COMMENT / Sebastián Bruzzone
"We have failed... We should have acted earlier in the face of the pandemic". These are not the words of a political scientist, scientist or journalist, but of Chancellor Angela Merkel herself addressing the 27 other leaders of the European Union on 29 October 2020.
Anyone who has followed the news from March to today can easily realise that no government in the world has been able to control the spread of the coronavirus, except in one country: New Zealand. Its prime minister, the young Jacinda Ardern, closed the borders on 20 March and imposed a 14-day quarantine on New Zealanders returning from overseas. Her "go hard, go early" strategy has yielded positive results compared to the rest of the world: fewer than 2,000 infected and 25 deaths since the start of the health crisis. And the question is: how have they done it? The answer is relatively simple: their unilateral behaviour.
The most sceptical to this idea may think that "New Zealand is an island and has been easier to control". However, it is necessary to know that Japan is also an island and has more than 102,000 confirmed cases, that Australia has had more than 27,000 infected, or that the United Kingdom, which is even smaller than New Zealand, has more than one million infected. The percentage of cases out of the total population of New Zealand is tiny, only 0.04% of its population has been infected.
As the world's states waited for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to establish guidelines for a common response to the global crisis, New Zealand walked away from the body, ignoring its wildly contradictory recommendations, which US President Donald J. Trump called "deadly mistakes" while suspending America's contribution to the organisation. Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aro went so far as to say that the WHO should be renamed the "Chinese Health Organisation".
The New Zealand case is an example of the weakening of today's multilateralism. Long gone is the concept of multilateral cooperation that gave birth to the United Nations (UN) after the Second World War, whose purpose was to maintain peace and security in the world. The foundations of global governance were designed by and for the West. The powers of the 20th century are no longer the powers of the 21st century: emerging countries such as China, India or Brazil are demanding more power in the UN Security committee and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The lack of common values and objectives between developed and emerging countries is undermining the legitimacy and relevance of last century's multilateral organisations. In fact, China already proposed in 2014 the creation of the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) as an alternative to the IMF or the World Bank.
The European Union is not spared from the multilateral disaster either because it has been attributed the shared skill in common security matters in subject of public health (TFEU: art. 4.k)). On 17 March, the European committee took the incoherent decision to close external borders with third states when the virus was already inside instead of temporarily and imperatively fail the Schengen Treaty. On the economic front, inequality and suspicion between the debt-prone countries of the North and the South have increased. The refusal of the Netherlands, Finland, Austria and other frugals to the unconditional financial aid required by a country like Spain, which has more official and political cars than the rest of Europe and the United States combined, called into question one of the fundamental principles on which the European Union was built: solidarity.
Europe has been the perfect storm in a sea of uncertainty and Spain, the eye of the hurricane. The European economic recovery fund is a term that overshadows what it really is: a financial bailout. A total of 750 billion euros divided mainly between Italy, Portugal, France, Greece and Spain, which will receive 140 billion euros and will be paid back by our grandchildren's children. It seems fanciful that the first health aid Italy received came from third states and not from its EU partners, but it became a reality when the first planes from China and Russia landed at Fiumicino airport on 13 March. The pandemic is proving to be an examination of conscience and credibility for the EU, a sinking ship with 28 crew members trying to bail out the water that is slowly sinking it.
Leading scholars and politicians confirm that states need multilateralism to respond jointly and effectively to the great risks and threats that have crossed borders and to maintain global peace. However, this idea collapses when it is realised that today's leading figure in bilateralism, Donald J. Trump, is the only US president since 1980 not to have started a war in his first term, to have brought North Korea closer, and to have secured recognition of Israel by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
It is time to shift geopolitics towards updated and consensus-based solutions based on cooperative governance rather than global governance led by obsolete and truly powerful institutions. Globalist multilateralism that seeks to unify the actions of countries with very disparate cultural and historical roots under a single supranational entity to which they cede sovereignty can cause major clashes within the entente, provoke the departure of some of the disgruntled members, the subsequent extinction of the intended organisation and even enmity or a rupture of diplomatic relations.
However, if states with similar values, laws, customary norms or interests decide to come together under a treaty or create a regulatory institution, even while ceding just and necessary sovereignty, the understanding will be much more productive. Thus, a network of bilateral agreements between regional organisations or between states has the potential to create more precise and specific objectives, as opposed to signing a globalist treaty where long letters and lists of articles and members can become smoke and mere declarations of intent as has been the case with the Paris Climate Change Convention in 2015.
This last idea is the true and optimal future of International Office: regional bilateralism. A world grouped in regional organisations made up of countries with similar characteristics and objectives that negotiate and reach agreements with other groups of regions through dialogue, peaceful understanding, the art of diplomacy and binding pacts without the need to cede the soul of a state: sovereignty.