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Multilateralism and the post-WW2 consensus

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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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24 May 2011 14:38


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

Kanishka Jayasuriya is Professor of International Politics at the University of Adelaide.

Michael Wesley's post about the problems of multilateralism is persuasive and warrants careful scrutiny. In fact, the problem of multilateralism may be even deeper than Michael suggests. US President Barack Obama, despite his instinctive bias for multilateralism, has found there is no easy return to the institutions and practices of post-war multilateralism.

This would suggest that there are structural reasons for the problems of multilateralism arising from tensions between its institutional form and its function in a changing global political and economic environment. These tensions have led to the slow but sure erosion of the social and political bedrocks of the post-war liberal order.

Stated briefly — I have detailed this argument elsewhere — the crisis of post-war multilateralism is a crisis of the peculiarly trans-Atlantic origins of the institutional architecture that weaved and bound together the post-war global order. The problem of institutional fetishism that Michael rightly recognises is to be located in our failure to understand the social foundation of post-war liberal multilateralism, shaped and contoured by the social and political forces unleashed by the Cold War conflict between socialism and capitalism.

Post-war multilateralism was marked by two social settlements, in the form of social constitutionalism. One was an internal social settlement reflected in the emergence of the social state in much of the developed non-communist world. The other refers to a set of international institutions, practices, and norms ranging from the UN Charter to the activities of UN organisations (eg. UNESCO, WHO) embodying the notion of inclusive global citizenship.

Cast in this form, post-war multilateralism was underpinned by a grammar of social democracy which helped shape and craft the management of social conflict within advanced industrial states. This also enabled the development of institutions and practices of social development and an inclusive global order. The current crisis of multilateralism reflects the end of this post-war period (or what Hobsbawm called the 'short twentieth century'). Today, it is geo-economics, not social constitutionalism, that drives global governance.

Let me finish this riff on multilateralism by noting the importance of geography to the trans-Atlantic consensus on multilateralism. This was very much an Atlantic order where the driving ideas and interests were located in the northeast of the US and in Western Europe. As the US economy has shifted to the western coast (think Silicon Valley) and the broader Pacific region, it has eroded political support for traditional multilateralism in the US. This is a deep-seated structural shift.

Is there anything to suggest that we, in this region, can get something like a trans-Atlantic consensus between the US and China and other rising Indo-Pacific powers? If so, what are its social foundations? What is the likely architecture of this global and regional governance?

Photo by Flickr user Hanna-.

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