The Decline of Multilateralism
WASHINGTON—It is becoming increasingly difficult to argue against retrenchment in Europe and North America. Economic crises and domestic political stagnation absorb energy and consume financial resources. Global military engagements in faraway places cost lives and treasure and often yield limited success. There is growing disillusionment with democracy promotion. Coalitions of sovereign state defenders like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) make life for the guardians of the liberal world order ever more challenging. The upshot is multilateral fatigue in both Europe and North America.
This is a perilous state of affairs because state-transcending global problems are proliferating. “Global Trends 2030,” a study published by the U.S. National Intelligence Council last December, predicts that “the current, largely Western dominance of global structures … will have been transformed by 2030 to be more in line with the changing hierarchy of new economic players.” Yet even if this were to happen, the report argues, it remains unclear to what degree new or reformed institutions “will have tackled growing global challenges.” One might be forgiven for taking this to be an overly optimistic projection. Based on current trends, the outlook is much gloomier, due mainly to the political contagion effects of sovereigntism, the fixation on state sovereignty as an absolute value, and minilateralism. Moisés Naím, who initially coined the term, defined minilateralism as getting together the “smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem.”
The problem is that the smallest possible number may quickly grow very large; Naím’s own book, The End of Power, provides ample evidence that this is so. Consider, for instance, the number and political weight of countries needed to address the problems in the aftermath of a military escalation in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. The minimum number of countries required to effectively regulate global warming does not look any more encouraging. In other words, sovereigntism and minilateralism are symptoms of the crisis of liberal world order — manifestations of The Democratic Disconnect — and not a recipe for curing its ills. In the old days when multilateralism was not yet qualified politically with such adjectives as “assertive” (Madeleine Albright) or “effective” (EU), it served as a descriptor for a fundamental transformation of interstate collaboration in the second half of the 20th century.
In an influential article, John Ruggie, a Harvard professor and former high-ranking UN official, showed that the actual practice of multilateralism by the liberal democracies of North America and Europe after World War II was based on a set of generalized principles of conduct. These principles rendered segments of the post-war international order into more reliable cooperative settings, such as the United Nations, or islands of peaceful change, such as the zone of European integration. A readiness to give up sovereignty or, at least to cooperate on the basis of reciprocity, were characteristic elements of multilateralism and what came to be called the “liberal world order.” This liberal order is under strain today because its creators and guardians have themselves strayed from these principles. In the security field, “coalitions of the willing” have undermined multilateralism not only in the UN context, but also in NATO.
In economic and financial matters, the politics of European sovereign debt crisis management illustrates both the dangers of executive federalism and the limits of diffuse reciprocity among Europe’s nation states in the world’s most integrated region. “Responsible stakeholders,” the former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick once said, do more than merely “conduct diplomacy to promote their national interests…They recognize that the international system sustains their peaceful prosperity, so they work to sustain that system.” What was meant as advice to China when Zoellick gave that speech in 2005 can easily be redirected at the liberal democracies of North America and Europe today.
There are no easy ways out. Even if the slide toward retrenchment can be stopped, the prospects do not seem bright for the kind of bold new initiatives for global institutional reform that are required. It is debatable whether calls for “democratic internationalism” or a new alignment among “like-minded democracies” can do the trick, but Europe and North America need to realize that their stakes in the liberal order are much higher than those of relative newcomers. Indeed, overcoming crises at home hinges at least in part on sustaining a conducive global environment. Readjusting the balance between minilateralism and multilateralism will help.
Gunther Hellmann is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.