The United Nations celebrated its 75th anniversary last September 21 with the theme “The future we want; the United Nations we need — reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism.”
Multilateralism is a concept that scholars have long been studying in international relations. It calls on states to follow international norms and pay great respect to international institutions. This contrasts with unilateralism, where a state upholds national political and commercial interests as it seeks to influence international relations. There is also the concept of bilateralism where a state forms alliances that discriminates against a third party.
President Duterte affirmed the nation’s commitment to multilateralism in his recent speech before the UN General Assembly when he said, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic: “To this end, we rededicate ourselves to multilateralism. The UN remains humanity’s essential organization. But it is only as effective as we make it. Let us empower UN — reform it — to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. Let us strengthen it so it can fully deliver its mandate to maintain peace and security, uphold justice and human rights, and promote freedom and social progress for all.”
In his own UN speech, China President Xi Jinping also highlighted multilateralism in his discourse on today’s problems, from the global COVID crisis to the challenge of climate change. On the pandemic, he reaffirmed China’s $2-billion donation to the efforts of the UN and the World Health Organization against COVID-19 and declared that China’s vaccine, when ready, will be a “global public good.” He reiterated China’s call for the world to come together in a “Community of Shared Future for Mankind.”
Pope Francis, speaking at the same UN forum as head of the world’s smallest state, echoed the call for multilateralism. “At present, we are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism, which is all the more serious in light of the development of new forms of military technology…. We need to break with the present climate of distrust,” he said.
The special session of the UN General Assembly gave the world’s national leaders an opportunity to address the whole world via modern technology, without physically gathering together in view of the ongoing pandemic.
President Duterte’s statement in one part of his speech on the 2016 Arbitral Court ruling on the South China Sea drew a great deal of reaction and comment among local officials. But to the world community, it was his oneness with other world leaders, including China’s President Xi Jinping and the Vatican’s Pope Francis, in upholding multilateralism in world affairs as most significant.
In a world of so much division and self-interest and unilateralism, we need more nations and more leaders to uphold the principle of multilateralism — of reciprocity, of burden sharing, of joint action in world relations and world affairs.