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Is Multilateralism Dead?

Current global events, compounded by the recent Covid-19 crisis, have raised many criticisms and questions regarding the functioning of our international system. The United Nations System, as well as the multilateral world order, has been in the spotlight with concerns regarding the efficacy and relevance of our current global governance. ONResearch, the research platform of EU Business School, had the opportunity to discuss these and various other important questions with Matthew Wilson, Chief Adviser & Chef de Cabinet, Office of the Executive Director, International Trade Centre.

Multilateralism is its own greatest threat and its own best advocate, what is its core defining principle in today’s world?

Multilateralism is a reality. Multilateralism is irrefutable. Multilateralism is  essential. In 2020, more than ever before, we have to promote the notion of multilateralism for all. This means inclusive governance, greater economic equity and shared responsibility. Coincidentally, this month on April 24, we commemorate the United Nations International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace. First convened in 2019, this international day seeks to highlight the values of international cooperation that are core to the United Nations values, and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

But is multilateralism in crisis? Well it’s certainly under tension. But that’s natural. With the evolving role and influence of new actors- developing countries, the business community, academia and NGOs, and the increasing impact of ‘the individual’, -new ways of decision making, consensus building and crafting of compromise positions is a natural outcome.

Some global actors respond to this better than others, but I don’t think there’s any country today that legitimately sees unilateralism as an intelligent long-term solution to managing global crises or protecting the global commons.

Too often people see multilateralism as a concept. It is not. It is in the smartphone that you hold in your hands. It is the food that you are eating because of common agreed standards. It is the music that you are able to stream online. All of these are the result of multilateral or plurilateral discussions. Every one of us is ‘living multilateralism’. Global problems require global solutions and the recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important it is to collaborate around health responses, keep markets open for medical and hygiene supplies, maintain cross-border supply chains and engender activism around relief efforts. 

We all agree that the world is rapidly changing and it’s difficult to paint a picture of what the future might look like, or how key global relationships today will be affected in the future.

We all agree that the world is rapidly changing, and it is difficult to paint a picture of what the future might look like, or how key global relationships today will be affected in the future. What key factors/trends are shaping (or…should share) international relations into the future?

Again, Global problems require global solutions. This has to be the prevailing doctrine. And every national issue has a regional or global dimension. Never before has the idea of a global village been more accurate. This means we celebrate together, we grieve together, we fight together and we find solutions together. The weakest link weakens the whole. 

I do fear however that in some countries, the negative face of nationalism and populism will continue to grow. Intense inward looking and the fear of the ‘other’- for the basis is indeed fear, will continue to color how some administrations interact. We will see some politically motivated onshoring of economic activity and some shortening of supply chains, which will have the greatest impact on those at the base of the pyramid. But balancing that will be the continued spread of information and smart data, the growing internationalism of shared culture and a rich digital and virtual world where commerce, connections and camaraderie will continue to advance.

COVID-19 will also completely transform how we operate in the future:

  1. Right now, tourism is halted and many countries, and small island states in particular, are suffering. However, in the recovery period I expect tourism, ideally sustainable tourism, to take off exponentially as people will be eager to travel again. This provides an opportunity for green tourism value chains, better connected agriculture and tourism value chains, and to build industries around the tourism sector that could be self-sufficient even in a tourism downturn.
  2. The environment will come back onto the agenda in a slightly different way. During this period we have clearly seen the impact that human activity has had on pollution, wildlife, biodiversity and the oceans. I believe we will come back to the climate change table reinvigorated and with clearer heads. I hope to see this in the WTO negotiations on Fisheries Subsidies, for example.
  3. Business models will change. What this period has shown is that companies, including MSMEs, with a digital footprint and e-commerce readiness, have weathered the storm better than those that are purely ‘bricks and mortar’. We have also seen that the gig economy has serious inherent flaws. What makes it attractive, the flexibility for example, has also shown up the failings with no unemployment or medical insurance provisions available. I expect that we will see a narrowing of the gap between what traditional employment offers and what the gig economy offers, with a premium given to social safety nets. Both large and small businesses with stronger balance sheets have been able to maneuver the lockdown with greater confidence, and I believe there are some lessons here that many companies and policy makers will be paying attention to.
  4. One area that I hope garners more attention going forward is violence against women and girls. We have seen the figures: Spain saw almost 20% more activity on domestic violence hotlines in the first two weeks of the lockdown versus the whole of the previous month; in France the police reported a spike of around 30% in domestic violence in the first month; and we have seem stories like this from around the world. In certain regions where there have been historically high incidences of violence against women and girls, such as in Latin America and the Caribbean, the forced isolation has placed already vulnerable populations at greater risk. The recent initiative by the UN Secretary General calling for a ‘domestic violence ceasefire’ has highlighted this pandemic.[1] From addressing domestic violence to pursuing economic empowerment of women, a post COVID-19 recovery plan must take the particular impact of women and girls at the center.
  5. There are other areas that COVID-19 has confirmed for us. Commodity dependence can be destabilizing, reliance on tourism can be unpredictable and debt burdens for the least developed countries and small island developing states can be crippling. Multiple repayments can sometimes lead to domestic underinvestment in crucial social sectors like health and small business ecosystem building. All of these have to be deeply examined going forward.

