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More reasons to doubt multilateralism

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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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19 May 2011 09:56


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

Nick Bisley is a Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University.

One of the abiding features of diplomacy in the 20th century was the emergence of multilateralism as a central approach to advancing common interests and dealing with complex problems in international relations.

Multilateralism was hugely important to the economic success of the West after 1945 and crucial to efforts at a regional level to advance common goals. Europe's efforts on this front are well known, and many have come to realise just how important ASEAN was to ensuring the 'Balkans of the east' became the stable and economically prosperous Southeast Asia we know today.

But the success of multilateral institutions in the post-war era should not make us assume that such an approach will always deliver the international policy goods. Michael Wesley has helped kick-start a long-overdue debate – just how useful are multilateral institutions to 21st century world politics?

It is clear that many of the key multilateral institutions in the world today have problems. Whether it is the perennially stalled Doha Round, legitimacy and quota problems at the IMF, serious anachronism at the UN Security Council, APEC's on-going existential crisis, or the inability of states to craft a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol (to say nothing of the only institution whose acronym largely describes its existential state, SAARC), wherever one cares to look, there seems to be a lot wrong with multilateral institutions.

This is of course well recognised. In the near permanent efforts to reform the UN or in the seemingly never-ending (and entirely unrealistic) desire to create the 'right' Asian security architecture, one sees examples of well-intentioned folk trying to improve the situation. Yet few pause to ask whether the problem is not with the specific features of the institutions and their individual shortcomings but with multilateral institutions as such.

Why are multilateral institutions of limited use under contemporary circumstances? Michael has set out five big problems; let me add several more:

  • Participants: Multilateralism involves states trying to act collectively. Herein lies a really big problem. One doesn't have to buy the hyperglobalist argument that states are being utterly denuded by globalisation to realise that states can only do so much in a globalised world. If the multifaceted problems that states and societies face today (such as financial crises, infectious disease or climate change) are to be managed, then a much broader array of actors needs to be brought to the table of collective endeavour. These complex problems require not just states but firms, NGOs, individuals, markets and an array of civil society bodies to be part of the story.
  • Problems, not process: Multilateralism puts a high premium on process, indeed momentum and the appearance of diplomatic movement is often thought to be sufficient for success to be declared. More importantly, multilateral institutions too often do not put problems at the heart of their purpose. Moreover, institutions take on a life of their own that can distort even the best designed mechanism. Contemporary circumstances warrant a more fluid and ad hoc approach to cooperative activity. This would involve networks of states, firms and other entities coalescing around an issue or a problem and then moving on after the collective endeavour is complete.
  • Papering over the cracks: One of the greatest risks of multilateralism is the complacency that the pretence of action can breed. Asia's recent embrace of security multilateralism is a case in point. At present there are 13 different intergovernmental institutions and processes that discuss regional security concerns and in 2009 there were over 270 Track II meetings dealing with matters of regional security. Yet few in the region feel secure. Indeed, if anything, the reverse is true. The appearance of multilateralism belies a region very ill at ease. More worrying, policy-makers the region over seem to think that adding yet more institutions will make things better. Not only do they rarely do so, they can lead to worse outcomes as the underlying problems are papered over by a thin veneer of cooperation.

It's time to recognise that, while multilateralism may still have a role to play, that this role is more limited than in the past. More importantly, the collective action problems it was intended to resolve require newer, more nimble and more diffuse mechanisms. Unless we realise this and begin to seriously redesign many entities, do not expect the current international policy malaise to pass.

Photo by Flickr user Tom Bech.

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