Do we need a new kind of multilateralism in face of the Covid-19 pandemic?

“We need a networked multilateralism, strengthening coordination among all global multilateral organizations, with regional ones able to make their vital contributions; and an inclusive multilateralism, based on deep interaction with civil society, businesses, local and regional authorities and other stakeholders”

António Guterres,
UN Secretary General

On April 24, we celebrated the international day of multilateralism and diplomacy for peace. It was the first time that the UN commemorated this day and what a premiere it was. SG Guterres’ official message, of course, focused on the issue of the Covid-19 pandemic. But what is distinctive about this communiqué is the call for a more inclusive regime, the integration of other non-traditional actors, that are equally interested in the problem of the pandemic.

When we hear the term “multilateralism” we quickly associate it with States and International Organizations, as preponderant subjects in the world order. The State has been the subject par excellence of the IPL and the IR, while the IO are essentially intergovernmental organizations (made up of States). In short, the state-centric vision of IR within the so-called traditional paradigm has been the predominant one for most of recent history.

Faced with the traditional paradigm in IR, the global society paradigm arises, which advocates the inclusion of a series of themes and subjects in the face of the needs of a changing world. Problems and critical junctures to which the State is limited to tackle by itself.

The UN as the most visible head of traditional multilateralism can´t escape criticism. Attacks on its Security Council, justified or not, point to its design and structure (5 permanent members, with the right to veto) and it´s inertia or delay in acting (again, the veto is sometimes a brake). Making this system more inclusive and agile implies a series of reforms in the foundations of the UN, which seems unlikely in the medium term.

Where traditional multilateralism has shown a greater impact on its actions vis-à-vis Covid-19 has been in those organizations that are in charge of specific issues, whether it is health, food or trade, to name a few examples. The work of the WHO, the body that responsibly declared Covid-19 as a pandemic on March 11, is remarkable. Likewise, is remarkable the role that FAO has played with its calls for attention to avoid possible famines caused by shortages and other disruptive effects in food and input supply chains.

Likewise, in the commercial sphere, from a very early stage, the WTO has endeavored to provide relevant information, with high technical rigor, for the understanding, guidance and decision-making of the interested actors in the face of Covid-19. In this regard, the multilateral body responsible for regulating international trade has prepared studies and reports on trade in medical products, possible restrictions on trade in these supplies, threats of protectionism and other distorting measures to trade in goods and services, among other valuable contributions.

Despite the work of these bodies, the Covid-19 problem requires a multidimensional approach. The pandemic is a health problem, with social and economic implications. It affects all areas of human endeavor. Therefore, the entire social community is required to take part in the solution. Society must do its part, collaborating with the administration’s measures and decisions, but it must also be able to demand a greater degree of participation in those efforts.

An empowered society ,with awareness of the role it must play at this juncture is extremely important in order to get ahead. Governments, elites, IO, as well as other actors who traditionally have control of action in large crisis such as this should seriously think about opening their spaces of influence, even if this involves giving up part of the control that they have traditionally exercised over many other actors and agendas. Building citizen power means stronger and better prepared societies for any eventuality. This is what SG Guterres has very validly wanted to underline.