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Multilateralism and the problem of 'framing'

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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 June 2011 09:52


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

My understanding of the multilateralism debate to date is that no-one is advocating ditching multilateralism altogether, or arguing that it has no role in international affairs. As other contributors have noted, the entire institution of international law, for example, is based on multilateralism, and in the vast majority of cases, it works. Whether or not multilateralism can work is not an issue — clearly it can and often does work.

The real issue here is when and how it works, and this is what Michael Wesley is getting at when he criticises the almost Pavlovian resort to multilateralism by some advocates regardless of the circumstances and nature of the policy problem at hand.

As I argued in my earlier post, multilateral cooperation is not a problem when the issue and desired outcomes (a) are commonly understood and agreed; and (b) the means of pursuing those outcomes is relatively simple and inexpensive, both financially and politically.

It is on the big, complex, and often high profile policy issues, however, that multilateral responses start to struggle, since even agreement on what is at stake in these kinds of wicked policy problems is often a major challenge, let alone manufacturing any kind of agreement on what should be done, by whom, and at what cost.

The key to encouraging shared interpretation and understanding of complex issues, where the costs of adopting one or another policy response are potentially very high, is how the issue is framed in policy debate. Narrow framings of an issue, which reflect only some values at the expense of others, close down not only the negotiation space for agreement on what should be done, but also the range of options available for how it should be done.

In a follow-up post I will highlight a good example of how narrow framings lead to policy deadlock, by examining the lack of progress in developing an international response to climate change.

Photo by Flickr user joshwept.

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