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Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

The coronavirus is putting multilateralism and its values through the ringer.

Typically, this would spark its defenders, chief among them the Group of 20 (G20) nations, an initiative born in 1999 from economic trouble after debt crises in places such as Mexico, Thailand, Brazil and Russia, and then given powerful purpose after another wave of economic trouble in the form of the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, the G20 – representing about 80 per cent of global economic output and two-thirds of the world’s population – has effectively acted as the world’s management board, with its annual summits and communiques capping a year-long process of global governance.

The G20 is needed now more than ever – to muster collective action and secure supply chains for food, fuel, water, and direct health-care capacity (in collaboration with the World Health Organization) – and it is preparing to hold an extraordinary virtual summit meeting next week. Yet it is an open question as to whether or not it will be up to the enormous task ahead.

Delegates for a photo at a G20 foreign ministers' meeting in Nagoya, Japan, on Nov. 23, 2019.CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images

There are three areas that present the most immediate challenges. The first is health care. The world’s pandemic-preparedness systems have been revealed to be inadequate. We need a global approach to assessing needs and to producing masks and ventilators. And as highlighted by the fact that WHO inspectors were initially denied entry and information in China when the coronavirus first emerged, health monitors should be granted the same remit as election observers or nuclear inspectors, who travel and report without government interference.

The second is money. The International Monetary Fund has both a trust for catastrophic containment and relief, as well as a pandemic-financing facility, and both will need replenishing, as well as as new thinking on how to keep countries liquid. Public trust matters, as the 2008 financial crisis taught us: People must come first. Public money to business should be about bridging loans and equity, rather than bailouts. Governments that practice antagonistic “beggar thy neighbour” approaches in their economic recoveries should be sanctioned.

The third is transparency. A free media is critical for public trust. Misinformation breeds panic and incites racism. We need a code of conduct with watchdogs for traditional and social media.

The diversity of the G20 – north-south, east-west, authoritarians and democrats – reflects geopolitical realities, but it is also a weakness. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman currently holds the G20’s rotating chair, but he is fixated with dynastic succession, the price of oil and regional intrigue. Meanwhile, a European Union report says Russian agents are mounting a “significant disinformation campaign” to subvert Western and EU countries’ communications around the pandemic.

Having stemmed the virus using invasive surveillance and coercive quarantine, Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are now providing masks to Italy, and they have promised to reciprocate for EU assistance come springtime. But they are booting out U.S. journalists, forbidding them to work out of China, Hong Kong and Macau because of their so-called biased reporting on the Xinjiang internment camps, corruption within China’s senior cadres, the Hong Kong protest movement and the initial cover-up around the coronavirus.

In 2008, G20 leadership came from U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But this time, Donald Trump has resorted to an “America First” policy, expressed in reports that he sought exclusive rights to a potential vaccine made in Germany.

So it is unclear if the G20 can defend multilateralism in the face of all this. But if it cannot, we will need a new group of nations to take on the mantle. The leaders of the G20′s multilateral democracies – Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, European Council President Charles Michel and president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen – could form the core of this new group. Singapore and Taiwan can offer lessons in reining in the coronavirus and SARS epidemics, even though Taiwan has been denied even observer status in the WHO because of China’s ridiculous demands.

Global governance is especially vital for displaced peoples who have been crowded into camps without hope of relief as borders close. Former Ontario premier Bob Rae’s work on behalf of the Rohingya helped galvanize a multilateral response, and Mr. Rae’s new assignment as special envoy on humanitarian and refugee issues is the kind of initiative the world needs from the multilateralists.

The global public needs to see that multilateralism works and that liberal democracies can act decisively while respecting liberty. Humanity will thank them for it.

Four Canadians crossed the Rainbow International Bridge at the border of Canada and the United States shortly after it was announced the mutual border would be closed to non-essential travel amid the spread of the coronavirus and shutdowns in both countries.

The Globe and Mail

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