As a new American presidency begins, global expectations are high for the possibilities of a robust reset in the dynamics and substance of the United States´ international engagement. By the end of his first two weeks in the Oval Office, President Biden had reached out to key global partners and signed a series of executive orders suspending withdrawal from the World Health Organization, returning to the Paris Agreement on climate change and putting in motion significant changes in immigration and refugee policy. In his visit to the State Department, a symbolic act in itself, Biden reinforced the message: Diplomacy, consultation and collaboration are back in the top drawer of Washington´s foreign policy toolbox to tackle some of the most vexing issues on the international agenda.
The emphasis on unilateralism and confrontation over the last four years contributed to the erosion of global governance. Public discourse in favour of international law, predictable rules, and robust institutions declined. Agreements and procedures previously taken for granted became undeniably frayed, leaving various international players scrambling to preserve or, in some cases, salvage, cooperative approaches to address a wide range of global challenges.
Although the results of these efforts are mixed, there were some notable successes. These include the negotiation of a UN Global Compact on Migration, more ambitious commitments by various countries under the Paris Agreement, the design of a basic multilateral framework for equitable and affordable access to COVID-19 vaccines, and the establishment of a voluntary ad-hoc dispute settlement mechanism to bypass the US-induced paralysis of the World Trade Organization´s Appellate Body. At the same time, coalitions of like-minded countries in the G20 managed to hold the line and save compromises on climate change, gender equality, migration, support of the WHO, and even general references to multilateralism, against strong US opposition.
In the coming months, renewed American engagement will be fundamental as the world navigates turbulent geopolitical waters. The list of challenges is long. Beyond the most pressing national security issues, from the future of the Iran nuclear deal to resetting the transatlantic alliance and defining terms of engagement with China and Russia, those that are more directly linked to domestic priorities will be at the top of the White House to-do list. These include tackling the pandemic, economic recovery, and climate change. In this context, three areas stand-out as ripe for a collaborative approach that would, at the same time, send a positive signal toward restoring confidence in multilateralism as an effective international tool for global action:
- Supporting an effective global response against COVID-19: The pandemic’s profound socioeconomic impact – including the loss of millions of jobs, increased poverty and inequality, and the long-term loss of human capital – makes this the most urgent task in the 2021 multilateral agenda. Full funding of the COVAX Facility to ensure equal access to vaccines for all countries has been identified as the first key step to save millions of lives and accelerate global economic recovery. The decision to remain in the WHO should also be seized upon to strengthen multilateral pandemic response capabilities through increased funding and a meaningful reform that considers the recommendations of the independent panel led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf that is currently underway.
- Making the multilateral trading system work. With the global economy hard-hit by the pandemic, getting the multilateral trading system back on track is also an immediate imperative. Last October, the US blocked the selection of Nigeria´s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the WTO’s next Director-General and as the first woman – and African – to lead it and maintained its support for South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. With Yoo’s recent withdrawal and the US´s expression of strong support for Okonjo-Iweala, the stage is set to overcome the leadership impasse. This will send an important signal of respect for the rules of the game and a vote of confidence in the candidate that had garnered the most support in the selection process. More importantly, it will allow for an urgent refocus on immediate pandemic-related needs, such as facilitating trade in medical products, and ensuring that the Organization can fulfill its core mandates and better contribute to a post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
- Putting inequality and inclusion at the centre of the international agenda. The pandemic has detonated a dramatic increase in poverty rates, growing gaps in income within and between countries and significant setbacks in education, health services and employment. A renewed, across the board commitment against one of the core drivers of unease and discontent in all societies, regardless of each country´s level of economic development, is crucial to restoring a sense of societal ownership in a responsive, functional, rules-based international system. Progress should be tangible, including through renewed momentum toward the Sustainable Development Goals, a successful UN Climate Change Conference, substantive agreements in this year’s G-20 Summit, meaningful progress in the gender equality agenda, and reenergized development cooperation partnerships and programmes.
In the Americas, Washington’s change of focus presents significant opportunities for collaboration. The most pressing one would be ramped-up coordination between Mexico City, Ottawa and Washington on a North American vaccine and competitiveness strategy that accelerates the economic recovery, following Congressional approval of a stimulus package and taking into account the high-level of integration between the three economies.
According to the UN’s most recent yearly report on the World Economic Situation and Prospects, Latin America and the Caribbean has been one of the hardest-hit regions by the pandemic, with an estimated 8 per cent decline in real GDP, 45 million people pushed back into poverty, and an expected worsening of deep structural inequalities in what is already the world´s most unequal region.1 In spite of various intra-regional political differences that make consensus difficult, Latin America and the Caribbean has long favored multilateral approaches. This can translate into opportunities for engagement with Washington on global initiatives linked to economic and social development. Perhaps the greatest possibilities lie in Southern Mexico and in Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) where, in tandem with comprehensive immigration reform, a strategy that combines productive investment and vigorous USAID participation in development initiatives focused on the root causes of immigration can have great positive impact. It would also generate tremendous good will and credibility for the Biden administration in a region which has borne the brunt of one of his predecessor´s most damaging policies.
The disconnect between societal needs and expectations and the capacity of the multilateral system to deliver will remain a challenge well beyond the changing of the guard in the White House. It is up to the international community, at a critical juncture, to seize this opportunity and step up to the plate with political will, reach out to other actors, and demonstrate that together we can chart a credible path toward a sustainable and inclusive recovery.
1United Nations, Department of Social and Economic Affairs, World Economic Situation and Prospects 2021, (United Nations, 2021), p.116.
Julian Ventura was Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Mexico (2019-20), Ambassador of Mexico to the United Kingdom (2017-19), Ambassador to China (2013-17) and Undersecretary for North America (2009-13).