In brief

Multilateralism: Yet Another Victim of COVID19?

Article by Amrita Narlikar, 26 May 2020 – As COVID19 spreads death and destruction, one may well ask the question: will multilateralism be yet another victim of this global pandemic?

1The World Health Organization has come under severe criticism for not acting in time to stop the spread of the pandemic.

The World Trade Organization has stood by helplessly as countries have put up export restrictions on key medical supplies, unable to do anything about the increasing disruption to global supply chains.

Even the European Union, with its relatively higher levels of integration, has not come away unscathed. The pandemic seems to have reinforced prior fault-lines within EU membership, and deepened discord with neighbors.2

Just when the need for global cooperation is at an unprecedented high, nations are turning inwards. The multilateral institutions that might help curtail this damage are failing us miserably.

In fact, while the pandemic has almost certainly exacerbated the challenges of multilateralism, the root causes lie elsewhere. And one important cause is to be found in the phenomenon of “Weaponized Interdependence,” which multilateral institutions in their current form are ill-equipped to handle.3

Our post-war multilateral order was founded on the assumption that peace and prosperity are inextricably and causally linked. A liberal economic order would contribute to increased trade, growth, development and thereby also peace. True, a certain like-mindedness was also implicit in this logic; the Soviet bloc, for instance, remained outside this liberal bubble.4

The end of the Cold War seemed to confirm the promise of a liberal peace, and to strengthen the expectation that former rivals could now be socialized into the system via greater economic integration. But this multilateralism was not built for a world where the very ties, that were supposed to bind nations together in peaceful harmony, could become “weaponized.”

“Weaponized Interdependence” (WI) is a product of global production, which is today carried out via integrated value chains that generate hierarchical economic networks.5 States that occupy key positions as network hubs, and have enabling domestic institutions, can “weaponize” economic flows to their advantage.

They do so by gathering or restricting information or economic flows, the so-called “panopticon” and “choke point” effects.6 This allows hub states to effectively use deep economic integration – promoted by multilateral institutions – for geostrategic gains.

We have already seen the United States, China, and a few other players weaponize interdependence in areas of finance and internet governance. But the pandemic has driven home this point with tragic effect: an ability of some states to weaponize health supply chains can have life and death consequences for others.

Faced with global shortages of life-saving medical supplies, major players erected emergency export controls in the first instance.7 Coronavirus diplomacy emerged, with China attempting to portray itself as a reliable trading partner and donor to countries in need. Coronavirus coercion also became evident: for instance, when Australia called for an independent enquiry on the origin of the pandemic, China threatened it with economic consequences.8 And multilateral rules have been unable to control these actions – or for that matter the subsidies, the forced technology transfer requirements, the IPR violations, which have helped China to acquire its network hub position in the first place.

Some attempts to reform multilateralism are underway.

But calls by global leaders to cooperate, to not close one’s economies, to preserve global value chains now ring more desperately hollow than ever before, especially to those who have seen friends and families directly affected by the pandemic.

If their concerns are not taken seriously, we risk further backlashes against globalization, and the emergence of a world of shallow (and meaningless) multilateralism and de facto autarkism – with dire consequences for all, and especially the poor in rich and poor countries.

There is another way, a better way. It involves redefining the purpose of multilateralism, and grounding it in values. It involves gradual but certain decoupling from strategic rivals, and deeper integration with like-minded countries. A value-based, deep, limited-member multilateralism would admittedly make us less prosperous than the old multilateralism had ensured. But it would also make us more secure.

This article was first published on 19 May 2020 at SCRIPTS Cluster of Exellence.

See more of GIGA`s research on this topic at: Coronavirus and the Global South


  1. 1) This article further develops arguments made in Amrita Narlikar, ‘As Multilateral as Apple Pie,’ Munich Security Times, February 2020. ↩︎

  2. 2) Recall, for instance, Serbian President Vučić’s bitter declaration, “European solidarity does not exist. It was a fairy tale on paper.” Quoted in https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/13/coronavirus-diplomacy-how-russia-china-and-eu-vie-to-win-over-serbia↩︎

  3. 3) For some of the other causes, see Amrita Narlikar, ‘The Malaise of Multilateralism and how to manage it,’ Delhi: Observer Research Foundation, 23 January 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-malaise-of-multilateralism-and-how-to-manage-it/↩︎

  4. 4) Thomas Wright, ‘Sifting through Interdependence,’ The Washington Quarterly, 2013, 36:4, pp. 7-23. ↩︎

  5. 5) Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman, “Weaponized Interdependence: How Global Economic Networks Shape State Coercion,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Summer 2019), pp. 42-79. ↩︎

  6. 6) Ibid. ↩︎

  7. 7) E.g. Chad Bown, ‘EU Limits on Medical Gear Exports puts poor countries and Europeans at risk,’ Trade and Investment Policy Watch, Peterson Institute for International Economics, 19 March 2020, https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-and-investment-policy-watch/eu-limits-medical-gear-exports-put-poor-countries-and↩︎

  8. 8) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/29/australia-defends-plan-to-investigate-china-over-covid-19-outbreak-as-row-deepens ↩︎

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