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Will COVID-19 bring the world closer together – or drive it further apart?

Over the past several weeks, we have seen COVID-19 spread across the globe, leaving in its trail a devastating set of consequences for all children.

In response to this, Save the Children has put together a 5-point plan of action to protect a generation from COVID-19, and launched our biggest ever appeal this week to respond to the pandemic both in the UK and across the globe.

In the immediate term, the pandemic presents a difficult challenge for governments trying to respond to the crisis. But what risk does COVID-19 bring in the long term? It threatens to reverse the vital gains made over the past several decades in enhancing global prosperity and stability, and poses significant challenges to the multilateral system that underpins our global campaigns.

The key tenets of the rules-based international system, and the liberal values it embodies, are being challenged.  The multilateral system has seen a period of increased fragmentation over the past decade – but the pandemic risks further exacerbating this, with significant implications for the system we operate in and rely on delivering results for our global work.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen nations across the globe turn inward and focus on containing the spread of COVID-19, taking unilateral steps to protect themselves with minimal global cooperation. This was evident in both the G7 and G20 forums where we saw the G7 meeting end with no communiqué and the G20 agree a vague communiqué that received criticism for not taking a stronger global stance as they previously did for the financial crisis in 2008.

Similar limited engagement, and criticism, has been levelled towards the United Nations (UN). The UN Secretary General has announced significant measures to help curb the impact of COVID-19, including calling on governments to embed health strategies in a coordinated global response, support a global ceasefire and to give “the strongest support to multilateral efforts to fight the virus.”

But the response from the UN Security Council has been almost non-existent. Without the support of the Council, the Secretary General’s calls have been broadly disregarded. Instead the UN General Assembly moved to adopt a resolution earlier this month that called for a “global response based on unity, solidarity and renewed multilateral cooperation.” This has raised alarm amongst foreign policy commentators and rights groups as the Security Council is the only body at the UN with the authority to issue binding resolutions to member states. If the Council is failing to fulfil its role on the global stage, the integrity of the system further weakens.

At the same time, we are seeing geopolitical jostling amongst the big-power states with significant consequences for the rules-based system. As Western nations remain distracted, China is moving quickly to capitalise on the crisis and is attempting to fill the global vacuum to position itself as the global leader in the pandemic response. Russia is also seeking to seize this as a soft-power opportunity by providing aid to Western nations, whilst creating a narrative that Moscow is stepping in “where Europe and NATO failed.”

As former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt argued during his time at the Foreign Office, the “progress of modern history has happened not by accident but by design.” With the changing global powers battling to take over the hegemon role and to influence the global system in their favour, the long-term consequences of the crisis pose a risk to a system that has been underpinned by the rule of law, democracy, and individual rights.

These global power shifts, and the lack of international engagement, have the potential to entrench what is already a concerning trend of the dismantling of the rules-based system and its multilateral institutions. This would not only have a negative impact on the effectiveness of international efforts in responding to crises like COVID-19, but would also affect the broader engagement between nations on other agendas. The effects of this would be felt in both bilateral cooperation and in how the multilateral system organises itself and responds to global developments that transcend borders.

The trend of unilateral action and increasingly isolationist policies carries significant risks in how states organise themselves in times of crises, as well as to matters of peace and security, including peace negotiations and ensuring justice is delivered to perpetrators of violations of children’s rights. If we see a crumbling of the system in one part, it has huge disruptive implications for the broader multilateral system of diplomacy, decision-making and unity.

Once the crisis subsides, we will need to be prepared to operate in an international system that will have COVID-19-sized dents in it. The long-term challenges for development and humanitarian advocates seeking to have influence in a changing global context will mean we must make the case urgently for both the necessity and effectiveness of global cooperation, and urge countries like Britain to ensure they redouble efforts to defend the rules-based international order.

This will require us to think about how, through our campaigns, we preserve and protect the key principles of effective multilateralism which have enabled global progress across development and humanitarian agendas in the past decades. We must work towards not only thinking about how we ensure the UN and other bodies are fit for purpose and effective, but also how we continue to defend and strengthen the values that underpin them.

As we have seen, global coordination in a rules-based system is not certain, and is under great strain from an international system in flux.  It is critical in responding to crises like COVID-19, and to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals. We cannot take it for granted.

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