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The multilateralism we deserve

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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 May 2011 13:27


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

Michael Wesley raises some very important points about the limits of multilateralism. His comments highlight the growing dilemma posed by, on the one hand, increasingly significant transnational challenges that defy individual state responses (eg. global warming, nuclear proliferation, fisheries depletion, people smuggling), and, on the other hand, the apparent inability of states to cooperate in response to these challenges.

Numerous international regimes have been created to deal with issues requiring a coordinated response from states, but on the big transnational issues there is little to suggest they are succeeding in any meaningful way.

The international treaties and organisations set up to deal with, for example, climate change (the UNFCCC), international trade (WTO), non-proliferation (NPT), commercial whaling (the IWC), illegal trade in endangered species (CITES), and over-fishing (a host of regional organisations) all have been weakened by the kinds of deadlocks, suspicions, power inequalities and concerns over national interest that realists point to when they argue against the optimism of liberal institutionalists and some constructivists.

A good case in point is the ongoing failure of the climate change regime to encourage a reduction deal between the major carbon producing states. Here the realist argument about states being more focused on relative over absolute gains (and costs) is well illustrated by the unwillingness of coal dependent states (both developed and developing) to impose higher energy prices on their societies for fear of the economic, political, and security impacts such a move would have. 

Other states already using cleaner energy sources like natural gas not surprisingly are less concerned by the relative costs and gains of cutting emissions, since they would operate in their favour (eg. the UK's support for the Kyoto Protocol as opposed to US and Australian opposition until 2007).

The absolute benefit to all of cutting emissions, as realists predict, seems to be canceled out by the fears states have about others being relatively better off as a result of everyone cooperating to reduce emissions.

Adding to this reluctance is the multitude of uncertainties surrounding the scale and nature of future climate change impacts, which make cost-benefit calculations of the various policy options, like Nicholas Stern's, highly contentious and unhelpful.

Another problem is that even if international cooperation can be agreed to, it is not necessarily effective due to the wide range of differing state capabilities that makes some states more or less able to act than others.

Known as 'the implementation gap', the problem is that, for a great many states — often those most vulnerable to transnational threats — what they sign up to in an international treaty and what they can actually deliver are usually two very different things. The nature of the state and its capabilities matter, something the proponents of multilateral solutions often overlook.

In the realm of environmental issues, supporters of multilateral institutions usually point to the success of the Montreal Protocol as evidence of how regimes can and do work. Indeed, the mostly successful phase out of chlorofluorocarbons achieved under the 1987 Montreal deal made it the poster child of environmental regime advocates, so much so that the basic framework of the ozone protection regime became the core model for the Kyoto Protocol.

But as others have observed (see Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner), this is certainly a case of the 'wrong trousers', since the complexities posed by climate change are far greater than the essentially single issue ozone depletion problem, as are the potential costs due to the absence of a single, low cost solution of the kind that made cooperation on preventing ozone depletion possible (ie. Dupont's release of more ozone-friendly HCFcs and HFCs in the the late 1980s and early 1990s).

The real lesson that the Montreal Protocol's success seems to point to is that multilateral institutions work when the issue is simple enough to allow a solution that satisfies (or doesn't cost) most of the people, most of the time. But when faced with 'wicked' policy problems — where even defining the issues at stake is a challenge — multilateral cooperation more often than not stalls in the face of mounting uncertainty, mutual suspicion, and conflicting domestic priorities.

All of this is of course very depressing given that the need for international cooperation on transnational problems is now more urgent than ever as the pressure on resources grows and their depletion accelerates.

It seems clear that regional and global problems require regional and global responses, but it seems equally clear that the prospects for collaborative responses to collective problems, in the short term at least, remain bleak. Ultimately, we get what we deserve and that is probably as good an explanation as any for where we are currently at, so now would be a good time for some of 'the new techniques and mechanisms' called for by Michael to start making an appearance.

Photo by Flickr user freelancing god.

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