As the ripples of the United States (US) presidential election results spread, myriad views are being expounded about the implications. All elections have consequences, but the US elections have global consequences. I recall two elections in 2016 that signalled global multilateral change. On October 5, 2016, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) indicated that Antonio Guterres would be the ninth United Nations Secretary General (UNSG). It was akin to the projection of votes in the US presidential elections. While formal decisions would follow, the die was cast. I recollect the then president of the UNSC for October 2016, ambassador Vitaly Churkin, rushing to the Indian Mission where we were having a lunch for Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) ambassadors, and sharing that in the first straw poll under his presidency, he had brought the process to a closure. A month later, in the early hours of November 9, with the projections of results indicating the election of Donald Trump as the President of the US, the terms of the job of the UNSG changed substantially.
Whatever may have been candidate Guterres’s aspirations, SG Guterres, from the time he took office in January 2017, had an overarching defensive goal. He has been admirably shepherding multilateralism and the UN through the tumultuous winds of change, which candidate Guterres never planned for. As he looks to the last year of his current term, the suave former Portuguese prime minister may be forgiven for feeling his efforts have not been in vain.
On day one of the impending change of guard in the US on January 20, 2021, there are prospects for some good news for the UNSG. President-elect Joe Biden, has, throughout his campaign, said that he will bring the US back into the Paris Agreement and reverse the intention of moving the US out of the World Health Organization. This symbolises that the climate is changing for multilateralism.
President-elect Biden has repeatedly asserted that he is committed to targeting carbon neutrality by 2050. As he formalises this commitment, he will add to countries covering 50% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and half of global CO2 emissions who have made a net-zero commitment. This is a goal that Guterres is assiduously promoting. In 2021, the climate crisis will rise to the top of the multilateral agenda, with active US support.
In reality, the US never fully turned away from multilateralism. There is no better example than this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, the UN’s World Food Program (WFP). It is an agency whose last five directors general, including the current one, have been US nationals. Until October, the US’s voluntary contribution of $2.7 billion comprised 43% of the entire budget. By contrast, China contributed $4 million. After having established a larger multilateral architecture, the US pursued an a la carte approach — selectively meeting some of its responsibilities but not fulfilling others. Consequently, the many contributions it made to multilateral institutions were overshadowed by the anxiety some of its decisions caused. Changing this strategy lies primarily in the realm of the US President’s executive decisions. Indicating re-engagement with the Human Rights Council, joining the global effort to assist countries to get access to the Covid-19 vaccine through COVAX and restoring funding for the UN Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) are some other executive decisions that can be taken swiftly.
Multilateralism needs US engagement across the board. Where the US has engaged, it has garnered the enthusiastic support of others. The coordination to ensure the election of Daren Tang of Singapore as director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), earlier this year, is a case in point. Where the US sought to plough a lonely furrow, the results have not been to its own satisfaction. The jettisoning of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran is an example. The US’s re-engagement multilaterally is in India’s interests. As India’s interests grow, areas of cooperation that India and the US can work together in will keep expanding. A US which takes sharply distant positions in multilateral organisations tends to open up areas of discord between us.
As the climate is set to change for multilateralism, the US will likely take to advocacy to battle the climate crisis. In 2021, the US and the UN will both focus on the subject. The European Union will join in. China will be keen to be seen as a helpful partner. Many small developing island states view it as an existential issue. Although the field is getting crowded, India needs to seize opportunities for leadership here. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi is viewed globally as a climate champion. His advocacy of renewables and the International Solar Alliance are acknowledged as notable Climate Action initiatives. India’s adoption of renewables is on the fast track, as is its promotion of disaster-resilient infrastructure. We must highlight all this and add to our initiatives, making adjustments if required.
Looking ahead, global public goods in environment and health, and not conventional peace and security issues, are likely to be areas of multilateral focus. An early opportunity will be the Climate Ambition Summit to which the United Kingdom, as host, has invited PM Modi to join in December 2020, as a precursor to the Conference of Parties-26 next year. The early bird really will catch the worm.
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