DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The United Nations was established on one simple notion above all others: Working together is better than going it alone. But while the term “multilateralism” might be trending at this year’s U.N. General Assembly, some leaders are calling out the heads of richer nations.
Whether it’s the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change, developing countries say it seems that richer nations are thinking of themselves first and not the world’s most vulnerable.
“The global economy is now a house on fire, yet we continue to use evacuation methods that rush some nations out to safety while leaving the rest of us behind to fend for ourselves in the burning building,” said Malawi’s president, Lazarus Chakwera. “But if we are truly one U.N. family, then leaving no one behind has to be practiced, not just preached.”
Tanzania’s Vice President Philip Isdor Mpango was even more blunt. He said that “unilateralism driven by greed is leading us — rich and poor, strong and weak — to a catastrophe.”
When the United Nations was established in 1945, world leaders hoped it would make sure that something like World War II never happened again. Over the years its mandate has tackled everything from nuclear proliferation to protecting refugees. But that high-minded notion of multilateralism has never wavered — even if the reality sometimes has.
Kiribati President Taneti Maamau Beretitenti reminded member states last week that the United Nations’ founders wanted to not only prevent future wars but also “improve the standard of living for all.”
“Today, we take stock of the progress made towards those goals along with new commitments and to reflect and assess if we have truly lived up those values,” he said. Regionalism and solidarity, he said, “are at risk of being increasingly used to serve specific national interests” rather than for the common benefit.
“Broken humanity cannot be fixed by wonderful speeches, meetings, resolutions, nor international instruments, but by an interplay of greater compassion and solidarity,” he added.
Mohammad Niamat Elahee, an international business professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said most rich countries are giving lip service to multilateralism but are, in reality, acting otherwise.
“When we try to solve it ourselves, maybe in the short term we gain some benefits only for a limited number of people. But in the long run, it becomes worse for everyone,” he said, pointing to the COVID-19 variants that emerged in developing countries after rich countries initially hoarded vaccine supplies.
“For multilateralism to work, we need cooperation across the board. If some countries follow multilateralism and some countries don’t, then it doesn’t work,” Elahee said. “Big countries have a disproportionately high influence in the world,” he said. “When they abandon multilateralism, everybody else abandons it and it becomes a dog-eat-dog world. And that’s the challenge.”
Multilateralism has taken a steady stream of hits over the past 20 years, from U.S. military interventions to the backlash against globalization. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s tenure reintroduced an “America First” approach to foreign policy. His administration eschewed the United Nations as an “unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.”
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic — a shared global disaster, but also one that exposed how there was enough oxygen for some countries, but untold patients elsewhere would die without.
“The richer nations immediately received vaccines at the expense of the have-nots,” Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said last week, echoing the anger of a number of other countries.
Even issues that many countries have rallied around, like condemning the war in Ukraine, feel different to nations whose armed conflicts have not garnered the same international solidarity.
“They should pause for a moment to reflect on the glaring contrast in their response to the wars elsewhere where women and children have died by the thousands from wars and starvation,” East Timor President José Ramos-Horta told the Assembly.
“The response to our beloved Secretary-General’s cries for help in these situations have not met with equal compassion,” he said. “As countries in the Global South, we see double standards.”
Countries like Ghana say they need more international solidarity, too, when it comes to the inequities in how economies have weathered the impact of the pandemic and global inflation. The resulting currency devaluations have made it even harder for countries to pay back their U.S. dollar loans.
The consequences are also more dire for developing countries when it comes to climate change, leaders say. Presidents from Africa and island nations have been asking richer countries to take more financial responsibility for the fact they’ve contributed the most carbon emissions.
The fear lies, too, in what will happen once this annual flurry of promise-making ends, says Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, whose country has seen apocalypse-like flooding.
“My real worry is about the next stage of this challenge — when the cameras leave and the story just shifts away to conflicts like Ukraine,” he said. “My question is: Will be left alone to cope with a crisis we did not create?”
Ultimately, the “united” in United Nations means interdependence. It’s a notion that the past three years have taught many nations in substantial ways. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina summoned that as she told world leaders that “the greatest lesson we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’.”
“Mutual solidarity must be shown more than ever,” she said. “We need to prove that in times of crisis, the United Nations remains the cornerstone of the multilateral system.”