Reimagining multilateralism in the time of COVID-19

A conversation with former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd

The Global Insight team
12 February 2021

Expert Q&A  |  6 minute read

We have heard much about the challenges of global governance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but could this time be an opportunity to strengthen the push for strong and independent international institutions? What if we could mobilize a group of member states to achieve this? Furthermore, what practical steps could be taken by the United Nations to better navigate the world of geopolitics?

In October 2020, the Global Insight team invited the Hon Kevin Rudd, President and CEO of the Asia Society Policy Institute who served as the 26th Prime Minister of Australia, to share his observations and reflections on the role of multilateral agencies and the international community in the current environment. In the Q&A below, our editorial lead Amanda Marlin followed up with Mr. Rudd on some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion. The transcript has been edited for length and brevity.

How well do you feel the multilateral system has responded to the current Coronavirus pandemic?

Kevin Rudd: We know that, for the multilateral system to respond well to crises like COVID, we need the following things in place: functioning institutions, and a level of political leadership to drive those institutions towards an outcome. This year, what we needed was the World Health Organization (WHO) and both the US and the Chinese Centers for Disease Control working together, with the full political backing of all governments. We didn’t get that. 

A review of WHO is now underway. There were at least three reviews undertaken between the Ebola crisis and COVID, including the one I did on behalf of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism in 2017, that addressed the question of how to avoid the next global pandemic. The key elements of the recommendations on WHO were the need to strengthen the Secretariat, strengthen its independence, and strengthen its powers to intervene early and publicly in the event of any resistance from nation states about the adequacy of their information. It may be the case the current review will echo these recommendations. If so, it will be essential that these be implemented with political will and financial capital.

United Nation's Headquarters building
United Nation's Headquarters in New York with Member States flags.

In the current environment, sustained support for major multilateral agreements and organizations such as the Paris Climate Agreement and WHO cannot be guaranteed. At the same time, we’ve seen the European Union step up their support, and lead on other issues that demand a multilateral response, such as digital governance and human rights. How do you see the role of the European Union in the years to come?

KR: Deeply positively.

About 18 months ago the French and Germans established an alliance on multilateralism. This is not just a European enterprise. The countries involved understand that it's about defending the principles and the practice of multilateralism, with Europe as its principal mainstay. I wrote a piece earlier this year  in The Economist, about taking this proposal further. I asked whether we could create an “M10”: the “multilateral 10” or the “middle power 10”. Having Europe behind the United Nations and UN agencies is good, but having 10 major liberal democracies around the world who passionately believe in the UN multilateral system as active political, diplomatic and financial partners would be even better.  

I would propose adding the key middle Europeans together with the key middle powers in Asia and the key middle powers in Latin America and Africa to come up with a group who become the ballast for the multilateral system. This would call for a collaborative strategy between their respective planning departments and their foreign ministries. So, which countries would we be thinking about? Canada, Mexico, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and probably Indonesia and Australia. Possibly India. In Africa, Nigeria, or South Africa. The principal Europeans, including the Swedes.

People will say this is terribly undemocratic because not everyone is involved. Well, that's the problem with the European Union (EU), it's not classically multilateral either: there's around 30 countries in the EU, and there are 193 nation states in the UN, but it's a really big slice of activity. But if you have enough core liberal democracies with enough funding base and enough policy commitment around the central proposition that the mission is to preserve and strengthen the multilateral system for another half a century, then that's a project which governments can sign up to.

So, it's funding, it’s policy and it’s political. In short, Europe is really important. Within that, France and Germany are really important. And I’m suggesting broadening their initiative to a core group of states who become, not quite a cabinet, but a de facto high level support group for the proper functioning of the system.

A shipment of essential Personal Protective Equipment
UNICEF and the EU handed over a shipment of essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in Mozambique to support the government's response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

When talking about the crisis of multilateralism, we often focus on the role of the member states. What about the agencies themselves? What role can we play in strengthening the system?

KR: It’s a good question. Is it all just about geopolitics in the end? The truth is, it's not, but we are being foolish if we ignore the reality of geopolitics, which deeply shapes the environments in which we all work. UNICEF needs to navigate these environments effectively in order to deliver to its constituents: kids across the world who are in dire need.

However, we should not, as a result, all shift into passive mode. We can’t just wait for the perfect world leaders to come along and sprinkle fairy dust and expect that everything will be all right. That’s not been my experience of politics.

The UN system has three huge strengths.

One is its normative voice. This is a precious commodity to husband and to deploy. It cannot be overused, but there’s also a danger in its underuse. The clarion clear quality of that declaratory voice is often accentuated when it's articulated in very unpopular political circumstances. It takes courage to speak out in these circumstances, and it’s not just courage from the UN Secretary General that’s needed, but from anyone in leadership across the UN system. You need a voice that rings out through the clutter.

Secondly, I have a practical suggestion. The UN collectively needs to remind the international community, through its own social media and general media presence, that each day, without announcement and fanfare, it materially benefits the lives of another 200 million people. And it needs to explain how it does this, and why. UNICEF does this particularly well. Nonetheless, the voting public in liberal democracies is completely unaware of what the UN does on the ground. For many, the UN equals photographs of the Security Council, occasional photographs of the General Assembly and the occasional utterances of the Secretary General. So, adding to the normative voice of the UN, there is a need for a really intelligent social media campaign by each agency.

Thirdly, there is a burning question for the international community, especially for the under 35 demographic, and that is the global climate change agenda. Our work on this will determine whether they will or will not associate themselves with the UN over the next 30 years. There was huge, positive energy in Paris in 2015, and the UN needs to capture that, and align its normative and practical work on climate to the priorities of the under-35s so that they can confidently say “yes” to what we are doing.

Kevin Rudd

The Honorable Kevin Rudd served as Australia’s 26th Prime Minister and as Foreign Minister. He is also a leading international authority on China. He began his career as a China scholar, serving as an Australian diplomat in Beijing before entering Australian politics. As Prime Minister, he led Australia’s response during the Global Financial Crisis, reviewed by the IMF as the most effective stimulus strategy of all member states. Mr. Rudd co‑founded the G20 to drive the global response to the crisis, which in 2009 helped prevent the crisis from spiraling into depression. @MrKRudd