2020-05-05 21:36:00  2265312
Has the UN failed us amid COVID-19?
Opinion

By Khoo Ying Hooi

While the unipolarity is commonly described in the post-Cold War era due to the favorable geopolitical position by the United States, the space for an expansion of multilateralism is opened. Simultaneously, the world witnessed the creation of a series of regional international societies that, in many cases, saw the expansion and implementation of state integration and cooperation beyond its boundaries.

Today, after three decades since the Cold War, multilateralism appears to be in crisis. The unexpected outbreak of COVID-19 dominates the global discourse but the geopolitical contest between the US and China is eroding the foundation on which the multilateralism of the post-Cold War is established.

This triggered heated debates on this changing world order, with some welcome the shift of the global world order and some against it. Such a transformation unfortunately upset the democratic governance and opens the way for the growing of authoritarian influence with strong elements of nationalism and protectionism, as most countries are favorable to national approaches in combating the COVID-19 than regional or international effort. In short, the multilateralism is now confronted by the notion of sovereignty.

Whichever side of the debate you are on, it is clear that there is a concern raised about the role of the United Nations (UN), established in 1945 dedicated to international peace, stability and cooperation.

As far as we observed, the extent of international or regional cooperation among countries in combating COVID-19 has remained weak, as most countries prefer to opt for unilateral actions. For instance, closer to the region, the Declaration of the Special ASEAN Summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is only released on 14 April 2020, more than a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it as a pandemic on 11 March 2020.

The pandemic has led many countries to put self-interest first. Such approach triggers the concern about whether countries will retreat into unilateral strategies and move away from the multilateral strategies that has long been a key variable in facilitating cooperation between countries in the post-COVID-19.

Prior to the outbreak, China was heading toward becoming the world's number one economic power with its initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) steadily. China's plan was however stumbled with the pandemic but it managed to recover fast. Now, China offers help to around 120 countries and international organizations around the world with medical supplies and workers including loans. All of this enhanced China's position in the global world order, although uneasily for some.

The 24 October 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the UN. Just recently in March, UN launches a new report, "Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19", in which it describes the speed and scale of the outbreak, the severity of cases, and the societal and economic disruption of the outbreak. With a global health crisis, it is timely to reflect on the role of the UN particularly in responding to the great-power competition between the US and China. 

2020 provides a much-needed opportunity for stocktaking and for the stakeholders to push for improved world governance, as an effort to strengthen the international legal and institutional order established under the UN Charter. 

In this discussion of multilateralism, certainly we need to renew the notion of multilateralism; but the real question before us is what kind of a UN we want? What will the future look like if global issues such as climate change, military conflict, and inequality are left unchecked in the absence of global cooperation? What can we do to work towards such global cooperation and partnership?

For a fact, we need bold collective action more than ever. As the blame game over COVID-19 continues to heat up globally, the WHO has been at the forefront of that debate given its frontline role in coordinating the fight against the outbreak.

In the UN, the tussle between the US and China is visible. Just recently, an UN Security Council draft resolution calling for a 90-day humanitarian pause in conflicts worldwide in the face of the outbreak has been put on hold for weeks just because Washington and Beijing are reportedly could not reach an agreement over how to refer to the WHO in the text. The draft resolution, drafted by France and Tunisia also supports a March 23 plea by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a worldwide ceasefire to facilitate the fight against the outbreak. This has left the UN rather helpless in its struggles to find a response to the global crisis.

In a recent article by scholar Amitav Acharya, "Irresponsible Superpowers Must Cooperate" in the website of Yale Global Online, he highlights that COVID-19 response reveals that global powers and multilateral organizations need to improve their game on reforms, fact-finding, funding and more. 

I quote, "In the COVID-19 pandemic, neither China nor the United States has offered a creditable performance, and this puts immense pressure on the multilateral system… Under Trump, the United States abandoned responsibility to lead common responses to common challenges, whether on its own or through alliances and institutions."For many years, Chinese aid is a core element of the country's foreign policy. To some countries especially those with limited resources and weak health systems, this assistance is a much-needed contribution. To others, primarily in the discourse in the West, it is regarded as China taking advantage of a tragedy of its own making to extend its soft power.

The mixed reaction to China's COVID-19 assistance provides new observation into its aspirations to play a leading role in shaping global governance, and how will this impact on the role of the UN. This question is relevant as there have been concerns raised about the increased active role of China not only in the UN but also in its specialized agencies.

Currently, four of the 15 UN specialized agencies are headed by Chinese nationals, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDP), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). China is also currently the second-largest monetary contributor to the UN with is contribution rising to 12% of the UN regular budget after US with 22% contribution.

As Acharya highlighted in the article, "The bottom line is that both the United States and China find the other's conduct irresponsible and dangerous even as the world needs a norm of responsibility to inform, as much as a responsibility to protect."

The pandemic has made abundantly clear just how crucial multilateralism is for the sake of humanity. The global pandemic does not recognize borders as we witnessed, it sets a stark reminder that the world needs more multilateral cooperation and global solidarity.

The world faces a terrible lack of trust from all levels, ranging from between peoples, between the governments to the international institutions. While the UN has long recognize the problem of trust from the people to the UN, but its effort of restoring trust in the UN has not been successful.

The role of UN has been disappointing amid this crisis and its failure in quick response is an indication that the UN runs another risk of letting the "strong" governments to continue to act solely without global responsibility. How can we then move forward? Perhaps it is really time to act boldly in the midst of the pandemic before it is too late.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer.)













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