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  • H. E. Emmanuel Lenain

Multilateralism at a crossroads

At a time when the world finds itself in the midst of a historic public health and economic crisis, multilateralism may appear as one more casualty of the coronavirus. But, as the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs put it, we must not let tomorrow be worse than yesterday. This requires renewed and bold engagement to reform multilateralism.

There’s no gainsaying that multilateralism has come under growing pressure. In many ways it has not lived up to its promises. Multilateralism is sometimes considered to be a constraining, old-fashioned way of conducting diplomacy in a time of big power politics. Some even tend to oppose multilateralism and sovereignty, as if a State had to choose between the two. Is it then still worth investing in multilateralism in the 21st century?

France’s answer is a very definite yes because, more than ever before, the challenges we face spread across borders and are inherently transnational. The coronavirus is a blunt reminder of this, but other pressing problems are similar: climate change, biodiversity erosion, terrorism, online hate speeches, etc. So are other, more positive trends like investments, scientific research and innovation.

If we want to address these challenges successfully, we must work together with some sets of rules and strong institutions to help reach compromise and deliver solutions. This is precisely what multilateralism is about. Such collective action is not inimical to sovereignty. Rather, the very basis of international law and cooperation is sovereignty as the condition for engagement with and commitment to other States.

France will, therefore, remain at the forefront of the reform of multilateralism, and will keep mobilising similarly inclined countries under the framework of the Alliance for Multilateralism. We will keep fighting for a UN system that is more representative of today’s world, starting with the reform of the UN Security Council’s composition so that G4 countries, including India, become permanent members. Building on the conviction that human health cannot be secured on a planet that is sick, we will keep working towards environment protection, and promote ambitious commitments and solutions under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Convention on Biodiversity, or the International Solar Alliance, which was launched together with India. We will defend a digital space that is open, secure, peaceful and accessible, abiding by international law, where malicious cyber activities are prevented through cooperation – as envisioned in the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace.

In the short term, our energy is fully devoted to strengthening global health governance. We believe that the Word Health Organization (WHO) – as the sole universal public health organization – must be one of its pillars. Lessons will be drawn from the current health crisis. Initiatives will be needed to strengthen the WHO in its various functions, like early warning or setting international norms. For example, the creation of a verification mechanism for the implementation of these norms, as well as the definition of new financing modalities to ensure the independence of the WHO and its resources, would be worth exploring. More generally, the architecture of international bodies must be strengthened, funds in the health sector increased, and work with research and development actors enhanced. The establishment of a global high council on human and animal health, modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, could be a useful tool to assess scientific studies on health and advise governments. Last but not least, financing scientific research, as well as health systems, starting with the most fragile States, will require collective effort.

These convictions were among the drivers of the Coronavirus Global Response International Pledging Conference, organised on 4th May 2020 by the European Commission in close coordination with the UN and regional groups. After having created a global cooperation platform (Access to COVID-19 Tools – ACT), the fundraising event collected over 8 billion dollars for joining forces to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. Team Europe – as the EU and its member States are called – have demonstrated their swift response and dedication through a contribution of more than 4 billion dollars.

On public health issues as well as on environmental or digital ones, there can only be multilateral solutions. France, as a founding member of the EU, and India, as an emerging democratic power and a model for the global South, must continue their close cooperation to spearhead a reformed, stronger multilateral system.



(His Excellency Emmanuel Lenain is the French Ambassador to India and has previously served as a Diplomatic Advisor to the French Prime Minister).

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