The pre-Covid-19 international system functioned on two main pillars that assured constructive cooperation among the great powers and the most-industrialised countries and ensured that major differences that could have an adverse impact on international peace and security would be resolved through multilateral institutions. Multilateralism and globalisation characterised the international system, and the United Nations, with its specialised agencies and other regional organisations, played a significant role in instituting and channelling international cooperation. These two pillars are at risk. On the one hand, a coordinated international response to the coronavirus has proved late in coming; and on the other hand, a looming confrontation between the United States and China is threatening the future of multilateralism.
Not only has the US administration accused China of a lack of transparency in informing the world, earlier than it had done, of the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic, but also other Western governments, like France and Germany, have questioned the way China shared information with other countries, and its timing. Today, China stands accused of taking unnecessary time in sharing important information with other nations pertaining to the coronavirus and not revealing the true numbers of those infected, and Covid-19 related deaths. Furthermore, the origin of the virus is much debated and there is growing international scepticism as to the official Chinese explanation. The fact that China, last week, reviewed upwards the exact number of deaths has shone light on how far Beijing has been transparent in this regard.
Needless to say, the Chinese government has denied any wrongdoing, and it explained that the new numbers of virus-related deaths are due to the fact that many deaths had occurred at home, and thus were unaccounted for initially.
The US administration has, of late, targeted China and the World Health Organisation (WHO). It has cut funding for the WHO and even refused to join an initiative by the said organisation related to the fight against the pandemic. On the other hand, a second G20 virtual summit after the outbreak of the pandemic, that was supposed to take place Friday, 24 April, has been postponed because Washington and Beijing could not agree on a draft communique. The G20 had already agreed on a financial package up to $5 trillion to help the international economy withstand the economic devastation caused by the pandemic.
The American-Chinese confrontation has cast doubt on how far the world could depend on multilateral efforts to end the pandemic and to spur a quick recovery for the world economy. The UN system is in no position to function the way the world expects in these trying times in case this confrontation persists. Undoubtedly, the fact that the United States is in a year of presidential elections does not augur well for the prospects of limited cooperation between China and the United States ahead of election day on 3 November. President Donald Trump, who seeks re-election, is on the defensive of late, as to how quick and efficiently his administration dealt with the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Scapegoating China and the WHO seems to be good domestic politics from the standpoint of the Trump administration.
Not only multilateralism has become endangered by internal political considerations but also international geopolitics. Washington has expressed growing concerns over the “hegemonic” designs of China, with particular emphasis on Chinese activities in the South China Sea and in developing its navy. Against this background, showing the flag has become almost routine in this part of the world and to defend the principle of “innocent passage” in international waters. Even the French navy has been involved in sailing in the South China Sea, from time to time, in defence of the same principles.
The catastrophic economic losses that the international economy has suffered because of the coronavirus pandemic necessitate a well-coordinated international response. Unprecedented financial packages, either domestically or internationally and regionally, call for concerted international cooperation on various levels, through international financial and economic institutions or through the G7 and G20. The odds are that the great powers will have to work together to ensure that the world restores normalcy in the next three to five years, according to the most optimistic estimates. The former US secretary of state and former national security adviser in the Nixon and Bush administrations, Henry Kissinger, has claimed that the devastating consequences of the pandemic would take generations to overcome. Even in this most pessimistic scenario, the international system will badly need multilateralism. No other alternative would succeed in solving the grave crises and problems left by a tiny virus that suddenly paralysed the global economy and brought the world to a complete standstill.
Multilateralism is the way of the future. This is so regardless of the outcome of presidential elections in the United States later this year. If re-elected, President Trump will be hard pressed not to work with other nations, either bilaterally, or through multilateral institutions and organisations, to deal with the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, even if international geopolitics would still cast a shadow on multilateral cooperation.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly