The spreading of a virus from a wet market in Wuhan to all corners of the globe has shown how interconnected the world is. And yet in the face of the pandemic, multilateral institutions were slow to respond.
At a Good Society Forum webinar on 10 June, Michel Rentenaar, the Netherlands Deputy Permanent Representative to NATO, asserted that NATO — a 70-year old organization comprising 30 allies — prides itself on providing security to almost a billion people. Yet when COVID19 hit Europe, this was a threat it was not prepared to face.
However, NATO officials quickly realized that the pandemic could exacerbate other crises and that action was required on its part. Within a few weeks, NATO responded by flying around medical equipment and military hospitals.
NATO has shown itself to be adaptable in the past and will need to do so in the future to remain relevant post COVID. Rentenaar speculated that four trends might affect NATO going forward. Firstly, the end of the post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; secondly, a surge in cyber and disinformation attacks; thirdly, demands that governments decrease defence budgets and spend more on health; and fourthly, the US might increasingly leave Russia and the Middle East to the Europeans to handle while it shifts its focus to China. He noted that it remains unclear whether such trends would lead to a “Good Society” or a “Less Good Society.”
Rentenaar acknowledged that some have questioned whether NATO is still relevant and whether it should continue to exist. Last year, President Trump called NATO “obsolete” and President Macron referred to it as “brain dead.” Despite the challenges facing NATO, Rentenaar remains a great believer in the importance of multilateralism to build consensus between countries — rather than only having transactional bilateral relations.
Jessica Faieta, the UN Resident Coordinator in Colombia, compared today’s turmoil with that of the aftermath of World War II when the United Nations was established. Pandemics, poverty and climate change were testing multilateralism like never before, she said. The UN’s founding charter remains the framework for international cooperation, resolving disputes and human rights. It commits member states “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Faieta asserted that the UN has been effective in convening countries to build a shared vision and to develop a common agenda, citing the Paris Agreement on climate change as an example. But it is the member states who are responsible for implementation.
Faieta, who has worked for the UN for over 25 years in Latin America as well as in headquarters in New York, acknowledged the efforts underway to reform the UN. She believes that multilateralism needs to expand to include civil society, youth, minority groups and businesses.
Faieta argued that the UN is at its most effective when it works on the ground to help countries implement the Sustainable Development Goals to address hunger, health, and education. COVID19 is having a devastating impact on countries. In Colombia, for instance, it is estimated that the pandemic will wipe out 15 years of development gains. An affordable vaccine will need to be administered to 7.5bn people in world. UN officials stand ready to help. Despite the challenges facing it, Faieta asserted that the UN is full of optimists who “don’t give up.”
Brian Kagoro of Open Society Foundations noted how the pandemic is exacerbating existent poverty, inequalities, injustices, and conflicts in African countries. The shutting down of economies has deeply affected informal workers who have no social protection to fall back on. The crisis of development is linked to the crisis of globalization. “We are witnessing jobless growth, a crisis of leadership, and a crisis of institutions,” Kagoro noted, describing a breakdown in the social contract and the loss of trust of citizens in government.
Stressing there is no reset button, Kagoro urged that “we build forward together.” A committed pan Africanist, he stressed the shared values, shared vision and the need for shared solutions. He proposed the demilitarization of development and the rebuilding of social and economic systems, as well as state-society, state-market, and market-society relations.
Brian alleged that the UN and the global trade system do not work for Africa because African countries are treated as junior partners. He urged for reform and a broader multilateral system with engagement with the private sector and civil society. He also noted that multinational co-operations in tech and big pharma have bigger GDP than African countries and are unaccountable.
Despite the difficult times, Kagoro was optimistic that a new dawn is emerging in Africa. During the pandemic, Africans have shown great innovation, producing medicines and equipment which previously they had imported. He also expressed admiration for the empathy that ordinary citizens have shown towards each other.
The full webinar is available on YouTube.
by Emma Sky, Co-Founder and Co-Host at Good Society Forum