January 19, 2022

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The Case for Modest Multilateralism

(Bloomberg Opinion) — As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion will be running a series of features by our columnists that consider the long-term consequences of the crisis. This column is part of a package on how to strengthen three pillars of national security: defense, diplomacy and strategy. For more, see James Stavridis on  the U.S. military’s role in fighting pandemics and Kori Schake on upgrading non-military and civilian expertise.

Great global traumas have a way of revealing the gap between the sort of international system we might like and the sort of international system we actually have. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception. One lesson of the crisis is that strengthened global cooperation will be critical to preventing future outbreaks. Another lesson, however, is that we’re not likely to have a “one-world” moment anytime soon. Rather than attempt to remake the international order after the virus, U.S. policy makers should promote a modestly strengthened multilateralism — an uninspiring goal, but one that may actually be achievable, and which would still make the world a safer place.  

The coronavirus reminds us that many clichés about a globalized world are true. Pathogens and the pandemics they cause don’t care much about geopolitical dividing lines. Economic shocks that begin in one country rarely end there. International organizations are critical to meeting shared challenges. It is hard for even a superpower to remain healthy, physically or economically, in an unhealthy world. Our current trial, writes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, teaches “a lesson we should have learned long ago: that, to thrive, people of every nationality must combine strengths.” 

Alas, it’s not that easy. The central axis of any new multilateralism would presumably be stronger ties between the world’s two leading powers, but coronavirus has sharpened the competition between America and China. Far from instilling faith in international institutions, the crisis has revealed how Beijing has politicized and perverted supposedly technocratic bodies like the World Health Organization. Economic de-globalization is likely to accelerate after this crisis, as countries seek to limit the risks of diseases crossing their borders or of competitors controlling their access to critical medical supplies. And while coronavirus has underscored the existence of a global community, it has also highlighted the continuing centrality of American unilateral power. It is not the IMF or the World Bank but the Federal Reserve that has used its financial firepower to keep the global economy functioning. 

So yes, more and better global cooperation will be essential to dealing with new pandemics and other transnational threats — but let’s not get carried away about what is possible. A more promising approach is to aim for a marginally better multilateralism, one that acknowledges hard geopolitical realities, but still gives leaders the tools required to respond more effectively to future crises. 


This new multilateralism features five key principles. 

First, the U.S. must get its own house in order. Effective global action of any sort depends on the initiative and power of individual countries. For 80 years, no country’s initiative and power have been more important than America’s in catalyzing collective action in the face of global challenges. America can’t be indifferent to international cooperation on coronavirus, but building a strong foundation for future progress requires America coming through the current crisis with its power and self-confidence intact. Getting a handle on the contagion within the U.S., and supporting the domestic economy in the interim, would serve not just Americans but all those who rely on Washington’s leadership. 

Second, the U.S. should strengthen the core of the international system by reinvesting in its unrivaled network of alliances and partnerships. Secretary of State George Shultz compared alliance management to gardening, a task that requires ongoing diligence and care. The Trump administration has pursued a reasonable agenda — getting allies to contribute more to the common good — in a heedlessly destructive way, depleting the reservoir of credibility and trust that is so critical in a crisis. Whatever future challenges shake the international system, America will do better if it brings together the countries that share its values and its notion of how the world should work. 

Third, effective multilateralism requires being engaged with global institutions, while remaining clear-eyed about their shortcomings. The coronavirus demonstrates why institutions like the WHO matter, as clearinghouses for information and forums for coordinating responses. It would be a huge mistake for the U.S. to cripple the WHO by permanently pulling funding for the organization, as Trump has threatened. 

At the same time, it is entirely proper to ask whether the effectiveness of the WHO and other such bodies have been compromised by the Chinese regime, which uses them not as mechanisms for good global governance but as tools for increasing its power at home and abroad. If such institutions are to fulfill their potential to tackle global challenges, a necessary precondition will be a determined push, by America and other democracies, to defeat this Chinese strategy. The Trump administration should receive some credit for initiating an overdue diplomatic campaign to contest Chinese influence in international bodies. 

Fourth, the U.S. and its allies should pursue a smarter, more selective globalization. Globalization’s death has been exaggerated before. But the world economy won’t go back to what it was before coronavirus. The U.S. and other countries will want greater slack and redundancy in key supply chains; they will build stockpiles of key medical supplies as insurance; they will take a harder look at areas where integration has led to dependence on competitors. Travel restrictions may remain in place for some time.

In other ways, however, a healthy world will require more globalization. The price of reviving global travel may be developing stronger international mechanisms for coordinating travel regulations, screening travelers for diseases, and sharing information on who is moving across what border. And as the U.S. selectively disentangles from rivals like China, it can preserve the efficiency and innovation that globalization promotes by deepening integration with friendly democracies.

Finally, there will be the challenge of compartmentalizing competition. The U.S.-China rivalry is getting worse: Just witness how both countries have maneuvered for advantage even as the pandemic has raged. It is essential that the U.S. compete vigorously, both to protect its own interests and because it is hard to imagine a mercantilist, autocratic party-state leading a stable and cooperative world order. Yet the prospects for dealing with future pandemics or other transnational challenges will markedly improve if Washington and Beijing can avoid letting their rivalry preclude collaboration where their interests align, even as they remain deeply skeptical of each other’s intentions and larger designs. 

None of this is likely to reverse the troubling trends that have emerged over the past decade, and that have in many cases been accentuated by the pandemic. Great-power rivalry will persist and intensify. Autocratic nationalism will continue to test the world order built by America and its democratic allies. International organizations will remain venues for rivalry as well as for cooperation. Pretending that coronavirus has somehow healed these “preexisting conditions” in the international system would simply leave Washington and its friends vulnerable to more predatory actors.

The goal of a modestly improved multilateralism is to work within these constraints. It should improve where possible the world’s ability to respond to transnational threats without unduly compromising America’s ability to deal with ideological and geopolitical challenges. If there is a relevant historical parallel here, it is in the way that the U.S. and the Soviet Union cooperated warily to address issues such as nuclear proliferation and smallpox, even amid their intense and often dangerous rivalry that polarized the globe. That may not seem like a particularly ambitious vision, given the destruction that coronavirus is now inflicting. But far better to seek the sort of international system we can reasonably attain than one that is sure to remain beyond our grasp. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of “The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.”

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