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Think global, act local? Not quite

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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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19 May 2011 13:30


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

Robert Ayson is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, Wellington.

Michael Wesley's questioning of multilateralism is a useful antidote to the tired and often empty mantra than global problems require global solutions. More often than not (as we see in climate change and trade negotiations, for example), global problems require sensible national policies on the part of the principal actors. Normally this means that the major powers need to be on the same page.

It is the discordance of interests between the big players than mainly explains why the Doha Round is failing and why Copenhagen was not a success. But this also means we should not attribute the blame for this lack of movement on multilateralism itself. Non-multilateral forms of cooperation are not necessarily going to produce an answer if those interests are still discordant. And non-cooperative answers, where a solution is imposed rather than agreed, requires the sort of supreme authority in international politics which we do not have.

The fact that multilateral processes often become venues for major power competition is not necessarily a sign of their impotence – it may also be a sign of their significance. In Asia, moreover, while it has been difficult to shut down or radically alter processes that have had their time in the sun, the answer is often to find another piece of the machinery which has the preferred focus and membership. That's where the expanded East Asia Summit comes in, for example. Other forums may not be disbanded in its place, but people know where the action is.

Photo by Flickr user misterbisson.

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