In an interview on BBC’s HARDtalk, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres bluntly described the current international situation, saying the only way out of our current global challenges, like the COVID-19 pandemic, is through international cooperation; yet the relationship between the biggest powers has never been so dysfunctional; and international cooperation has never been so low. As disturbing as Guterres’ description is, the reality is even worse.

The reality is that few of us are surprised, or expect international cooperation to improve even in the midst of one of the most multifaceted global challenges we have encountered. The status quo persists even though coordination could make a difference in the health and lives of millions of people; reduce the chaos in our economic systems by months, if not years; and take away the excuse a worrying number of countries are using to institute expanded use of new surveillance technologies and even derogate from accepted human rights conventions. This is when dysfunctionality in the international community really matters. In the absence of better international cooperation, could we look for leadership from a unique position that has global prestige, credibility, and impartiality: the Secretary-General of the United Nations? A former Portuguese Prime Minister, High Commissioner for Refugees, with a reputation for plain speaking, Guterres came to the job in 2017 amid so-far unrealized expectations to revitalize the U.N. Could this be his moment?

How did we get here?

How we arrived at such a low point of international cooperation is no mystery. Our slide away from an international system based on cooperation for the “global good,” which we came closest to in the 1990s, has dramatically accelerated in the past few years. Populations around the world finally stopped believing in a political class that somehow lost sight of what their job was, and considered that “managing situations” to be the same as “overcoming challenges.” Voters reacted predictably by electing people who sounded least like politicians. Unfortunately, our most pressing challenges do not lend themselves to simplistic solutions by inexperienced, self-serving populists, who often resort to xenophobia to stay in power. Would-be strong men already in power used the ensuing uncertainty to consolidate and extend their power. This has resulted in a world plagued by isolated, parochial, short-sightedness, and populated by increasingly rigid and inward-looking political entities.

With the current U.S. administration having stepped back from any international leadership role, and having weakened traditional alliances, bit players with parochial agendas such as North Korea and Saudi Arabia have been emboldened, greatly increasing regional tensions. And with its own serious existential questions engulfing the European Union, Russia and China have shown opportunistic interest in moving into this vacuum. These power shifts have so destabilized the international community, that our responses to COVID-19 have been reactive and uncoordinated. It is very possible that our delayed and disjointed responses have turned this pandemic into a much greater global emergency than it needed to be.

What difference could cooperation and coordination make?

What would be useful – even at this stage- is for countries to go beyond the usual technical cooperation. Not just to share knowledge, data, and experience, but also human and material resources to be focused where and when they are most needed. To coordinate in the re-purposing of industries to produce personal protective equipment (PPEs), test kits, ventilators, and the development of new technologies, in order to maximize global efforts without duplication or undue competition. To cooperate in the development of a vaccine and treatments. To ensure that the guidance of the World Health Organization (WHO) – such as placing an emphasis on mass testing – is followed everywhere. To help institutions such as U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), trying to care for millions of the most vulnerable in some of the most-dire conditions around the world are able to continue working.

Since this is not just a global health emergency, but will also be an economic one as well, the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund), and groupings like the G-20, need to be working together, not separately. As do regional human rights bodies and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to ensure that new and enhanced surveillance technologies remain “temporary”, and that any derogations from key human rights treaties are really necessary, and if so, last no more than the COVID-19 emergency. 

How could international cooperation come about in these circumstances?

The ideal candidate is, of course, the U.N. Security Council. With its powers under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, it can legally compel all United Nations Member States to comply with its mandates, which can be as wide ranging as the Security Council decides. This could easily include cooperating and coordinating in any emergency, so long as that emergency is deemed by the Security Council it to be a threat to international peace and security. In the past couple of decades, the Security Council has greatly expanded the range of topics it considers may be “treats to international peace and security”, including medical emergency related topics like the impact of HIV/Aids on peace and security in Africa in 2000, and more pointedly, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. This makes it substantively impossible to argue that a global pandemic like COVID-19, with States closing borders, openly competing for vital medical supplies and pointing fingers at one-another is not a potential threat to international peace and security. But since the Security Council deals mostly with the politics, and not the substance of issues, in dysfunctional times any argument can be made, even those conflicting with clear precedent.

