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Reforming multilateralism: UNGA and the art of the possible

Expert Comment

Written by Nilima Gulrajani

Hero image description: UN General Assembly. Photo: Linh Do / Flickr Image credit:Linh Do Image license:Flickr

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) is taking place in New York City at a time when the world seems dangerously unstable, and when prospects for global cooperation look more aspirational than real. The interlocking crises of food, fuel and finance provide the drama, while the threatening clouds of pandemics past, present and future are the backdrop.

However, a satisfactory ending to this show may be wishful thinking. This is because the mood music is one of global fracturing, as the balance of power upon which the post-war international order has rested for the last seven decades is upturned.

But it is too soon to write off multilateralism. By tailoring reform proposals to geopolitical realities and considering the imperatives of real-world implementation, we might yet achieve the finale of a fit-for-purpose multilateral system.

The problem: multilateral institutions have not been built for multiplexity

Multilateralism refers to international cooperation supported by an inter-governmental organisation with a formal ‘constitution’ like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) or the World Bank. But it can also take place informally as it does in the G20, which has neither a constitution nor a secretariat.

A rules-based international order cannot exist without multilateralism. It enables the management of mutual interdependencies in ways that increase national and global welfare. Nevertheless, multilateralism will only ever be as strong as the balance of global power upon which it rests.

Seven decades on, multilateralism appears at odds with the realities of global multiplexity, where global power is more diffuse and international order is not exclusively defined by Western liberalism.

Global gridlock

Russia’s violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity in contravention of the UN Charter provides the most recent evidence of multiplexity. Great power muscle-flexing has dramatically altered the cooperation calculus of all states.

The United States, the United Kingdom and their close Western allies now frame their interests as safeguarding liberal democratic values of free markets, free speech and free trade, while a non-negligible Sino-Russian autocratic alliance asserts itself; for example, no head of state from China, India or Russia is attending UNGA. Bifurcation between Beijing and Washington has jammed negotiations at the UN Security Council and the G20, reduced inter-state dialogue, and escalated efforts to protect spheres of influence.

Meanwhile, the majority of the world's states seem unwilling to take sides in a conflict that pits strongmen against senators. Cold War containment strategies and, more recently, examples of European hypocrisy in areas like climate policy and global vaccine access have left a legacy of mistrust in the Global South.

As China and the US use multilateral arrangements to cement relations with their respective allies, many states wish to remain neutral and exploit global divisions to their own advantage, rather than align to a single pole in a binary global order.

Strengthening multilateralism with a dose of realism

There is little global consensus on how to fix multilateralism, but this is not for lack of ideas or initiatives.

Some proposals are more circumscribed, such as the calls to improve leadership and accountability; others are more expansive, like growing multilateralism's financial firepower to invest in global public goods. Several multilateral alliances have been created to reflect on how to stabilise the rules-based international order and build more effective multilateral arrangements, including the Alliance for Multilateralism and the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism appointed by the UN Secretary-General.

Most of these solutions have yet to grapple with the reality of divisive global diplomacy and a possible prioritisation or sequencing of these reforms. This disadvantages proposals as they remain detached from the political and operational contexts of implementation.

Multiplexity is a particular challenge for UN reform, where power is far more diffuse because of equal voting among 193 members of the General Assembly (though not within the Security Council) and where budgetary responsibilities derive from member states' share in the global economy. These limitations on the influence of wealthy nations may partly explain their greater dissatisfaction with the UN system than with multilateral development banks, but also why discussions of UN reform feel like a road frequently travelled.

To turn multilateral reform aspiration into reality, bilateral efforts to renew multilateralism should have three priorities (in order of importance):

1. Establish an inventory of critical global functions

The world requires explicit and intricate knowledge of today’s global challenge, as well as a sense of the rules and structures needed to govern their management. This involves recognising that in multiplexity, there is no longer a singular rules-based order but multiple orders of specific global issues, each underpinned by a unique set of political conditions and calculations.

