Perils and pitfalls of America’s return to the multilateral order

Biden’s embrace of multilateral cooperation is a welcome development, but blanket multilateralism can prove counterproductive in certain contexts.

US President Joe Biden makes remarks from the White House after his coronavirus pandemic relief legislation passed in the Senate, in Washington, US March 6, 2021 [Erin Scott/Reuters]

Last year, under the leadership of former President Donald Trump, the United States struggled to get the spread of coronavirus under control within its borders, recording more than half a million known COVID-19 fatalities and becoming an epicentre of the pandemic. Now, however, America is finally taking steps to get its house in order. A mass vaccination campaign is under way and, on March 11, President Joe Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” to “provide immediate, direct relief to families bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis, and support struggling communities”.

A forthcoming complement to this massive relief and recovery effort is the “Build Back Better Recovery Plan”, which President Biden debuted on March 31, in Pittsburgh. The first part of the two-part plan, which is expected to cost $3 to 4 trillion in total, focuses on enabling the major infrastructure investments needed to build a clean energy economy adapted to climate change. The second part includes provisions on healthcare and workforce development.

While these are all much welcomed moves to get America back on its feet, domestic plans and investments alone cannot protect Americans from the virus and its adverse effects on the economy. As long as the virus continues to spread in other parts of the world, new vaccine-resistant variants of the virus can emerge and pull America back into a crisis. Moreover, domestic-only approaches won’t help the US and the global community develop resilience against future catastrophes. Indeed, President Trump’s inward-looking “America First” policy stance, which led to him withdrawing the US from several crucial international bodies and agreements, hindered not only America’s but also the world’s response to the pandemic.

Fortunately, as he articulated in the first national security directive he issued on his second day in office, President Biden is well aware of the need for the US to contribute to the international COVID-19 response and work towards advancing global health security, to leave this global public health emergency behind.

The new president already signalled his commitment to multilateral cooperation by rejoining international bodies and agreements, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Paris Agreement, his predecessor had left. Last week’s appointment of former USAID Administrator Gayle Smith as the US Department of State’s new coordinator for global COVID response and health security, combined with the recent US Congressional authorisation of $11bn for the global COVID response, are further demonstrations of America’s growing global leadership.

Now President Biden needs to continue on this path and work to support multilateral organisations in their efforts to make truly global and just COVID-19 recovery possible.

In the short term, the Biden administration should view supporting WHO’s COVAX facility, which is aimed at providing all countries equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, as a policy imperative. The US has already pledged $2bn to COVAX, with another $2bn to be added when other countries fulfil their own pledges

The new US administration should also reclaim its leadership position in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which has the power to help expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution in the developing world.

In the medium-term (the next 2-3 years), the Biden administration should partner with the world’s leading multilateral organisations, such as the IMF and the World Bank, to help low-income countries most affected by the pandemic address acute development financing gaps. Mechanisms like IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, the World Bank’s International Development Association replenishment, and the UN’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund can be employed to this end, with Washington’s support.

As it is now widely accepted that climate change is exacerbating existing biological threats like COVID-19 and creating new ones, enabling a global green recovery should also be at the centre of President Biden’s plans to “build back better”. America’s unique technical capabilities, vast financial resources, and political clout should be used to encourage and enable global and regional institutions to invest more in renewable energy and green infrastructure projects in rich and poor nations alike.

The appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as the US special presidential envoy for climate and President Biden’s decision to convene a Leaders’ Climate Summit this coming Earth Day (April 22), clearly show that the new administration is already working to re-establish the US as a global leader in climate action.

All in all, President Biden’s actions, words and policy proposals in the first few months of his presidency show that under his rule, multilateralism is going to be at the centre of America’s foreign policy.

Undoubtedly, America’s return to the multilateral order is a welcome development and presents the international community with new possibilities to address myriad global challenges that were ignored by the Trump administration.

However, America’s newfound commitment to multilateral cooperation also raises some concerns. Assuming multilateralism as a blanket policy or an ideological stance, and seeking multilateral cooperation on every issue without considering the unique context and aspects of different problems, could do more harm than good in the long term. Moreover, it can leave multilateral institutions, and especially the UN, in a situation where they are forced to take the lead on issues for which they are not equipped.

Indeed the UN, over-bureaucratic and underfunded, is not always the best actor to take the lead in many fragile, time-sensitive political processes. Asking the UN to take the lead on issues that it objectively does not have the resources and capabilities to resolve not only sets up the organisation for failure and leaves it open to hostile criticism but also leads to important opportunities to resolve conflicts and crises being missed.

The pitfalls of a blanket multilateralist approach to foreign policy are already becoming apparent in Afghanistan, where delicate and complex peace negotiations are ongoing.

In late February, the US unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan that called for a UN-led regional conference to be held in Turkey this month. While this may seem like a positive move on the surface, the Afghan peace process is an area where wide-ranging multilateral involvement without clear long-term mandates will likely prove counterproductive. Further internationalising a sensitive mediation effort led by the principle of “Afghan ownership” is unlikely to deliver a positive outcome. The UN has not been as closely involved in the peace negotiations as the well-known handful of states who have a stake in the conflict and whose support will be key to the sustainable success of any peace deal. Cynics have already criticised the US’s move to internationalise the Afghan peace process further as an attempt to distribute the reputational cost of failing to end the war among 192 other states in the international community. It is an alarming pattern in many crises that the UN is only called upon when the states involved have failed in their resolution attempts and the problem is viewed by the main actors as intractable.

After Trump’s catastrophic “America first” presidency, which eroded Washington’s reputation as a global leader and left the country struggling to stop the spread of the coronavirus, it is imperative for the Biden administration to support multilateral efforts to enable a global COVID-19 recovery. Moreover, responding to global challenges like climate change requires global cooperation and more US investment in and support for global and regional multilateral organisations.

However, while multilateral cooperation involving or even led by the US on these increasingly urgent issues is welcome and necessary, other sensitive policy concerns rooted in specific regional dynamics need only selective support from international organisations. Applying a blanket multilateral lens on policy problems that require finely-tuned and highly specific multilateral intervention, such as resolving the conflict in Afghanistan, risks reverting back to the last US president’s strategy of imposing ideology over policy needs.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.