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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 09:44 | SYDNEY
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Multilateralism: Process versus outcome

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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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30 June 2011 11:03


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

Ambassador Woker raises an important caution about burdening multilateralism with unrealistic expectations, and then judging it harshly when it falls short. He argues that often it is the process itself that is the important outcome.

His example of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe is a good one — the iterative process of meetings between the halves of Europe divided by the Iron Curtain played a key role in stabilising the continent as the Second Cold War began after 1978. Another example, closer to home, is ASEAN, an organisation short on actual collaborative outcomes, but long on stabilisation and mutual trust, built up over decades of meetings.

Distinguishing process from progress is important in working out when multilateralism is working and when it isn't. Situations of high mutual mistrust and antagonism are ideally suited to an open-ended process of meetings, without the pressure of agreeing on a concrete plan of collaboration. As long as the major protagonists have no greater goals than co-existence, multilateralism will do the trick.

The problem is that multilateralism is being tasked with much greater demands than these. Michael Heazle has rightly shown how the solutions required on climate change are well beyond the capacities of the multilateral process. Arguably, so is the reform of the global financial system, which has been placed on the agenda of the G20.

I would add to the list of bridges too far for multilateralism the stabilisation of power relations in Asia, which Hugh White, Coral Bell and Kevin Rudd have argued calls for a Concert of Asia (I once also thought this was the solution, but now I'm sceptical). Perhaps all of Asia's great powers do want peaceful co-existence, but that's not their ultimate goal — and they certainly don't agree on the terms of their co-existence.

The problem with multilateralism is when governments confuse process with progress. When real action, real agreements, real collaboration is needed, all too often they settle for the easy option of multilateral meetings. Setting up a multilateral process then looks like action, but is a smoke screen for inaction.

But it's not only inaction that's the problem. When incorrectly applied, multilateralism actually deepens antagonism and makes genuine collaboration less likely. Arguably, the G20 has deepened disagreements between America and China over the global financial system by drawing them into irreconcilable positions on issues such as measuring global financial imbalances.

I must also disagree with Ambassador Woker that multilateral meetings are the place for governments to engage civil society. From Seattle in 1999 to Copenhagen a decade later, multilateral summits provide the ideal platform for civil society to grandstand and complicate negotiations.

Photo by Flickr user Brave Heart.

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