For example, a global security order guaranteed by NATO and the UN Security Council will have to deal with more divisive political blocs and a diffuse network of bilateral and non-state actors than a global environmental order, where the goal of net zero may unite unlikely and dissimilar allies, notwithstanding a complex web of multilateral, regional and local governance systems. Within each order, granular technical expertise engages with cross-cutting global knowledge networks that transcend geopolitical divisions, best exemplified by the immense scientific cooperation that occurred during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic under the direction of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The UN Secretary-General has called for a Summit of the Future to be held in 2024 that will advance ideas for international governance reform. It must be no less than a full-scale audit of multilateral priorities and the institutional structures needed to successfully resolve conditions of gridlock within each global issue order.

2. Provide the correct funding mix for the multilateral institutions that matter

In the post-war era, the symbol of great power shifted from colonial conquest to influence over international institutions. Multiplexity has made these contests for influence within multilateral bodies trickier. In the absence of addressing this problem head-on, multilateral institutions have proliferated dramatically over the last two decades, with more than 200 agencies and institutions now in existence. This is notwithstanding the fact that the lion’s share of development finance goes to only 10 international organisations.

While clearly not all multilateral institutions are created equal in the eyes of those financing them, the priorities and preferences of their largest investors must not overshadow those of the lower-income countries that are at the greatest risk of global commons breakdown.

Yet this is exactly what is happening due to a growing dependence on unpredictable sources of voluntary finance within multilateral institutions. Voluntary earmarked finance gives donor countries more influence over the goals and means of global public good creation. This funding can be unpredictable, which means it can be hard to strategise and plan for the long term. Earmarked forms of finance can also incentivise the creation of standalone vertical funds, thus contributing to the problem of multilateral fragmentation.

For example, the Financial Intermediary Fund for Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response (FIF) is the newest multilateral fund to be created (in June 2022 on the recommendation of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness). While the World Bank will serve as trustee and the WHO as technical lead, the FIF is a multilateral body with an independent governing body. High-level panels and advisory groups are incentivised to create new entities because they increase the likelihood that their recommendations will be taken on board. This approach also avoids the need to grapple with the complex politics of governance reform and rationalisation.

Donors need the courage to design and direct a more sustainable financing mix for vital global institutions, and finance new functions without contributing to institutional proliferation and complexity. Looking at financing within the UN system, mandates will have to be best matched to a combination of sovereign financing sources: obligatory dues or assessed contributions, multi-year replenishments, voluntary funding, and earmarked contributions. Armed with a list of the critical global functions that need servicing (see priority 1), it is imperative that we identify the best blend of multilateral finance for maximising the operational competencies of individual institutions and minimising inefficiencies in global governance.

The recent success in tripling the regular budget of the WHO in exchange for administrative reform – including the introduction of a multi-year replenishment framework – offers some precedent for building political consensus around seeding core global priorities. It also suggests a political desire to give those global institutions access to a well-designed blend of global public finance.

3. Stop scapegoating and sabotaging multilateralism

Multilateral channels are less politicised, more demand-driven, more selective in terms of poverty criteria and a good conduit for global public goods, such as ensuring access to vaccines and strengthening the health of women and girls. And yet domestic allocations are skewing away from multilateral channels towards bilateral ones, where national strategic and foreign policy concerns are more easily pursued. The loss of sovereign fiduciary control in an era of multiplexity makes multilateral allocations an easy target for fiscal cuts.

For example, official development assistance (ODA), a cornerstone of multilateral development finance, is being cut, with these rollbacks falling disproportionately on multilateral channels. The UK is capping its multilateral contributions to no more than 25% of its ODA budget by 2025. Sweden will use 25% of this year’s annual ODA budget to fund in-donor costs for hosting Ukrainian refugees, which is expected to have knock-on effects for its multilateral replenishment commitments. Germany is slashing its multilateral budget by almost a half a billion and Norway’s funding for the UN will be affected by the country’s plans to reallocate ODA towards in-donor refugee costs.

As fiscal austerity bites, domestic allocation choices across the multilateral and bilateral spectrum could do more to ensure they are built on sound evidence, recognising that bilateralism is both a cause and consequence of global gridlock. Multilateralism can be designed as a complement to bilateral programming objectives: delivering on global challenges, creating opportunities for dialogue and ultimately serving as an antidote to flagging international solidarity.

UNGA occurs at a testing time for global diplomacy and international public finance. Advocates of multilateral reform must find concrete proposals that confront, rather than ignore, these realities. What is certain is that fixing multilateralism is an ongoing global drama that shows no sign of stopping.