The United Nations System is at the forefront of global affairs. However, in recent times it has come under harsh criticisms apropos its model of functioning. These criticisms, even if not warranted in many respects do require a deeper introspection. Do you think the current global governance system, borne out of the Atlantic Charter, is at best – outdated? Does the current international regime require overhauling? What are your suggestions in regard to transforming the current model? 

I don’t believe we need an overhaul of the current international regime. But we do need a refresh. The United Nations family is far too often criticized and far too infrequently applauded for its critical day-to-day work. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been characterized by all of the agencies of the United Nations, including the International Trade Centre (ITC), working together on information sharing, pooling expertise and organizing our COVID-19 related interventions to ensure they are complementary.[2] This has worked very well. The whole UN system has moved to remote working. Many agencies have managed to continue to deliver to partners on the ground through digital means and I expect that this will continue in the years to come. The WHO, working through a crisis that many of us did not predict, has also shown the importance of transparency, inclusive decision-making and cross-border cooperation. 

One thing that people often forget is that the UN is made up of a membership of countries and territories, so any introspection of how the UN system is functioning must also include both inward looking and contemplation on the part of UN Member States. We should indeed look at faster and more inclusive decision making processes, an even greater spotlight on the most vulnerable such as the LDCs, the SIDS and the Post-conflict and fragile states and tackling, including as is currently being discussed in the World Trade Organization  (WTO), whether the rights, balances, exceptions and special and differential treatment of today, reflects the reality of where different countries lie on the development spectrum. 

The Westphalian model of global governance has been dominated by nation states. However, today’s challenges transcend boundaries and require universality in action. Despite these there has been a reluctance on both sides to include businesses and the private sector. Is there a trust deficit in envisaging such partnerships? Has that been your experience at the ITC?

I wouldn’t call it a ‘trust deficit’ per se. Perhaps it is a ‘knowledge deficit’. Many businesses, big and small, still sometimes see the United Nations and the WTO system in very stereotypical terms. They see the UN as a small (or sometimes larger!) country state with all of the bureaucracies, special interests and slow decision making that may exist in some economies. The UN must continue to work to dispel this myth and businesses must allow themselves to move from their conventional perception of international organizations.

The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) has been playing a growing role in connecting the UN and the business community; the UN Global Compact has played a particular role in bringing larger companies into the UN meeting rooms and the International Trade Union Confederation has played an active role in the past in working with the WTO. And of course, we have the ILO, which at its core is about bringing governments, employers and employees together. The International Trade Centre is the only UN agency specifically focused on building the competitiveness of MSMEs and we have over 55 years of experience working with small businesses and business support organizations on the ground in developing countries.

Businesses care about action. The vast majority of them do not have specific arms focused on interaction with the UN and other international agencies- often it is only the multinationals that do- so what they want are actions and activities that can positively impact on the ease and cost of doing business. A perfect example of this is the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement. This was very much driven by the business community who understood the positive impact that enhanced trade-facilitating processes would have on their ability to trade across borders.  Obviously, businesses were not part of the negotiations, but as a former trade negotiator and ‘Friend of the Chair’ in the Trade Facilitation negotiations, I can confirm that business was right there along with the government officials. Not at the negotiating table, but in the important work and assessments undertaken earlier in the value chain. This worked and proved that the business community will be there to accompany if the positive impact is clear. We have seen the same at the ITC with the interaction of the private sector under our SheTrades work and under our work on sustainability standards through our T4SD programme, where the value of working with a UN agency on women’s economic empowerment and on greening value chains is valuable to the business community.

What is the key role that academia can play in bolstering the work of key multilateral institutions like the ITC?  

Academic research forms an absolutely critical part of the work of the ITC. Our flagship publication the SME Competitiveness Outlook (SMECO) is an excellent mix of serious academic research and practical applied research. The ITC and the Madrid based IE University’s School of Global and Public Affairs, have collaborated on an Executive Masters in Internationalization and Trade[3] and our SME Trade Academy[4] has been working with the Barbados based Shridath Ramphal Centre at the University of the West Indies, on a bespoke trade related online course.

These are but two examples of how ITC is collaborating with educational institutions, and of course we have also participated in events at the EU Business School over the past two years. But on a wider level, academia and academic research provides new and novel perspectives that are incredibly important even in trade negotiations. Academic institutions can play an important role in supporting developing countries negotiators to prepare to engage in sometimes challenging negotiating contexts. The research done by institutions and universities to unpeel the layers behind fish stocks and fisheries management systems has been an important input to the WTO Fisheries negotiations and in ITC we have relied on academic partners such as Duke University to support our work in building the resilience of coconuts in the Caribbean[5]. I believe we, and other multilateral organizations, would do well to expand partnerships with academia including in areas such as AI, sustainability and the new economic models for effective trade-related capacity building and delivery.






Interviewed by Suddha Chakravartti, Editor-in-Chief at ONResearch, on April 20th, 2020.

Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson

Chief Adviser & Chef de Cabinet, Office of the Executive Director, International Trade Centre