The 75th Anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter comes at a time of doubts in the multilateral system created on 26 June 1945 in San Francisco. The current global situation is often described as an incipient Cold War, this time with the US and China as the main contenders. The UN Security Council, the principal UN organ in the field of peace and security, has been in near paralysis for a number of years now. Its inability to agree on measures needed to maintain international peace and security at the time of COVID 19 pandemic or to support the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, has laid bare its weakness. And there are many other signs of frailty in the multilateral system in our era.
At the same time, COVID–19 and its economic, social and political consequences have made the need for an effective international cooperation and global governance more important than ever. Without effective multilateral cooperation the pandemic cannot be defeated. International cooperation is needed to produce adequate and affordable vaccines and to stabilize a global economy that is facing a deep and possibly long recession with unforeseeable consequences for international peace and security. Efforts of the International Monetary Fund and the G 20 are necessary, but hardly sufficient. The UN system leaves much to be desired.
So, what is to be done? Most leaders believe that the answer begins with putting the national interest first. There is nothing wrong with this approach – provided that it is understood that national interest includes the need for international cooperation which, in turn, requires moderation and a search for common ground with others. The question is how to achieve this. A top – down approach involving effective cooperation among the great powers does not appear promising at the moment. Is there an alternative approach to global governance to be proposed, one that will start from bottom – up? And where, exactly, should the search start?
A promising path is indicated in the UN Charter itself. The Charter laid down the ground for all the key areas of international cooperation. One of them involves the building of “regional arrangements”, an aspect that is outlined in the Chapter VIII of the Charter in very general terms, deliberately leaving much space for subsequent development.
Today, the key to progress in multilateral cooperation and, consequently, to a more adequate global governance, lies at the regional level. The COVID – 19 has provoked a crisis of the type of globalisation we have known in the past four decades: The globalised economy was shocked by simultaneous decline in supply and demand. The global supply chains have been badly affected. It is not surprising that states seek the immediate solutions to the crisis within their own territories – and in cooperation in their immediate neighbourhoods. Greater self-reliance is necessary and does not have to lead towards toxic protectionism. The regressive, disintegrative processes at the global level are already countered by the growing demand for integration at the lower, regional level. This phenomenon must be fully appreciated. The current proposals for the EU budget and the EU Recovery Fund are the most articulated and therefore the most visible expression of the tendency of strengthening of regional cooperation. Such tendencies are felt in other parts of the world as well.
This is a promising beginning. Moreover, in the case of the EU, it offers a possibility for the organisation’s internal strengthening and for a stronger positioning globally. Once on the path of full recovery, the EU will be able to redefine its relations with the other major centres of economic power, primarily with China and the US, but also with other partners, including Russia and developing countries. The future global agenda to be pursued by the European Union will have to include the priorities expressed in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change of 2016.
The process of change starting from bottom up will have the capacity to strengthen the UN and to energise multilateralism globally. Admittedly, the ambition level at the EU today is low and does not yet allow a long term vision. But there is no reason why the EU should shy away from an effort to play a vanguard role at the global level in the future. In fact, it should understand the emerging opportunities already now and start preparing without delay.
The 75th Anniversary of the United Nations calls for innovative thinking. There will be no second “San Francisco moment”. But there are new opportunities which allow the European Union and other regional players to help build the United Nations and global governance from bottom up. It is important to recognise these opportunities early. The future is not something we await but something we create.
This op-ed was published by Spanish news outlet El Confidencial. Read it here (in Spanish)