Conflict and Leadership
After the Pandemic: Complex Multilateralism Under Threat

Although the current pandemic imposes immediate and imperative responses, it also has important geopolitical and social implications, writes Andrés Serbin, Executive President of CRIES; Co-Chair of the Asia and the Americas section of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).

The post-pandemic will lead to the accentuation of already existing transition trends in the international order prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, with consequences on the deepening of the crisis of globalization and global governance, on the response capacity of multilateral institutions and on international readjustments of power relations. The transition towards a new stable world order will be prolonged, eventually unpredictable and will not materialize in the short term, in a context of an international environment of high instability and uncertainty.

According to the WTO, in the post-pandemic phase international trade will decrease by between 13 and 30%; the recession will affect both the most developed and the most vulnerable economies, and the economic recovery is only looming for 2021, which raises serious questions about globalization and poses a series of scenarios: a “goodbye globalization” (as the recent issue of The Economist was titled) under pressure from isolationist and protectionist forces in various countries; a globalization “with Chinese characteristics” that Beijing will foster and take advantage of as it recovers from the economic recession, or two parallel but interconnected globalization processes, as suggested by some analysts in the United States, where the global governance mechanisms of the international liberal system will coexist with a series of institutions promoted by China, as the already established Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS Development Bank founded in 2014.

The development of any of those three scenarios would have a decisive impact on the fate of multilateralism and global governance.

However, in any of these scenarios, China will increase its participation and influence in various multilateral organizations, both in those that already exist and those that are in the making, probably respecting the liberal norms and regulations of the international economic order, as it did with its entry into the WTO.

Nevertheless, the norms and regulations ​​of economic liberalism that some states may assume and eventually respect will not necessarily include the international values of the “Western” order associated with democratic solidarity in the protection of refugees, human rights in general, humanitarian intervention or responsibility to protect, which collide with an authoritarian, “illiberal” conception based on the control and (digital) monitoring of citizens by the state imposed by some governments. The international “liberal” order established by the West after the Second World War and, particularly after the end of the Cold War, will be torn between the persistence of an economic liberal dynamic and the threat to Western political liberal values.

The broad “health diplomacy” recently promoted by Beijing cannot hide the delayed, centralized and not at all transparent handling of the pandemic in China, nor blur the role of a state that responds vertically to the directives of a single party, regardless of its effectiveness. The mismanagement of the pandemic by the Trump administration, the current popular protests after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the call for imposing law and order using the military, also shows an emerging authoritarian vein by the US President.

But perhaps the greatest challenge of the potential new scenarios of globalization and of a world order in transit between bipolarity and multipolarity, is that of the role of organized citizens – diverse and independent, who have been able to confront the crisis and shore up the work of the state in a democratic framework. Restricting and limiting the role of civil society and the independent media has led to deadly delays in fighting COVID-19 and a dependency on rigid and vertical state bureaucracies to deliver complex responses to crisis situations. Bringing these restrictions and limitations to the international arena will not only mean the end of the so-called “complex multilateralism” – where governments and organized citizens collaborate in international institutions to achieve common goals – but also the decline of effective participation of civil society in the development of an agenda for the defence and promotion of global public goods.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.