After Covid-19, expect more international cooperation, not less

Global crises don’t kill multilateralism, but lead to even more international cooperation.

The outbreak of Covid-19 has been seen as causing yet another wound to the languishing body of diplomacy. Even the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, a proponent of international cooperation, noted that the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation of the “already longstanding challenge to multilateralism.”

The decision of President Trump to withhold funding from the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted a deep dissatisfaction with international cooperation. In Europe, governments relied on national measures to address the spread of the virus, with only little coordination.

However, the pandemic does not mark the end of multilateralism. If we can draw lessons from history, it is that we are likely to see more international cooperation as a consequence of the Covid-19 outbreak, not less.

Global crises tend to lead to the creation of new organizations. They reveal gaps and problems that governments were unable to overcome adequately on their own because the solutions are too complex, too costly, or simply too international.

Establishment of international organisations during crises

After the Second World War had uprooted about eleven million people, a body that later became the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was established in 1951 to help governments transport and resettle migrants. Individual governments would have been unable to manage the logistics and relocation of millions of people across the world. Since governments were reluctant to create a new organisation and give in part of their sovereignty, the organisation began as a logistical agency, which earned it the reputation of being a mere “travel agency.”

In the decades that followed, the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe (PICMME) was transformed to what is today the IOM, which has mandate to support the integration of migrants, negotiate migration-related agreements between states, and share knowledge on migration issues. The example shows that an emergency can trigger the establishment of international organisations that not only become permanent actors but even expand their activities.

Another such example are international criminal tribunals. In the 1990s, following the war in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda, the UN Security Council created specialized tribunals to bring to justice the perpetrators of these conflicts. Individual governments – especially those coming from civil war – would not have had the means and expertise to investigate the complex crimes and hold costly trials that usually take several years.

The tribunals were the first international criminal courts after the Nuremberg Tribunals after World War II and contributed significantly to the development of international criminal law. They paved the way for other courts, like the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone following a civil war in West Africa, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon following a terrorist attack in Beirut, and the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) which was established in 1998. While international courts might not be the most cost-effective way to deal with a crisis, their expansion shows that there is a willingness of states to pool their resources to create mechanisms that are able to conduct investigations into international crimes that individual states would be unable to carry out effectively.

Renewed international cooperation during Covid-19

While governments focussed on national measures as an immediate response to the spread of the Coronavirus, moving away from multilateral institutions and international coordination, this attitude has changed in recent weeks. There is a growing realisation that a global problem requires a global solution, and that the means necessary to address a drastic event like the Covid-19 outbreak exceed the potential of individual countries.

Latin American countries, therefore, started to develop a regional strategy, purchase medical supplies together, and coordinate the return of stranded citizens. In Europe, the European Union, joined by countries like Japan, Canada and Norway, took the initiative to pool financial resources for the development of a Covid-19 vaccine.

These examples show the willingness of some countries to team up to address a health problem they are unable to solve on their own. They might very well take a next step to formalise and expand their collaboration. Over time, multilateralism and international cooperation are therefore likely to be strengthened, not weakened.