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The decline of the multilateral moment?

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This post is part of the Multilateralism and its critics debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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3 June 2011 12:52


This post is part of the Multilateralism and its critics debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Kanishka Jayasuriya has raised the intriguing possibility that multilateralism is not a timeless and universally applicable technique, but a form of diplomacy that was enabled by a certain set of historical circumstances, and therefore in decline as those circumstances pass into history.

With no small injustice to Kanishka?'s detailed writings on this topic, he argues that the post-War multilateral order was built on two things: western global dominance and a social constitutionalist contract broadly subscribed to among western countries. To these two conditions, I would add three more.

  1. Powerful states, unchallenged in their capacity to shape global affairs by markets, corporations, civil society actors or transnational flows.
  2. The mutually-reinforcing imperatives of trade and security: alliances that kept major trading partners confident enough to trade; and trade that enriched and empowered allies.
  3. A coalition of countries that could remember the pre-World War I golden age of globalisation and were prepared to forego a fair bit of self-interest to build the supporting structures for a new age of globalisation.

This world has gone. The commanding heights of global affairs are no longer the exclusive domain of the Atlantic powers. The GFC, the Euro crisis and political gridlock in the old democracies have sapped their confidence in the inherent superiority of their models of governance and markets.

As Nick Bisley notes, the state?'s capacity to control events inside and outside their borders now has serious challenges. Trade, investment and security now pull at cross purposes, with major rivals becoming each other?s largest trading and investment partners. Globalisation is no longer a golden memory but a huge, complex and unforgiving freight train that states struggle to comprehend, and they are more inclined these days to try to control it than enable it further.

If multilateralism is to play the same central role in the next 60 years as it did in the last 60, it needs to be able to handle three new challenges:

  1. Can it accommodate a diversity of actors and interests that now have not only a voice but the ability to shape and block cooperation in ways they couldn't in the past? The emerging states are a diverse lot with very different interests from each other, let alone the west. And then there are multinational corporations, civil society movements, transnational flows...
  2. Can it manage the scale and complexity of global affairs, which have broadened far beyond the foreign policy agendas of states? Can multilateral processes help manage the turbulence and risk of global flows, and the wicked problems that Michael Heazle reminds us are a consequence of deepening globalisation and interdependence?
  3. Will multilateralism be a mechanism for mitigating rivalries and mutual paranoias among deeply interdependent states, or the vehicles for prosecuting those rivalries?

Multilateralism as currently practiced cannot hope to meet these challenges alone. It can do part of the job, but it needs help from new methods and mechanisms. In my next post, I'?ll suggest a few.

Photo by Flickr user scratch n sniff.

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