The coronavirus found itself face to face with a world unprepared to deal with it. Multilateralism, for example, is dormant, lacking leaderships to promote it with realism and ambition. Under these conditions, coordinating the actions of States to combat the pandemic has proved to be extremely difficult.
There are at least two reasons that help us understand why multilateralism has lost its influence. The first has to do with the rise to power of a bevy of conservative and nationalist leaders. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and Naendra Modi joined the realistic vision that Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan had already been defending on the international stage. Like the latter, they prioritize the defense of national interests and the search for balance over the promotion of universal principles and international institutions.
It should come as no surprise then that in recent years organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization have lost power. Without their help, fighting global warming, the spread of protectionism and the pandemic has become more difficult.
But the emergence of popular conservatism does not absolve the defenders of the liberal order that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many of them gave international organizations a level of responsibility that the citizens of their nations had not wanted to relinquish. Perhaps the clearest example of this process is the European Union.
Initially, the European project sought to achieve a series of goals. Among them was ending the armed conflicts that had marked European history for generations. Efforts were also made to establish a single market that would allow Europeans to compete with Americans under similar conditions. Finally, the European Union was one of the many alliances that sought to strengthen the unity of the West in the face of the Soviet threat. But once these objectives were achieved, an even more ambitious ideal began to take shape, though less focused on the wishes of the population: the construction of a European identity that surpassed national identities. This was, ultimately, a project conceived by the elites.
It would not take long for ordinary citizens to show their opposition. The French, for example, rejected the establishment of a European constitution in a 2005 referendum, while in 2016 the British decided to leave the European Union. Opposition to the more ambitious version of the European project continues today and has expanded in countries like Italy and Hungary. Far from fading, nationalism has gained strength.
The weakening of multilateralism is bad news. Many of the threats facing the world today can only be avoided through global solutions. If China and the United States do not fight global warming, all countries will suffer the consequences. If the members of the G20 do not coordinate, as they did in 2008, their monetary and fiscal policies to avoid a new depression, all nations will suffer. Finally, if we do not coordinate our actions against the coronavirus, this pandemic will continue to jeopardize our well-being.
So what can we do to make multilateralism regain influence? First of all, be realistic. It is probable that several of the trends we have been observing on the international scene will be consolidated after the coronavirus. Nationalism, to look at one trend, is here to stay. So is the strategic conflict between China and the United States. Globalization will not disappear but will enter a new stage. In fact, there are already clear signs that governments will seek to control the production of strategic goods and impose greater restrictions on immigration. On the other hand, technological advances are likely to continue promoting the growth of trade in services linked to the digital economy.
One of the consequences of nationalism will be that countries will not want to relinquish responsibility to those institutions that require a certain level of autonomy in order to function. This means that many of the organizations that emerged after World War II will continue to lose influence. On the contrary, the new international system (which will be more similar to that of the Vienna Congress, which existed between the fall of Napoleon and World War I, than to the liberal order of the late twentieth century) will be friendlier to forums such as the G20. After all, the G20 seeks only to be a meeting place for leaders of the key countries to exchange information and coordinate policies. It does not demand sovereignty nor does it require a central bureaucracy.
Multilateralism should also play a central role in our region. The possible transfer of the strategic competition existing between Washington and Beijing to Latin America could end decades of relative stability - in terms of conflicts between Countries. Imagine for a moment a scenario in which some countries in the region align with the United States and others with China. Given the dangers of a military conflict between the major powers (the existence of nuclear weapons would make it an almost suicidal act), it is possible that, as happened during the Cold War, the powers seek to resolve their disputes through their allies.
This scenario would be a nightmare for Latin Americans. To avoid this, we must coordinate our actions. And in this process the most important relationship will be the one that unites Argentina and Brazil. Let us remember that this strategic association was what enabled us to surpass decades of disputes, bringing peace and stability to South America.
Mercosur is perhaps the best instrument that Buenos Aires and Brasilia have to frame their relationship. The initial success of the Mercosur was based on the defense of State policies that went beyond the ideologies of passing administrations. It is time to rescue this spirit, since the political differences between the governments of both countries are great. If foreign policy is ideologized, there is a high risk that the relationship, and Latin American multilateralism in general, will end up deteriorating.
Let's review for a moment what happened with other attempts at regional coordination. Both Unasur (promoted by progressive governments) and Prosur (later promoted by liberal governments) faced serious difficulties. This is partly explained because, as already mentioned, to be successful, integration processes and multilateralism in general must be guided by long-term strategic policies, and not by the ideology of the governments in power. If we succeed in the prevalence of moderation and rationality, there will be certainty and stability, which in turn will strengthen political and economic relations between our countries.
The great French novelist Michel Houellebecq recently pointed out that after the coronavirus “a new world is not coming; It will be the same, but a little worse”. Multilateralism can help us do a little better.
Francisco de Santibañes is a specialist in International Relations and Argentine Foreign Policy., the Secretary General of the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI) and Global Fellow of the Wilson Center for International Scholars. He is a professor in the Masters of Public Policy of the Austral University and has authored the books "Argentina and the world: keys to a successful integration" and "The rebellion of nations: the crisis of liberalism and the rise of popular conservatism". Every Saturday he publishes an article in the journal Infobae.