The solemn celebratory declarations at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the UN may suggest otherwise but multilateral organizations have probably seen better days. Aside from the traditional problems – lacking efficiency, overblown bureaucracy, failure to impact bigger autocratic states – multilateral organizations are increasingly blocked due to fundamental disagreements among their membership.
In this already difficult context for multilateralism, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted two somewhat paradoxical trends: On the one hand, it has shown the faults and limitations of several multilateral bodies, on the other hand the crisis has underlined their enormous (potential) importance. Much has been said and written about the World Health Organization (WHO) and its failure to openly address China’s mistakes, particularly during the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. However, this can at least partly be attributed to the WHO’s limited mandate, resources and its utter dependance on the goodwill of particularly large member states. The WHO’s often unfortunate interaction with Taiwan – a country which is probably one of the few successful examples in dealing with the crisis – has been another reminder of the limited political room of maneuver the organization has in an increasingly toxic geopolitical environment. Bearing all these limitations in mind, the WHO has proven to play a key role in the crisis by providing fact-based recommendations, advising many member states, providing material support and both initiating and coordinating efforts for research, development and efforts to ensure an equitable distribution of a vaccine.