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Commentary: Unfolding crisis around multilateralism is deeply unsettling

Never has the supply of multilateral solutions been so scarce, and demand for them so high, says EU official Josep Borrell.

Commentary: Unfolding crisis around multilateralism is deeply unsettling

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the 75th annual U.N. General Assembly, which is being held mostly virtually due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., September 22, 2020. United Nations/Handout via REUTERS

BRUSSELS: In any normal year, I would be in New York City now for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). 

The event represents the greatest concentration of global policymakers in one place and is the high point on the diplomatic calendar.

But this year is far from normal, and “UNGA week” is going virtual with events held online – a familiar format for us all in recent months.

This is unfortunate for several reasons. It is the UN’s 75th anniversary, and one would have wished for a better way to mark the occasion.

READ: World leaders mark UN at 75, challenged by COVID-19, US, China tensions

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Moreover, the state of the world is such that the multilateral system, with the UN at its core, is being challenged like never before – and just when we need it the most.

Indeed, never has the supply of multilateral solutions been so scarce, and demand for them so high. Every day we see how narrow nationalism and strategic rivalries, especially between the United States and China, are paralysing the UN Security Council and the wider international system.

From climate change and arms control to maritime security, human rights, and beyond, global cooperation has been weakened, international agreements abandoned, and international law undermined or selectively applied.

READ: Commentary: A UN ruling has decided that climate refugees is a thing

THREATS TO MULTILATERALISM

For Europeans, this is deeply unsettling. But the unfolding crisis of multilateralism is not a problem only for Europeans: Everyone’s security and rights are in jeopardy.

Phrases like the “multilateral system” and “the rules-based international order” seem vague and lack the ring of “America First” or “Take Back Control”.

File photo of US President Donald Trump. (Photo: AFP/Nicholas Kamm) US President Donald Trump's "America first" policies are testing the usually collegial G7 club AFP/Nicholas Kamm READ: Commentary: If Trump wins again, the true values of the Republican Party will be abandoned The risk of increased conflict and disruption – such as what we are currently witnessing in Nagorno-Karabakh in Central Asia - will only intensify amid foreign policy crises that emerge across regions in which the US no longer has significant interest.

But they stand for something very concrete and real: The choice between peace and war, free societies and closed ones, and an economy built on sustainable development and one that fuels widening inequalities and runaway climate change.

A world governed by agreed rules is the very basis of our shared security, freedoms, and prosperity. A rule-based international order makes states secure, keeps people free and companies willing to invest, and ensures that the Earth’s environment is protected.

The alternative – “might makes right” – has been tried for most of human history, and its horrific record is the best argument for the multilateral system. Unfortunately, it is increasingly being tried again, with the results visible to all.

READ: China has no intention to fight 'a Cold War or hot one' with any country, says Xi at UN

EU STANDS BY THE UN

This is not the approach of the EU. It will continue to believe in and support the UN – not just rhetorically, but also politically and financially, as well as diplomatically, by trying to act as a bridge-builder in the Security Council.

When others were trying to pull apart the World Health Organization at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the EU that led the negotiations resulting in an agreement to set up an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.

The EU is also the biggest donor to the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), established to ensure that the world gets a reliable vaccine as soon as possible and that it is treated as a global public good.

READ: Commentary: The turning point in global fight against COVID-19 is approaching

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The EU pays one-quarter of the UN budget. It is often said that Europe punches below its weight geopolitically. But in terms of multilateral engagement, it finances well above its weight.

With crisis management operations, the bloc operates hand in hand with the UN on stabilisation and reconstruction in many conflict zones, from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, and from to the Balkans to the Middle East. In the toughest war zones and humanitarian crises, you will find the EU and the UN working together.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) visit the troops of France's Barkhane operation in Africa's Sahel region in Gao, northern Mali, 19 May 2017. REUTERS/Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool/File Photo

Europeans have pushed hard for an international climate agreement and are doing their best to keep it alive. The Union is relentless in trying to protect biodiversity, access to clean water, and other natural resources.

These contributions are investments in global security and prosperity – and thus in Europe’s security and prosperity. We know that we can be safe, healthy, and secure only if our neighbours are, too. What is true of individuals is also true of countries.

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READ: Commentary: The wonder of clear skies and returning wildlife is our new climate problem

REVITALISING MULTILATERALISM

Even in the face of strong headwinds, the EU will stay the course in support of finding common solutions. This if often difficult and tiring, but it is always ready to discuss how to make the system more effective, more legitimate, and more fit for purpose; both with like-minded partners and those with whom it disagrees.

Multilateralism today must be different from that of the twentieth century: Power has shifted and the challenges are no longer the same.

Much of what will shape our future – cyberspace data analytics, artificial intelligence, biogenetics, autonomous vehicles, and much else – is emerging in a regulatory vacuum. We must fill it with agreed rules, norms, and standards, and ensure they are applied – including in contexts where the major stakeholders are not governments.

READ: Commentary: Will China’s new data security initiative define global norms?

The EU’s bottom line is this: Reform should take place by design, not by destruction. The system must be revitalised, not abandoned.

So, this week and beyond, the EU will uphold the spirit of the UNGA and defend multilateralism, which all countries so badly need. A world without the UN would endanger us all.

Josep Borrell is EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and a vice president of the European Commission.

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