While nine out of 10 elected members of the Security Council may finally have succeeded in having a meeting of the Security Council scheduled on this issue, France’s recent attempts to have the permanent members of the council to have a teleconference about it seems not to have worked. The latter is the better predictor of any future action because the Security Council is very much run by its permanent members: the U.S., China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. Thus, for the Security Council to be able to take action, none of these five countries have to feel strongly enough against an issue to erect roadblocks. Yet China, as president of the Security Council, in March, refused to even discuss the matter as the U.S. insisted that any meeting or text specify that the COVID-19 virus first emerged in China. Thus, it is clear that the level of discourse between permanent members is nowhere near to being effective on this issue, at this time.

The U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously adopted a resolution that calls for international cooperation a few days ago, but UNGA resolutions are hortatory in nature without binding effect. That leaves the office and person of the secretary-general of the U.N, a position that has traditionally been looked to for leadership in times of the most intractable crises. Could Secretary-General Guterres somehow motivate the international community to cooperate and better coordinate their anti-COVID-19 efforts? Possibly yes.

The secretary-general’s more subtle powers, such as what has become known as “good offices” are interpreted, rather than explicit. They are rooted in Chapter XV, especially Articles 98 and 99 of the U.N. Charter. First defined and employed by the U.N.’s second secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, and shaped by a number of his successors, “good offices” involves bringing to bear the prestige, credibility, and impartiality of this office, the weight of international public opinion embodied in the U.N., and especially the person of the Secretary-General, through the vehicle of quiet diplomacy.

Carefully and selectively used in the past, the power of quiet diplomacy has had success in bringing members of the international community together. A global pandemic and its looming dire economic repercussions are exactly the kind of emergency that, with international cooperation being at a low point, necessitates the use of “good offices.” Quiet diplomacy goes beyond the many interventions already made by Secretary-General Guterres in this crisis. Pointing out the dysfunctionality in the international community, calling for the cessation of all conflict, urging greater cooperation — especially with regard to the most vulnerable among us — and presenting a socio-economic call for action are important markers that the Secretary-General is using to indicate where the international community should be focusing. But we of course do not see “behind the scenes” to know what else Secretary-General Guterres is doing. Where even now his quiet diplomacy may be practiced aggressively.

This is what all the years of building up personal relationships with world leaders has been for. Where, as secretary-general, he can go beyond what is “safe,” calling in chips and putting his credit on the line. This is where he looks for common denominators among competing positions around which to gather a critical mass of support; to isolate outliers and collectively “encourage” them towards consensus; and find a way to make sure that every face is saved. This is where he marshals the resources of his executive office, ensuring that his representatives are beating the bushes at all appropriate levels. And, this is where he and his team are looking for the right forum in which to bring it all together.

There is little downside for Secretary-General Guterres to employ his good offices to the fullest in this situation. If his best efforts to ignite a greater global response fails, we will be no worse off than if nothing had been attempted. But if he succeeds in increasing coordination even a little, the upside goes well beyond just being able to deal more effectively against COVID-19 and its economic and social consequences. Reminding the international community what successful cooperation can achieve may also kick-start reversing the trend of today’s dismal level of international cooperation.

There are, however, definite downsides to not being as proactive as possible in the current situation. One is that we do not gain the advantage of better coordination of individual country responses – and in this crisis, we need all the advantages we can get. A longer-term danger is that if the secretary-general’s personal “good offices” are not employed proactively when the need is as clear and vital as it is now, then the prestige and power of both the facility and the office is sure to be damaged and erode further. Perhaps most importantly, in times of international deadlock, the tendency is not even to attempt such initiatives, because they are considered unlikely to succeed. If we fall into this trap, how do we ever get to a future where the international community is once again characterized by the quest to improve the global common good, and not just to accept the negative inertia of national authoritarianism?