Like a Phoenix from the Ashes? Multilateralism in a (Post-)Covid World

The coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on multilateral cooperation, with many states endorsing nationalism and “my country first” policies. The session looked at options to turn the current crisis into an opportunity for more effective multilateral cooperation. How can existing international institutions be adapted to deal with a global environment in flux? What new initiatives are needed to “build back better”? And who can be the drivers of such change?

Session hosted by Körber-Stiftung

Date: 13 November 2020 at the third edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Watch the full debate


  • Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission
  • Oby Ezekwesili, former Vice-President of the World Bank’s Africa division and Senior Economic Advisor at the Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative
  • Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs
  • Natalie Samarasinghe, Chief of Strategy for the Commemorations of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations
  • Moderator: Nora Müller, Executive Director International Affairs, Körber-Stiftung

Key takeaways from the discussion

  • A brighter future for the transatlantic relationship: The discussants agreed that the 2020 US presidential election has a significant impact on international relations and the future of collective action. Dialogue and cooperation are expected to be restored by the Biden administration, allowing for a better transatlantic understanding. However, “the crisis of multilateralism did not start with the election of Donald Trump and will not end with that of Joe Biden,” emphasized the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell.
  • European Strategic Autonomy: “Multilateralism is nothing else than the by-laws of the international community, our common house. It defines common standards and introduces stability in international relations,” explained Josep Borrell. Multiple actors such as China, Russia, or Turkey are now threatening this stability by calling the multilateral system into question. In this context, the European Union must defend its autonomy of thought and action. European policymakers should remain focused on defining Europe’s own interests, values, and priorities, warned Oby Ezekwesili and Clément Beaune.
  • COVID-19 and the future of diplomacy: Asked about the impact of the pandemic on his work, State Secretary Clément Beaune underlined that in-person meetings were crucial in some circumstances: “EU leaders would probably not have reached an agreement on the EU recovery plan without physical discussions“. Nevertheless, Beaune also addressed the need to be more mindful of the climate implications of frequent air travel. Beyond highlighting and reinforcing global inequalities, “COVID-19 caught world leaders off guard and served as a wake-up call for improving preparedness,” added Oby Ezekwesili.
  • Towards a multi-stakeholder multilateralism: Discussing concrete actions for the post-Covid-19 international order, Natalie Samarasinghe and Oby Ezekwesili emphasized the challenge ofconnecting with citizens around the world. “People want a greater say in global decision making; they want to be involved at all levels,” underlined Natalie Samarasinghe. In her view, the United Nations should move “from an institutional focus to a partnership focus“. Including a diverse set of actors into its system would help the UN reinvent itself and enable the emergence of an “inclusive multilateralism“. Oby Ezekwesili agreed that the world has changed, and the UN must adapt and stay relevant, concluding: “we need to design an equitable multilateral system for the 21st century“. According to her, the main challenge in the coming years is to bring new voices into the international system and to build institutions that take into account current global and institutional inequalities while encouraging active citizenship.


Discover the article by Nora Müller on the Medium blog of the Paris Peace Forum.

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