In his recent remarks to the United Nations General Assembly, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama made a plea to other states to maintain a commitment to multilateral forums. It is clear that in recent years, multilateralism has come under increasing stress across a variety of domains. But this trend has become devastatingly evident since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been marked by a lack of international cooperation, signaling a deficit of both trust and global leadership. For small Pacific Island states this is an incredibly concerning development, one that Bainimarama felt needed to be expressed.
Small states use multilateral institutions as a way of finding common interests with like-minded states, or states with similar concerns. Individually, states like Fiji and its Pacific neighbors simply do not have the power to ensure their core issues gain prominence; however, if smaller states are able to partner with numerous states with similar concerns, and advance these causes collectively through international institutions, then they are able to develop a power disproportionate to their size. A world where this kind of cooperation is limited is a far more difficult world for countries like Fiji.
Yet in his speech, Bainimarama noted that it is not just small states which gain from a commitment to pursuing their interests through forums like the U.N. While pointing out that it has been 50 years since Fiji gained independence and joined the U.N. as a full member, Bainimarama stated: “Fiji recognized we had far more to gain than we could ever give this Assembly. But that humble truth is not reserved for the world’s small developing states – the same can be said of even the mightiest among us. Every nation, large and small, stands a better chance at our best future by acting in solidarity.”
The sharpened competition between the United States and China is blinding both these powerful states to the wisdom of Bainimarama’s observation. As these great powers increasingly seek to act unilaterally, the frameworks that have developed since the middle of the 20th century – frameworks that have offered Fiji the opportunity to at the very least be heard – are set to decay. This is a development with potentially costly consequences.
Bainimarama made note of two current pressing issues that are both vital to Fiji’s interests and require a distinct global commitment to multilateralism. The first of these is the ongoing pandemic. Bainimarama expressed concern that a vaccine for COVID-19 will only be guaranteed for those who can afford it. Although Australia has signaled that it will assist its Pacific neighbors, it’s not difficult to see how Bainimarama would still worry that the devastating effects of the pandemic could still lead to a compounding of selfish and distrustful behavior, leading to small states throughout the Pacific being isolated and ignored in a myopic global rush to gain access to a vaccine.
The other issue Bainimarama raised was one that seems to have been sidelined by the pandemic, and one that remains of vital importance to Fiji and its Pacific neighbors: climate change. The global, stateless nature of climate change is keenly understood by Pacific Island states. These countries make negligible contributions to the world’s carbon emissions, but disproportionately feel the effects of climate change. There are no solutions that the Pacific Island nations can pursue by themselves; they require the commitment and cooperation of large carbon emitters, working in concert with each other.
The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change caused great concern in the Pacific. Pacific countries needed the U.S. to not just take the issue seriously, but to demonstrate leadership within multilateral forums in order for the effects of climate change to be mitigated. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris Agreement should he win next month’s U.S. presidential election would be greatly welcomed across the Pacific.
It is the responsibility of great powers to remain committed to these multilateral institutions, to lead the search for global consensus and to use their power to advance important but difficult solutions on issues like climate change. Their abandonment of these institutions will only push the world closer toward an era of disorder. Bainimarama’s remarks were a signal that the Pacific states remain committed to the idea of multilateralism not only as an act of self-interest, but in recognition that the world’s two greatest challenges can only be resolved through global cooperation.