A multilateral renaissance

Hussein Haridy
Thursday 25 Feb 2021

Arguing for a multiplicity of viewpoints

The post-World War II era has relied on multilateralism, even at the height of the Cold War. Multilateralism not only provided the two superpowers with a mechanism to settle their differences peacefully but also gave Third World countries a necessary platform to articulate their demands and visions through the United Nations and other international bodies created after World War II.

Thus both developed and developing countries saw multilateralism as an important vehicle to debate international questions of mutual concern and to try to settle disputes through peaceful means. A commitment to the Charter of the United Nations has been the bedrock of international relations ever since the end of World War II. International diplomacy through multilateral institutions empowered all nations – with only very few exceptions – to cooperate for the common international good through these institutions.

However, the four years of Trump’s presidency undermined the belief in multilateralism. The former American president put international institutions on the spot, questioning their impartiality and relevance to American interests even though the record shows that the United States is among the countries that have benefited from engagement with multilateralism. Some analysts even accuse America of using international institutions to further and defend its own interests.

If we take the Middle East as an example, we find out the United States used its veto power more than 40 times to block Security Council Resolutions against Israeli policies in the Middle East because of its close alliance with Israel. European leaders were worried that a second Trump term would deal multilateralism a deadly blow. 

The election of Joe Biden and the composition of his national security team have pushed multilateralism back to the front and centre where it should be as one of the main guarantors of international peace and security. Friday 19 February will indeed be remembered as the day that saw the rebirth of Multilateralism and a recommitment to it as the underlying premise of international cooperation.

The first event on that day was a virtual G7 conference hosted by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The second event was the annual gathering of the Munich Security Conference in which Biden addressed the world directly for the first time since he was sworn in last month. The two events combined were a clear repudiation of Trump’s rejection of international cooperation. The United States and the world’s most industrialised countries reiterated their commitment to working together to tackle global challenges.

The G7 virtual conference released a statement just before the annual Munich Security Conference started, in which all seven members said, “Drawing on our strengths and values as democratic, open economies and societies, we will work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism and to shape a recovery that promotes the health and prosperity of our people and planet.” In order to help the developing countries deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, the G7 pledged $7.5 billion in financial support to Covax.

Still the turning point for the future of multilateralism came in Biden’s remarks, addressed to the conference from the East Room at the White House: “I am sending a clear message to the world. America is back.” On the same day, the American government officially rejoined the World Health Organisation; Trump had decided to withdraw from it at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Biden also announced that the American administration has pledged $2 billion to Covax, with the promise of an additional $2 billion to urge others to step up their efforts. He referred to his first presidential national security memorandum that focused on “surging health and humanitarian response to defeat Covid-19 and to better prevent and prepare for the next pandemic.”

Generally speaking, the American president stressed that the world “must not return to the reflective opposition and rigid blocks of the Cold War. Competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all.” He pointed out that the United States will cooperate closely with its European partners and with other European countries to deal with problems. On the other hand, he spoke of the urgent need to initiate a multilateral effort to respond to the pandemic, to what he termed the international economic crisis, climate change and other issues.

Biden talked about cooperating with Europe on a host of international questions such as the rise of China and confronting a resurgent Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, whom he accused of trying to sow division between the United States and Europe. In this context, he called on Europeans to cooperate with the United States on preparing to compete on a strategic level in the long haul with Beijing. He also talked about the importance of ensuring that the benefits of growth should be shared in an equitable manner and not limited to the few.

Among the major topics addressed in Biden’s remarks to the Munich Security Conference is the question of nuclear proliferation and the need to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring the materials used to make nuclear weapons, also referring to Iran. He reiterated that the United States would cooperate with its European and other strategic partners to ensure Tehran does not have a nuclear bomb. 

Biden told the Munich Security Conference that Washington is “prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear programme”. He added, “we must also address Iran’s destabilising activities across the Middle East, and we are going to work with our European and other partners as we proceed.” One day earlier, the American administration informed the European Union that it would accept an invitation from its European allies to talk with Iran and the other five signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Not only is America back, as Biden assured the Munich Security Conference, but international diplomacy too is getting ready to play a leading role in tackling international questions with a direct impact on international peace and security.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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