Expert views

The future of multilateralism

9 December 2020
Tatiana Valovaya, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

How international organizations are vital to building back better

World leaders came together 75 years ago and created the United Nations and its related organizations to prevent the breakdown of global cooperation and the resulting chaos and carnage from happening again.

Extraordinary achievements have been made since then: Living standards, measured by indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality and literacy, have all improved. Landmark decisions on environmental protection and human rights, comprehensive trade agreements as well as important health advancements have been achieved. The multilateral system has underpinned much of that success as it laid the basis for joint agreements and cooperation.

21st century challenges put the multilateral system to a critical test

Despite these achievements, the number of challenges has also multiplied over the past decades. At the start of this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned against a modern-day version of the four horsemen. Geopolitical tensions, the climate crisis, global mistrust and the dark side of technology are the looming global threats which endanger 21st century progress. They are nurtured by entrenched poverty and inequalities within and among many countries, a result of the unequal global distribution of economic benefits.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to these pre-existing threats, with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable affected the most. In the economic sphere, the disruption caused by the pandemic has taken the greatest toll on small and medium enterprises due to their lower resilience and insufficient financial support.

The past months have been a powerful reminder of the magnitude of risks if we allow climate, economic and social crises to deepen over time. The wake-up call for renewed and improved collective action could not be clearer.

Unfortunately, what we have been witnessing instead has been an escalation of geopolitical tensions, as well as great asymmetries and fragmentation at all levels. Growing global mistrust, nationalist sentiments and protracted trade tensions add to the fragility of our global structures and weaken the global growth outlook. Our progress on eradicating poverty, creating decent jobs and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is severely threatened.

Our UN75 dialogues show: Most people believe in cooperation and want a reinvigorated multilateralism

Despite the dark picture I am painting, there is reason to be optimistic: Indeed, the current crisis can unite us and ultimately strengthen multilateralism. Our challenges are urgent and complex, and they endanger the global commons – but they can be resolved.

Our worldwide dialogue this year organized as part of the UN75 initiative shows that there is global support for a reinvigorated multilateralism. The vast majority of respondents see the value of cooperation to solve the challenges ahead – from global health, to climate change and conflicts. An important priority for them is to rethink the economy, to build a more inclusive version of it and to rebalance the relationship between economic growth, environment and public priorities.

Building on this global support, it is time to reconceptualize our tools. I foresee at least three changes required in our multilateral system.

First, a new form of inclusivity. International decision-making needs to include the voices of not only governments, but also of local and regional actors, civil society, the business community, academia and others who are often overlooked, young people and women being the prime example.

Second, more networked problem-solving instead of unilateral approaches. The most serious challenges ahead of us are transnational in nature. The mechanisms for global governance need to function in a way that brings different actors and communities together to nurture and inspire each other as well as to create sustainable solutions.

Third, multilateralism must become more effective. The international system, including the workings of the United Nations, needs to be closer to all interested stakeholders, to allow for inclusivity, innovation and partnerships. New digital solutions can help us in meeting this requirement.

However, we, the United Nations and its related institutions, cannot lead the reform of the multilateral system by ourselves. We need the political will, determination and funding of Member States – but also of other, new actors – to keep our promise to future generations.

I firmly believe that there is a clear rationale for global cooperation. Taking the example of small and medium enterprises: without support for them, 90% of the worldwide firms and around 70% of total employment are at risk with devastating trickle-down effects on other sectors. Many small and medium enterprises are in the forefront of innovations which are key to our vision of a more equal, prosperous and sustainable planet. The United Nations is actively advocating for decent jobs and inclusive growth, a worldwide green deal and sustainable economic activities. However, it is only through the joint efforts and networked expertise of political, business and community leaders that we can be successful.

International Geneva: A city that shows the UN’s relevance, best equipped to foster the change we need

If we look at the requirements for a new multilateralism, we see that International Geneva is well equipped to lead by example and is already doing so. Our host city is a knowledge hub of international activity and includes diverse voices in the fields of trade, economics, decent work, development, humanitarian action, human rights, health and climate, among others. The Palais des Nations is a pulsating conference centre that hosts over 12,000 meetings per year, of which many address critical issues related to economics, trade, and small and medium enterprises. International organizations such as the International Trade Centre with its crucial role for small businesses, the International Labour Organization, World Trade Organization, or the UN Conference on Trade and Development are well equipped to support the Sustainable Development Agenda. All of us can harness Geneva and its unique environment to forge new synergies and put the concerns of those in need on the international agenda. Now is the time when joint action counts.