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Multilateralism: A tool, not a principle

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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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20 June 2011 08:25


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

Daniel Woker is the Swiss Ambassador to Australia.                                            

If multilateralism is thought of as a fixed framework where formal agreement by all is the only really positive outcome, and anything short of that is perceived as failure, then indeed multilateralism's clear successes are relatively few and far between. 

Often these successes hinge on historically unique situations, as was the case when President GHW Bush drew his famous 'line in the sand' after Saddam Hussein's naked aggression against Kuwait.

The rate of multilateral success stories is, however, much higher when a structure exists which takes in account commonly accepted and evident inequalities among countries. All countries are not born equal, and evidently will never be. The trick is in the design of the multilateral architecture, and in the honing of its working tools — an equilibrium of not trampling underfoot some basic sovereign rights of the small, while taking into account the justified (not more!) requirements of the large and powerful.

Observing this standard might get us close to Michael Wesley's 'stable equilibrium'. This is not the place to judge all existing multilateral structures by this criteria, but it is generally agreed that many structures of the 1945-50 period no longer reflect 'the respect for the minimum requirements of (today's) major stakeholders' which Wesley correctly demands.

As I have written before on this blog, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975–1990) and, to a minor degree, its successor, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, hold some intriguing lessons for how a bunch of reluctant states, clearly not ready for specific concessions in bilateral negotiations, could agree to an overall framework and process wherein they perceived just enough positives to make them swallow some bitter pills.

A major advantage of the multilateral process, as opposed to bilateralism, is the wide platform. Everybody can, and often will, meet everybody else, with 'plausible denial' possibilities for state sector representatives to meet with 'unrecognised' states, NGOs with controversial agendas, or representatives from the private sector. Behind the scenes, the General Assembly of the UN serves this function, and in CSCE times of yore, Western delegations would shepherd into all-European meetings personalities whom Eastern European participants could never have met officially.

Diplomats and politicians are first and foremost human beings. Why should a certain network and bonding factor among public enemies, so often perceived in parliamentary backrooms (parliaments are in most countries multilateral settings, with very divergent views and interests), not also function on the international scene? Moreover, the practitioners of international relations — diplomats, NGO reps, and other representatives of civil society who are fully accepted participants in the international dialogue today — learn the ropes and their future counterparts far more rapidly and thoroughly in a multilateral setting than in bilateral encounters.

I had the good luck to serve my three initial diplomatic assignments in multilateral settings (CSCE; desk officer for the then three large regional development banks; the UN in New York), and 20 years later, I am still well served in my daily work, at present almost exclusively bilateral, both by the networks of old colleagues and my experience in the give-and-take of multilateral negotiations.

Photo by Flickr user e.b image.

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