Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Like Humpty Dumpty, multilateralism had a great fall.
American presidents have historically led and underwritten the rules-based system. But for U.S. president Donald Trump, multilateralism – the concept of countries working together for the common good – meant allies freeloading at America’s expense. With the abdication of U.S. leadership, efforts to fill the “empty throne” arose, notably by the Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism, but multilateralism still stalled and fractured. “Westlessness,” as the Europeans called it, spawned an effort at strategic autonomy, but it has yet to take.
Then came the pandemic with its vaccine nationalism and closed borders. As a test of multilateralism, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ruefully observed a few months ago: “It is a test we have failed.” The leaders of the world’s democracies are now picking up the pieces.
Multilateralism thankfully got a boost at the G7 and NATO summits. That the democracies, despite their differences, can achieve shared purpose on the challenges of our time – COVID-19, climate and China – is a relief.
Pledging one billion more vaccine doses to help end the pandemic, G7 leaders will accelerate future development and production to tackle COVID-19 in developing countries. Pandemic-related debt relief will rely on the G20, meeting this fall in Rome, underlining that multilateralism is a smorgasbord with a variety of actors. The key, of course, is to act and not just punt problems into the aspirational phrasing that too often drowns summit communiques.
With Nobel laureates, including the Dalai Lama, pressing for action on climate change and global public opinion increasingly convinced that the issue is a “global emergency,” the G7 leaders pledged to end support for coal generation, the single biggest cause of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Building on the 2018 Charlevoix summit, leaders also pledged to conserve at least 30 per cent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, a reminder that multilateralism is a process that moves incrementally
China and Russia were called out for their aggressive behaviour and violations of human rights. As an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative – its massive, cross-continents infrastructure project stretching across land and sea involving 139 countries – G7 leaders are promising a “build back better” public-private infrastructure program. Public opinion in G7 countries has shifted significantly, with at least seven in 10 having a negative view of China.
NATO labelled Russia a threat and China a systemic competitor. U.S. President Joe Biden was right when he framed their challenge as a battle between the “democracies and autocracies,” in which the democracies must “prove democracy works.”
The return to great power competition and technology has changed the strategic environment, so NATO is revising its fundamental “Strategic Concept.” To remain fit for purpose, multilateral institutions must reform and adapt.
For Canada, changing geopolitics underlines the value of multilateralism in advancing our shared values as well as our self-interest. It will oblige us to reinvest in diplomacy, defence and development and to revive our skills as a “helpful fixer.”
Prime ministers Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson defined and engineered the institutions of postwar multilateralism. Pierre Trudeau sought to bridge the North-South and East-West divides. Brian Mulroney enabled German reunification, put climate change on the international agenda and advanced human rights in places like South Africa. Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin led on responsibility to protect, in the campaigns against land mines and child soldiers, and in the creation of the International Criminal Court and G20. For Stephen Harper, it was about improving global maternal and child health. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau consistently champions the empowerment of women and gender equality. This is helpful fixing.
With the world in a mess, Canada is capable of more. This means more money. The Trudeau government has made modest increases to its development budget of 0.27 per cent of GDP and 1.39 per cent of defence, but they fall short of the targets set by the UN (0.7 per cent) and NATO (2 per cent). Our foreign service also needs reinvestment.
It is time for the Trudeau government to move on its promised “peace, order and good government” initiative. There is an urgent need to focus on supporting democracy at home, while collaborating with fellow democracies and with emerging democracies.
Winston Churchill said of democracy that it was the worst system, except for all the rest. The same can be said of multilateralism. The G7 and NATO summits showed that the democracies can still act together for the global good. Multilateralism endures. Now the promises made in their communiques and declarations need to be matched in budgets and actions.
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