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Multilateralism or antagonism?


An alliance of democratic countries against an alliance of authoritarian states, the current global political trend, does not serve the cause of international cooperation

The crisis provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the largest and most significant events to hit the world since World War II, with repercussions across multiple areas of people’s lives, from health to economics, security to human rights. The virus has had the paradoxical effect both of highlighting the importance of international cooperation and of amplifying the trends in today’s world that are making cooperation more difficult. In that sense, it appears as a critical moment for multilateralism, as for so many other areas of life.

The crisis of multilateralism

The multilateral system was already under great strain before the coronavirus arrived. As Richard Gowan and I wrote last year for ECFR, we can identify three interrelated crises of multilateralism. There is a crisis of power: the United States is no longer willing or able to underpin the multilateral system, and China increasingly seeks to shape institutions around its own values and objectives. There is a crisis of relevance: institutions are based on rules and procedures designed for yesterday’s concerns, and in many areas, they do not accurately reflect the most significant demands of today’s world. And finally, there is a crisis of legitimacy: many countries see institutions as not reflecting their interests and concerns, while many people even in established democracies believe multilateralism mainly serves elites rather than the collective interest.

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