The COVID-19 pandemic is posing challenges to governments and institutions around the world. To address urgent public health and economic needs, stakeholders are coordinating and forming new partnerships—in some instances led by international organizations. Yet, there has also been an increase in geopolitical turbulence as global stress points are exacerbated by competition over resources, battles over national narratives, and overall questions about the benefits of globalization.

Within this context, four experts examine the shape of global cooperation and explore what current developments mean for the prospects of cooperation ahead.

Cooperation, nationalism, or both?

In examining what looks to be a trend of rising nationalism around the world, the experts take differing positions on whether the trend may derail cooperation or whether it can be accommodated, with states still able to work together on common priorities.

Lynn Kuok, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, notes that while the COVID-19 crisis has offered an opportunity for greater cooperation, global actors have not seized on it: “The hope is that the crisis provides oxygen to multilateralism—already gasping for air before the pandemic. Signs thus far, however, suggest that countries are digging their heels into nationalist trenches.”

In Europe, “initial responses were determinedly ‘every country for its own’”, she says. Southeast Asia fared a little better, though ASEAN could do more: While ASEAN has “convened a series of meetings and issued statements recognizing the importance of ‘collectively respond[ing]’ to the outbreak of COVID-19 and ‘strengthen[ing] the coordination of national and regional efforts’”, ASEAN “needs to move beyond rhetoric towards action on the ground”, Kuok says.

For Susana Malcorra, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina, it is still an open question whether the crisis will jumpstart global cooperation: “It is still early to determine whether the new context opens a window of opportunity for transforming global governance or whether it may result in a further reversal in international cooperation with governments leaning towards isolationism, protectionism and closed borders.”

She expresses concern with the rise in nationalism, with the nation-state having “become the guarantor of last resort,” and wonders whether this will ultimately cause leaders to seek renewed cooperation or not. “It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 crisis will make leaders realize that no one country can face twenty-first century challenges, such as terrorism, migration, illegal trafficking, cyber and bio attacks or pandemics, alone,” she says.

“It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 crisis will make leaders realize that no one country can face twenty-first century challenges, such as terrorism, migration, illegal trafficking, cyber and bio attacks or pandemics, alone”

—Susana Malcorra, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina

Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, also points to growing nationalism around the world but feels it may not spell the end of cooperation at the global level. “As the acute phase of the health crisis passes and the world starts to reopen, a lesson will remain: in the case of severe distress, each and every nation is on its own. As a result, the geopolitical context will be not about just rising nationalism or ambitions, but about a growing sense that within an extremely turbulent world, it is safer to rely on oneself,” he says.

But this strengthened nationalism does not mean cooperation is impossible. For Lukyanov, “Cooperation will be in place in the future, of course, but self-interest will dominate any international interaction. Based on the COVID-19 experience, multilateral cooperation will be less sustainable under emergency circumstances, with bilateral arrangements working better. These arrangements will likely be ad-hoc within certain contexts, rather than exist within a universal framework of rules.

Karin von Hippel, Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute, points to the rise of populism and greater power competition between the United States and China as the reason “we are seeing no real global collaboration during this pandemic, and if anything, countries are mostly going it alone, behaving in a zero-sum, competitive way.” Because of this, she feels that “we are at a critical juncture, and where we go from here will partly depend on what happens in November in America.”

What can coordination look like?

While the experts agree about the need for coordinated global action amid the current crisis, and beyond, they offer differing perspectives on what this coordination should and could look like, and on what the role of international institutions should and could be.

Lynn Kuok makes clear the reason global coordination is a critical component of a sustainable recovery: “Without a coordinated response, any respite from the virus can only be temporary. Economies will be hard-pressed to recover as the risk of subsequent waves of infections and lockdowns looms. An uncertain business environment will spell disaster for many businesses and jobs. This will in turn have negative implications for both domestic and international stability.”

The hope is that the crisis provides oxygen to multilateralism—already gasping for air before the pandemic. Signs thus far, however, suggest that countries are digging their heels into nationalist trenches.”

—Lynn Kuok, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

Kuok argues that critical to achieving this coordination is the multilateral system: “There is undoubtedly a need for global institutions—the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—and countries to act in concert.”

Susana Malcorra agrees on the unique position the UN holds for advancing global cooperation, noting that “as the UN marks its 75th anniversary, it should demonstrate the relevancy and efficacy of multilateralism.”

But she argues in favour of a more activist UN role, particularly on the part of the Security Council because “the UN Charter defines the role of the UN Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security” and “the Security Council has recognized health threats in the past such as in 2000, when it passed Resolution 1308 on HIV/AIDS and peacekeepers, and in 2014 when it passed Resolution 2177 that declared the spread of the Ebola virus.”

Karin von Hippel agrees the UN should take a more activist role, particularly in serving in a coordinating function, but offers a different recommendation on how. She suggests “a UN Plus model, one that could convene not just states but also non-state actors, including the private sector.”

“Corona has taught us that our very survival depends on managing the future in a responsible and coordinated fashion.”

—Karin von Hippel, Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute

This body, she says, could “coordinate the sharing of information and the development of policy options about the range of public health and non-health challenges connected to this pandemic: disruptions in global supply chains, a likely global recession, massive unemployment, concerns over critical national infrastructure, and much more.”

There is an urgent need for a multifaceted approach, according to von Hippel. “This crisis is warning us that we need a fundamental re-think of our global architecture for anticipating, planning, managing, and mitigating complex, interconnected threats,” she counsels.“Corona has taught us that our very survival depends on managing the future in a responsible and coordinated fashion.”

Fyodor Lukyanov takes a different approach, arguing that because there appears to be little appetite on the part of some powers for stronger coordination, perhaps a narrower UN role is in order.

While Lukyanov acknowledges “the United Nations is the only organization with universal and unchallenged legitimacy” and “no other institution has the capacity to address a large-scale crisis,” ultimately, it is “a function of the readiness of major international players to cooperate.” Lukyanov notes that “when main powers are not in the mood to work together, the UN is held hostage to that reality.” Indeed, even among the G20, “the leitmotif of the discussions has been how to minimize damage by taking national measures, not multilateral steps.”

As a result, he recommends that within the current climate, the UN focus on peacekeeping: “The UN should play a decisive role, as before, in preventing great powers from going to war against one another. There is a risk that the severe economic crisis that is manifesting will lead to social decline so the UN’s capacity to maintain peace should be strengthened.”

“There is a risk that the severe economic crisis that is manifesting will lead to social decline so the UN’s capacity to maintain peace should be strengthened”

—Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy

The above is a condensed version of responses to a series of questions on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on global cooperation and international institutions.