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Big powers must set rivalry aside to combat shared threats like COVID and climate change - but how?

Fighting on thin ice? Image: Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash.

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • COVID, like climate crisis, requires nations to work together to find solutions.
  • But rising nationalism and populism may make that more difficult.
  • SDI Summit session looks at 'resetting co-operation'.

The United Nations is 75, and, according to Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, it is showing its age.

"Let’s be honest: at the moment what are we looking at? We’re looking at frozen multilateralism," Jaishankar told a session of the World Economic Forum's Sustainable Development Impact Summit on the theme of 'resetting co-operation'.

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Jaishankar was responding to comments by Susana Malcorra, former foreign minister of Argentina and a one-time United Nations Under Secretary-General. She lamented a breakdown in global decision-making since five years ago - when countries signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development.


"The tensions that have been created in the past years are clearly the proof that we will live in times of 'cooperation within rivalry' for a long time," Malcorra said.


The best we could hope for in the foreseeable future, she said was "competitive multilateralism".

"It’s a multilateralism where there will be strong competition among many (UN) members, there will be shared perspectives on many issues but there will be differences that are stated clearly.

"There will be moving parts of different weights ... we need to ensure that they don’t move into the direction of breaking the system."

united nations multilateralism risks
Big problems require collaborative solutions. Image: WEF

A rise in nationalism and populism has led to increased diplomatic and trade tensions and put consensus over the importance of UN bodies such as the World Health Organisation at risk.

But the alternatives to some form of global co-operation, Malcorra said, are grim.

"We have the alternative of a full breakdown of military restraint between the big powers - that’s an option … we of course have a deeper proxy war scenario where in the end some of the big powers are drawn into the scenario because it gets so bloody."

India's Jaishankar indicated that that was already happening.

"You don't need World War Three to keep you awake at night - for people in Libya what's happening in Libya keeps them awake, for people in Yemen, what's happening in Yemen keeps them awake," he said.


He agreed with Malcorra that the multilateral system needed reform, and said the most important part of it to retain was respect for the rule of law.

"We are the largest democracy, very proud to be a democracy," Jaishankar said.

"But I accept that there are many countries in the world that are not democratic. But I think there is one fundamental which we should all observe, which is: rule of law - that if we sign up to agreements and conventions, we should follow it up. If we don’t, there won’t be a world order, and that has nothing to do with democracy."

Malcorra said she hoped to see a "a strong network of middle-powers that work to protect key multi multilateral institutions."

"Unless we find this strong coalition, a strong network of willing (UN) members states to empower the UN and all associated institutions, it will be very difficult to see how we can deliver a multilateral system that delivers and has impact."

You can see all our coverage of the SDI Summit here.

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Forum InstitutionalGeo-Economics and PoliticsClimate ActionSustainable Development
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