Multilateral systems such as the EU or NATO, and other forms of international cooperation have been among the greatest successes since the second World War, based as they are on the fundamental principles of democracy, peace, and collaboration among war-torn countries in Europe.
The “Our country first” approach is being pushed by many populist movements on a global level and it seems that governments are starting to reject their responsibilities towards the international community by undermining global cooperation.
One of the most recent signals of this movement against multilateral cooperation is “Brexit”, or the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Multilateral cooperation is also facing a challenge on a global level. Especially when it comes to engagement in sustainable development, the multilateral system seems to be mired in stagnation due to global political changes and movements. Donald Trump wants to reduce US funding of the United Nations by around 30 %. The US are traditionally the biggest funders of the United Nations, and last year spent two billion dollars on the World Food Programme (WFP), a quarter of the WFP’s entire budget.
The executive order to be signed by the US government will also impact the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFP), which mainly works with women and children. At the same time, parts of Africa are facing what could be the biggest famine since the UN was founded. According to UN data 20 million people could face starvation in 2017, unless UN member states respond rapidly and create a budget for humanitarian help.
“The biggest failure of global treaties is that poverty has never been the focus of global treaties that directly relate to women and children,” says Ashok Khosla, Chair of the Development Alternatives Group and former President of IUCN, during a panel discussion at the PAGE Ministerial Conference 2017 held in Berlin on 28 March. Therefore, the question arises of what kind of effect this will have on the people affected. “A lot of people will not accept poverty as their destiny and will make the journey to richer countries,” says Dirk Messner, Director of the German Development Institute (DIE). This in turn creates anger and fear in the destination countries, which, combined with personal frustration regarding their national economy and politics, is a potent source of nationalism. Nationalism has been a key source of conflicts, especially in the twentieth century.
However, it is, as yet, unclear whether these populist movements will gain momentum and impact, or if they will spark counter-movements that will give the concept of multilateralism a new direction. This could happen if there is an active civil society that is able to effect change on local and global levels. Dirk Messner also stressed the importance of educating young generations to be politically active, and to see the mainstream establishment become more active and innovative.
But concerns remain – both that current trends could trigger a crisis in the multilateral system and over how global cooperation can be strengthened.
This blog article relates to the PAGE Ministerial conference that took place on 28 March in Berlin and in which the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute was invited to participate.