UN75+25: The Pandemic as another Chance for Opening towards Omnilateralism?

Calculations by the London School of Economics show it clearly. If early on Wuhan could have directly informed a truly “global health organisation” and the epidemic thus been restricted to its city of origin, the world economy could probably have avoided more than 8 trillion dollars worth of damage and possibly thousands fewer lives would have been lost.[1] However, the currently only ‘inter-governmental WHO’ declared a pandemic just on 11 March; and a local epidemic has now become a real ‘pandemic,’ namely a disease that ‘concerns all people’ (translating from the Greek pan and demos). That’s what we are living through right now, or some of us in the end not even that, sadly…

To make the difference we must switch from the often failing, multi-lateral cooperation, limited to only national governments to a wider, omni-lateral opening. To embrace all administrations. To include local, state and regional as well as global governance. This is the trigger point.

In the current system, the nation state, with its claim of absolute sovereignty, in spite of obvious global interdependence, remains the political bottleneck, in Beijing as badly as in Washington, in London and Ankara as badly as in Manila and Tokyo. Diplomats can filter out information destined for abroad way more effectively than any home-made masks we may wear against the virus. Anything that could come out of the bottle and go viral against a national interest is blocked in the name of national sovereignty. Hence, without the political blessing from the national leaders back home nothing officially goes through to the so-called United Nations – nomen est omen – in New York or other associated ‘inter-national’ organisations like the WHO in Genève.

As global issues need global solutions, we need truly global bodies to identify and solve the problems beyond the parochial perspective of most national politicians. Thus, instead of weak inter-national institutions of the Westphalian System of the past, only strong supra-national bodies can lead to a safer future.

Europe has learned some lessons about sharing power that could be useful stable stepping-stones on the path towards effective governance at the global level, by and for all – or in Latin, omnibus.

Now is the time to seize the omnilateral moment. The roots of omnilateralism are deep and profound. The great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant conceived of an “omnilateral will” as a right for all humanity back in 1797. Should not now the highest level of world governance, after a century of control by many (multi-lateral) but only nations, open-up to a democracy involving all legitimate stakeholders, as practically already begun in COP, from the local to the global levels of governance, for the common good? Ought not humankind leave behind the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia with its historic aberration of the sovereign nation? The United Nations should celebrate its 75th birthday this year enlightened under the new narrative of omni-lateralism.

The current system omits major non-state stakeholders from civil society and various other legitimate groups from taking their responsibility in decisions for the common global good.

The current multi-lateral ‘World Order’ is not in reality shared by all people(s),[2] let alone equally. Rather, it is an order basically limited to governance by sovereignty-claiming nation-states[3] shaped by the norms of the Westphalian System. Some major nations are withdrawing even from this merely multi-lateral system, increasingly walling themselves off[4] or challenging it with alternatives and exploiting the void of “Westlessness.”[5]

Most ‘nations’ — as now historic aberrations imposed on the world by western colonialism in the past — still claim sovereignty with their monopoly of violence within their borders.[6] Narrow-minded national politicians deny the high interdependence through globalisation of their economies (albeit current “slowbalisation[7] more in favour of growing regionalisation). The nation’s limitations leaves a widely unruled global market outside and across the borders to the ‘multi-national’ corporations – in particular the politically crucial media-mighty American GAFA and Chinese BATX — in a ‘winner takes all rivalry.’[8]

In fact, nowadays various developments of global society have significantly chipped away authority from the nation-state as the core polity of governance. Instead, there is a dire need for decision-making at wider continental and even global levels. It opens up a path to broader inclusion than under merely multi-lateralism, a path towards a comprehensive omni-lateralism.

Furthermore, the current system omits major non-state stakeholders from civil society and various other legitimate groups from taking their responsibility in decisions for the common global good. Hence amendments to enhance global governance need to not only better weigh votes amongst the present nations (cf. huge China unlike tiny Nauru). They also have to further open the current system of only nations’ votes to voices of wider groups: for an omni-lateral participation by all accountable stakeholders concerned. To move the global order from a merely multi- to an openly omni-lateral one, it has to include the non-Western world in deeper and wider engagement with its best practices and proven values.

Thus, under omnilateralism global governance will for instance not be limited anymore to linear thinking in Christian anthropocentrism, but also open to Buddhist comprehension of cycles for life. More social elements of Islamic banking to fight inequality could find consideration as well as African experiences of reconciliation in order to overcome the polarisation of our societies. Regional integration on all continents (EU, ASEAN, AU, Mercosur etc.) and pooling national sovereignty should serve as stepping-stones towards supranational cooperation.

Learning from the failure of the League of Nations and now the weakening of the UN, the people(s) and their politicians ought to open the path towards a global stakeholder democracy, omnibus, namely by and for all, in omnilateralism.


[1] see Dr Dena Freeman of the LSE at conference on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8KmXlAxy1g&list=PLQN0Q-K1FkmS6lO9qbo5JnXO0dXdv7XUI).

[2]According to Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard (Foreign Affairs, New York, May/June 2015 p.1), “for much of the last three centuries, European order was world order.”

[3]’Nation-state’ as a term originated basically in Europe, and mainly colonialisation imposed the concept on Africa, America and Asia. Hence, for instance, the translation into Chinese and vice-versa often is wrought with different interpretations. The Chinese characters for country 国 , empire帝国, and state国家are all translated into English invariably as ‘nation.’ 国 is a most common character and ranks 105 in the Frequency Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese (by Richard Xiao, Abington, 2009).

[4]Most spectacular with Donald Trump’s wall, but a historic trend all over the world, see Wendy Braun, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Zone Books, New York 2017, passim.”

[5]Slogan coined by chairman Wolfgang Ischinger at München Security Conference in February 2020

[6]In recent history, the state has succeeded over other communities like provinces or towns to such an extent in its monopolisation of force and violence that we take it for granted. The very definition of the state for Max Weber (1921) refers to an organization that has a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”

[7]Sic Economist, 2.1.2019

[8]Except within the EU with its supranational competences for competition law

Wolfgang Pape

Dr Wolfgang PAPE is currently free writer after recent Fellowships in Seoul and Taipei. During his service in the European Commission over 30 years, including postings as a diplomat in Tokyo, he was at HQ in Brussels in charge of the ‘Asia Strategy’ and contributed to the ‘White Paper on Governance’ of the EC President, following an EU Fellowship at the Brookings Institution in Wash.DC. His publications in English, German, Japanese and French are ranging from cultural diversity to trade issues and global governance, for which he coined the term of “Omnilateralism.

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