The Future of Multilateralism

Davos attendees often recall Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unequivocal endorsement of globalization in his 2017 speech which took place in the wake of protectionist, populist and nationalist rhetoric that shaped much of the US presidential election campaign in 2016.  It was a moment in time when many believed that globalization was the cause of “frequent regional conflicts, global challenges like terrorism and refugees, as well as poverty, unemployment and a widening income gap” but President Xi made it clear then that “many of the problems troubling the world are not caused by economic globalization” and reminded everyone that “just blaming economic globalization for the world’s problems is inconsistent with reality, and it will not help solve the problems.”

However, four years later, the COVID-19 pandemic has replaced economic globalization as the primary source of uncertainty about the future.  This is not surprising because the effects of a global pandemic are felt at both the national and local level.  But what is most unsettling about a pandemic is that no country alone can prevent such occurrences or mitigate their impact.

Therefore, President Xi reminded the international community once again that “no global problem can be solved by any one country alone. There must be global action, global response and global cooperation.” He shared this observation in his opening speech of the Davos Agenda, the first virtual edition of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting.  He also emphasized that the future of multilateralism required a strong commitment “to consultation and cooperation instead of conflict and confrontation”.

His comments struck a deep chord with the international community not only because the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic but also because China has avoided falling into a recession while taking strong measures to fight the virus.  Yet President Xi’s central message that countries embrace openness and multilateralism also came with a warning of the risks that “to build small circles or start a new cold war, to reject, threaten or intimidate others, to wilfully impose decoupling, supply disruption or sanctions, and to create isolation or estrangement will only push the world into division and even confrontation.”

This message was not lost on the other heads of state and government speaking in the Davos programme.  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore remarked in the closing address that the international order must be underpinned by stable great power relations and astutely characterized China-US relations as the most important bilateral relationship in the world.  He made clear that for smaller  open economies, international cooperation and multilateral efforts to fight the COVID pandemic require an international order underpinned by stable great power relations.

The Davos Agenda showed that there is renewed sense of hope for multilateralism but there is much work to be done. The key will be as President Xi observed that the problems facing the world are intricate and complex. The way out of them is through upholding multilateralism and building a community with a shared future for mankind.”

(The author W. Lee Howell is the Managing Director of World Economic Forum.)