From October 28 to 30, the Bertelsmann Stiftung co-organized the 2020 Annual Policy Dialogue of the Club de Madrid. Here are some of the key takeaways from the debate.

Multilateralism in crisis

Solutions to transnational challenges such as climate change and Covid19 are in high demand. Yet, multilateralism, a crucial channel to find answers, is in short supply. Rather than taking an all-important role in combating the pandemic, the WHO’s shortcomings (and its scapegoating by the U.S.) have hampered its effectiveness.

Far from acting as an “executive committee” for managing the macroeconomic response to the crisis – as it did during the 2008/2009 financial crisis – the G20 has barely been visible. And while the climate change conference in Glasgow might have profited from the momentum of partly green stimulus packages had it been held as originally scheduled this November, it is doubtful if this momentum will carry to its new date 12 months from now. In the year that marks the United Nations’ 75th anniversary, multilateralism seems to have reached another low point.

Multilateralism that delivers        

So what better than to focus the 2020 edition of the annual policy dialogue of the Club de Madrid (an international non-profit organization which promotes democracy and good governance and is composed of former heads of state and government) on “Multilateralism That Delivers”?

Bertelsmann Stiftung acted as a co-organizer, and the Global Economic Dynamics team assisted with input on the conference topics. Most importantly, we joined forces with the teams of Monitoring Democracy, Bertelsmann Transformation Index and the Competence Center Leadership and Corporate Culture to frame the debate of the inaugural panel of “Reconnecting the World – The Need for a Renewed Multilateralism” which kicked off the three-day online conference on October 28.

Busting myths

A short impulse paper by GPPi’s Thorsten Benner laid the groundwork for the debate. Mr. Benner started by busting several myths about multilateralism. Most importantly, he pointed out that we should not blame the principle of multilateralism itself but rather the states who fail to adhere to it for the current crisis of global governance.

He cautioned against hoping that any single actor, most notably by the United States or China, would be able or willing to fix multilateralism on its own. And finally, he insisted that the notion of a single international liberal order was misguided. Instead, the international system is fragmented into different and overlapping partial orders shaped by competition of authoritarian and democratic norms as well as increasing geopolitical rivalry between great powers.

Four circles of multilateralism

In Mr. Benner’s view, we should think of four different circles as the core elements of today’s multilateral system. Circle No. 1 comprises institutional cooperation between Western democracies as exemplified by the OECD or NATO. The second circle is its non-democratic mirror image: international institutions sponsored by like-minded authoritarian governments, in particular China and Russia, such as The Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The third circle includes institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, where states scramble for the spoils of the international political economy. Finally, circle 4 covers the institutions that deal with the organization of global public goods or global commons, such as the WHO or the U.N. climate change conferences.

Competitive cooperation

Mr. Benner recommends that democratic middle powers, such as Germany, France, and Japan, should follow the principle of competitive cooperation to navigate these four circles. These countries have much to lose from an unraveling of multilateral cooperation but also a lot of resources at their disposal to shape them constructively.

In circle 1, they need to step up their efforts to increase cooperation and cohesion among democratic peers to be able to live up to the challenge that the parallel authoritarian institutions in circle 2 mount. In addition, they need to find the right balance between cooperation and competition in circles 3 and 4. On the one hand, cooperation is imperative to reform institutions toward more inclusiveness and effectiveness; on the other hand, competition is necessary to fend off challenges to important universal norms, particularly human rights.

Inching toward reforms

In the discussion, Danilo Turk, president of the Club de Madrid, cautioned against quick fixes but urged to look out for low-hanging fruits. He argued that the need for better global public health governance could lead to more cooperation, which could, in a couple of years, be tapped as a positive experience and source for more trust among states.

Former President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, saw a similar opportunity with the WTO provided the U.S. government returns to a more constructive path.  According to Elizabeth Cousens, president and chief executive officer of the U.N. Foundation, it is vital to include the private sector, civil society, city mayors. or state governance in any reform efforts to bring in a broad array of leadership and legitimacy.

Call to action

The conference covered three overarching topics – social justice, sustainability, and digitalization – which were discussed in subsequent breakout sessions and working groups. Each concluded with a call for action: On social justice, participants urged for a new World Summit for Sustainable Development to reaffirm social, economic, and environmental commitments in light of COVID 19 consequences.

On sustainability, they called for an early convening of a global consultation building on the broad-based coalitions between cities, states, and civil society organizations to step up and deepen preparations for the next U.N. climate conference in 2021. On digitalization, they demanded a – “Bretton Woods for Digitalization” – a globally agreed set of norms and measures to enable improved global connectivity and data flows, inclusive digital platforms, and better internet management.

More information

You can find the detailed call to action and re-watch discussions and panels on the website of the Club de Madrid. The paper by Thorsten Benner is available on the GPPI website. Finally, all of our GED publications on who to make sure that the WTO delivers are available here.