The Irish Times view on global politics in a time of crisis: multilateralism under strain
The UN security council has gone AWOL and states are turning inward to contain the virus
Donald Trump may have started the process of undermining the multilateral order and its key institutions, but it is half-hearted support by member states at this time of crisis, not the institutions themselves , which is hobbling it. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/ Reuters
Since the global coronavirus outbreak, the powerful 15-member UN Security Council has yet to meet. Largely, diplomats suggest, because of a stand-off between the US and China over the origin of the pandemic.
At a time when global leadership could not be more important, the Security Council is AWOL. And it is clear that multilateralism, the very idea of international co-operation through the UN or organisations like the EU, is withering as states turn inward and seal each other off to contain the virus. Donald Trump may have started the process of undermining the multilateral order and its key institutions, but it is half-hearted support by member states at this time of crisis, not the institutions themselves, which is hobbling it.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who yesterday suggested the council may actually meet at last next week, has called for the launch of a “large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response” to the pandemic that could see the mobilisation of up to 10 per cent of global gross domestic product. He must be heeded.
Expectations in Europe that the EU could provide collective leadership and solidarity in the face of the pandemic were bound to be disappointed because of its inbuilt constraints. Member states have for years kept Brussels out of public health. In the crisis the union’s role is limited to coordination and common procurement. In Italy that reality ensured that early failure by the EU to mobilise medical aid contributed to alienating many and may stoke up dangerous Eurosceptic forces.
Economically, the crisis has seen member states rally to the calls for a new Marshall Plan for Europe – finance ministers meet today in video conference to approve a new financial package – but exposed deep existing divisions over how or whether to manage debt collectively.
The possibility of mutualising debt through collectively issued “coronabonds” could raise many billions at next-to-zero interest rates, easing spending challenges for countries like Italy, Greece and Spain. But the Dutch, Germans and others see underwriting such debt as a dangerous carte blanche to the profligate.
Over the weekend Germany and the Netherlands indicated an easing of their positions and there is every possibility that today’s meeting will produce a strong economic package.
In uncharacteristic language, German finance and foreign ministers Olaf Scholz and Heiko Maas wrote that: “The funds must not come with any unnecessary conditions attached, as that would be tantamount to a rerun of the austerity policy that followed the financial crisis … What we need is quick and targeted relief.”
A sign that multilateralism is not dead yet in Europe.