substantive inputs.

Yet, in all types of international organisation, the secretariats have managed to maintain some degree of influence on member states through their production of reports and studies and other outputs of a similarly technical nature that usually include suggestions, proposals, or recommendations, even if only in the form of alternatives with the advantages and disadvantages of each.

In this sense, the secretariats of all types of international organisations can manage to retain some sort of influence, even if only indirect or secondary, on the deliberations of member states.

The influence of the secretariats of international organisations also differs as it is usually felt more in the case of the least developed and developing countries, as well as countries in transition, which are more in need of advice and support, than in the case of developed countries that usually have clear and detailed agendas reflecting their interests and priorities, whether at the national level or in their capacities as leaders of coalitions or blocs.

In the last analysis, the decisions taken by international organisations and forums are to be attributed to member states and not to secretariats, as they reflect the collective will, or at least the will of the majority, whether simple or qualified, of the countries concerned.

Among them figures the relationship, as well as the level and scope, of shared interests between each country or group of countries and each of the parties to a crisis, conflict, or war, compared to each country’s shared interests with the other party or parties to the same crisis, conflict, or war – in other words, what is called the “balance of interests.”

In addition, there is the balance of power among the parties to a conflict or war to be considered, whether in absolute or relative terms, as well as the related global and regional weight of each party to the conflict and how much each of these has influence over other countries, whether at the regional or global levels.

A third factor that can vary in weight between one country and the next and from one conflict to the next is the norms, standards, and rules of international law that relate to a particular crisis, conflict, or war and to the positions of the parties to it. This is directly related to considerations of justice and equity.

In terms of all the factors mentioned above, the international community has been sometimes late and sometimes ineffective in some of its responses towards the Covid-19 pandemic and has thus far been incapable of taking the kind of clear, firm, and solid measures that can help to bring the wars in Ukraine and Gaza to an end based on the priority of peace and justice and in line with the provisions of international law.


The writer is a diplomat and commentator.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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