In 2020, WHO was a reflection of the entire international system. On the one hand, it demonstrated its central and indispensable role in managing a global health crisis, for which it alone has a precise international mandate and consolidated expertise. On the other hand, its political vulnerability and the weakness of its means were made more apparent than ever. Indeed, WHO depends entirely on its 194 member states as well as its financial backers, it cannot sanction or coerce but only recommend, and its means are mediocre given the importance of its mandate. With a budget of $5 billion, it commands half the resources of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alone, and 80% of these resources are provided by its donors, including large private foundations, which significantly curtails its independence.
At the political level, this dependence was emphatically attacked by US President Donald Trump. He accused the organization, and more directly Tedros Ghebreyesus who was elected as its Director-General in 2017 with China's support, of being the latter's excessively docile and accommodating instrument. In spring 2020, President Trump announced his country would withdraw from the organization and the unilateral US funding suspension. This excessive and brutal move is yet another illustration of the former US President's policy of systematically undermining the multilateral system throughout his term of office. In 2020, the World Trade Organization was one of the last organizations to bear the brunt of this strategy when the United States blocked the election of its new Director-General, after having weakened and then completely paralyzed its Appellate Body.
Are there any positive trends that have emerged this year that could propel multilateralism forward? What does the current pursuit of multilateralism look like?
The election of Joe Biden is good news for multilateralism. It breaks with Donald Trump's destructive exuberance on the international stage and signals the United States' return to the multilateral system.
This certainly does not mean that America will necessarily be more accommodating than before on many issues. The easing of American positions vis-à-vis China should only be limited and very conditional, especially in the trade area, while its relations with Russia are expected to worsen. However, the country will once again commit to institutions, dialogue, and diplomacy. While Donald Trump's decision to leave the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and WHO failed in bringing down the international system, it nevertheless left it in an extremely weakened state. To counterbalance these withdrawals and unilateralism, the new Democratic administration will also strive to restore American credibility and standing.
The effects of the reorientation of American foreign policy will nevertheless have to be scrutinized, particularly Joe Biden's project of organizing a summit of democracies. While such a summit is attractive at a time when Western democracy is enduring the aggressive competition of alternative models, it could reintroduce strong ideological fault lines in the field of international cooperation. Such fault lines could affect international responses to major global challenges, some of which are existential for humankind (climate, biodiversity, development, or health) and often require cooperation across ideological divides. To make this summit a success, both democracy and human rights will need to be defended without leading to a break-up or complete decoupling of the international system, at the risk of ultimately weakening collective action.