There is no alternative to Multilateralism in the 21st Century
Posted on 8 Oct 2020
Categories: Focus on
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

Let us make no mistake: we are at an unprecedented defining moment in history which requests our utmost attention, whether we are citizens or leaders.

We have all become forever interdependent

First of all, the world population skyrocketed from 2.4 billion to over 7.8 billion, and it will take just 15 years to add another billion members to the human family. This single fact made us all become forever interdependent because we rely on the same finite essential resources and are linked by the degree to which we turn the atmosphere into a greenhouse. On current trends, climate upheavals will soar, impacting soils and generating migration flows many times bigger than those resulting from conflicts and unbearable local living conditions which recently stirred concern in many countries. No wall, no army, no return charters will ever stop people from leaving their homes to survive when oceans rise, typhoons multiply, food supplies plummet …

That alone makes multilateralism an imperative of the 21st Century. But there is a lot more.

In the soon-to-be world of 10 billion people, half a billion who misbehave can offset the efforts of 9.5 billion mindful of climate or other vulnerable global common goods. We therefore also entered the era of individual and collective responsibility. Many of our daily decisions, big or small, now have major consequences. Information and education for local and global citizenship are becoming absolute musts – as is leading by example. New global ethical standards are needed. Reflections should be launched by UNESCO with the entire peace and development UN system, involving line ministries and civil societies.

Fundamental changes happened since the UN was born, which call for brand new governance. 

Governance models conceived during the pre-interdependence era need thorough overhaul

During COP24 in Katowice (2018), many media reported that the melting of permafrost in the Northern hemisphere due to global warming will likely release unknown bacteria and viruses trapped in frozen soils for over 30.000 years. This undoubtedly warrants unanimous recommitment to the Paris climate agreement, and upgrading the entire global health system since the protection chain is only as good as its weakest global link. We cannot afford a repeat of the failure by the UN Security Council in the early stages of the Covid19 alert to agree on a resolution and joint action plan. We owe citizens another approach to global threats than tugs-of-war among some nations and global competition for treatments and vaccines. Major hazards must be addressed through global cooperation, freely and fully shared information, and the recognition that vital medicines are global common goods, thus patent-free and yielding no other royalties than the lives saved and restored to health.

New situations call for new logics. In many areas from health to agriculture, from energy to water, from finance to knowledge, from internet to security it is time to overhaul governance models conceived during the pre-interdependence era, and to substitute solidarity and cooperation for competition.

Unprecedented challenges call for bold multilateral answers

New challenges requiring multilateral answers will include hard questions such as the status of scarce vital natural resources available only in some countries, or what is allowed or forbidden as technology enables to graft digital devices for curing crippling diseases or to artificially augment a human being’s abilities thus creating de facto hybrid beings… Should the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be updated accordingly? How to protect people from State abuses including unwanted bionic controls? Artificial intelligence is close to profoundly reshaping the very structure of our societies and human worth – for good or nightmares.

A new unavowed arms race is already underway, from robots to bots – aiming at the ground, space, and cyberspace. How can it be controlled, overcome, and protected from falling into criminal hands? 

How can rights-based societies eradicate organized crime in hugely crowded urban populations, drugs, and human trafficking, as well as cyber-criminality in a soon-to-be fully digitalized economy?  How will people be protected from the insufficiently known potential side-effects of generalized cutting-edge technologies? How to address religion-based violence other than through armed force? All of these issues call for peacefully thought-out specific global pacts. Should the UN create a “Wisdom Council” gathering respected wise figures from each continent to inform Security Council and General Assembly major debates and decisions on sensitive issues?

Development gaps and obscene inequalities are destroying social fabrics and  hampering effective governance for the 21st Century.

How to rebuild trust in institutions, media, and politicians? How to reconcile bloated news and freedom of expression? How to protect the emergence of bold new ideas and discoveries against censorship and mind-closure? How to appease debates in all domains and generate respectful open exchanges on the internet? How to subtract knowledge from commodification?

There are also unfinished urgent tasks. Development gaps and obscene inequalities are destroying social fabrics and hampering effective governance for the 21st Century. In the age of instant global communication, the cynical persistence of poverty and hunger breeds despair, utter distrust in democratic government institutions and even violence. Fifty years after the foresighted resolution on development assistance there is still talk of reaching the 0.7% of GDP although chronic failure to do so explains many of the problems that plague humanity. Every year malnutrition and hunger have been and are killing many times more than SARS-CoV-2 despite repeated UN pleas and warnings that only by creating an even playing field will every nation be able to do its share of managing the global commons in everyone’s interest.

Should the UN create a ’Wisdom Council’ to inform Security Council and General Assembly major debates and decisions
on sensitive issues ?

Achieving Agenda 2030 is a 21st Century imperative

Today’s hope is the transformative Agenda 2030 unanimously endorsed by governments at the UN in September 2015.  Reaching its 17 goals on deadline despite the Covid-19 setback would set the world on track for taking up the new challenges. There can be no better way of building back better. Let us build alliances with civil society to make it the top priority for the new decade.

What is at stake is not the UN as an institution, though we must beware of taking it for granted, but the very fate of “the people of the United Nations”, our “human family”. If we have an ounce of love for our children and grandchildren, we unconditionally owe them an unprecedented concerted multilateral drive – hence, an empowered and adequately funded UN.  

* Jean Fabre est consultant international.