The costs of non-multilateralism

The costs of non-multilateralism. Eiffel Tower illuminated for COP21 in Paris (2015). Photo: Yann Caradec (CC BY-SA 2.0) Elcano Blog
The costs of non-multilateralism. Eiffel Tower illuminated for COP21 in Paris (2015). Photo: Yann Caradec (CC BY-SA 2.0) Elcano Blog
Eiffel Tower illuminated for COP21 in Paris (2015). Photo: Yann Caradec (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a few weeks’ time we may have seen the new multilateralism in action, or its limits. The global agreement instigated by the OECD regarding the taxes levied on big tech firms is a milestone. The COP26 summit in Glasgow at the start of November, aimed at further implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, is an opportunity not to be squandered. But at the same time we are seeing the cost of non-multilateralism, in the absence of a truly global initiative to extend vaccination against COVID-19 to the whole of humanity, which, in the words of Agnes Binagwaho of the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda, speaking at the recent summit of the T20 (the G20’s network of thinktanks) in Milan, runs ‘counter to morality and logic’.

Multilateralism is an alliance of powers and other actors in pursuit of shared goals. It contrasts with unilateralism (acting on one’s own), a-lateralism (which may lead to global anarchy and chaos) and ‘every man for himself!’ (recently evident in Afghanistan). The new multilateralism, in a multipolar world, necessarily different from what we have witnessed hitherto, has various actors and levels. The T20 has previously referred to it as inductive governance. Since then, the idea of the plurality of those involved, of multiple stakeholders, has taken root: states and governments, cities, civil societies (citizens, NGOs and foundations), companies and trade unions, etc, as will be evident in the amount of actors set to converge on Glasgow. It may be, as in the case of the Paris Agreement, multilateralism without treaties, although the OECD agreement, having introduced fiscal reforms, will require the ratification of national parliaments, something that in many cases is not assured. And it is a global multilateralism. The US, China, India and the EU countries, among others, are party to both the OECD and the Paris agreements. Almost all of them, but not Xi Jinping, will also be in attendance at Glasgow. The US and the EU are going to COP26 with a proposal to reduce emissions of methane, which is more harmful than CO2, by 30% in a decade, but without the support for now of China, India, Russia or Brazil, the biggest producers of this greenhouse gas.

The new Common Agenda unveiled by the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres calls for an ‘inclusive, networked and effective multilateralism’. It is full of well-intentioned goals but lacks the financial means and instruments to accomplish them. There are no pooled funds to fight against climate change, or for a global vaccine against COVID-19, even though they are reviving Special Drawing Rights and many developed countries are willing to cede theirs to others more in need.

Multilateralism has not resolved everything in the past, but it has enabled progress to be made in the fight against poverty (although poverty is once again growing with the pandemic), in reducing the world’s armed conflicts, in women’s rights and conditions, and the relatively global (85%) vaccination of children against a range of illnesses. These days the main challenges, or threats, on the global agenda do not, barring some exceptions, directly involve military security; other issues –the climate, biodiversity, pandemics, failing states, terrorism and cybersecurity, among others– call for new forms and methods of multilateral cooperation.

It is interesting that the idea of a new global social pact was included in the Common Agenda presented by Guterres to the UN General Assembly in September –the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals Agenda is part of it– and above all the desire to provide global public goods. Indeed, as part of his Agenda, Guterres will ask for the creation of a high-level advisory board, led by former heads of state and government, to identify global public goods and other areas of common interest where governance improvements are most needed, and to propose options to achieve this end. He intends to convene a ‘Summit of the Future’. For its part, the T20 proposes a more inclusive and people-focused multilateralism, which goes beyond the customary geopolitical approach.

Inn this respect, regardless of so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’, which has not worked as had been hoped, even for China, there is an evident problem that highlights the cost of not having this new and effective multilateralism being sought, namely the lack of a global vaccination campaign against COVID-19. As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) highlights in its latest report, 58% of high-income countries’ populations had been fully vaccinated by the end of September, as opposed to 36% in developing countries and a mere 4% in low-income countries. It is not a question of generosity; if anything, selfishness would be a better word, because the lack of a global vaccine campaign fosters the emergence of variants, and, as the IMF notes, is hindering the recovery of the global economy.

The ministers involved in the G20 have agreed –without stumping up the cash– a target of 40% of the world to be vaccinated by the end of this year, and the next G20 summit, scheduled for Rome at the end of the month, may set a goal of 70% for the end of 2022. It will be hard to accomplish with the current momentum, however. As Agnes Binagwaho pointed out, to achieve this level Africa would have to manufacture its own vaccines, without denying the pharmaceutical companies that developed them the right to a royalty.

In this case, there is a high price to be paid for non-multilateralism. If Glasgow fails to make real progress, it will be even greater. Meanwhile, despite being only a bare-bones agreement (a tax of 15% at most levied on big tech companies in the territories where they supply their services, not where they are registered for tax), the OECD has proved to be the great global think and action tank, capable of catalysing this much-needed multilateralism, which requires the cooperation of many, certainly the ‘great’ powers, and of resolving problems, rather than kicking them down the road, exacerbating them when not creating new ones.