Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 07:03 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 07:03 | SYDNEY

The dogma of multilateralism


Michael Wesley


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

2 June 2011 13:39

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

The number and range of contributions to our debate on multilateralism shows just how overdue this discussion is.

Indeed, the breadth of responses shows that multilateralism has become many things to many people. Tim Dunne is right to caution that we need to be clear about what multilateralism is. Unfortunately, multilateralism seems to have acquired many incarnations.

One incarnation is multilateralism-as-ideology, or 'dogma', as Ian Hall puts it. The ideology of multilateralism is that it is a process which inevitably, if not swiftly, leads to greater levels of trust, agreement, and cooperation. To its partisans, multilateralism has an all-or-nothing quality to it. If a foreign policy is not multilateralist by default, it must be unilateralist or bilateralist — and by implication selfish, instrumental, and low-horizoned.

But by expecting multilateralism to do everything, its partisans expose it to two big risks:

  1. In some cases, rather than building trust, agreement and cooperation, multilateralism can actually deepen suspicion and aggravate rivalry. Multilateral negotiations, by definition, take place in front of an audience of leaders, policy-makers, and officials of several other countries. This at times tempts some countries to push for maximalist positions, dressed in the rhetoric of collective responsibility. Such situations lead to increased resentment among countries that disagree over being embarrassed or blindsided, and can lead to a hardening of positions and to unproductive name-calling and blaming. In these cases, the private, iterative nature of bilateral talks, which allow compromise and face-saving, can be much more effective in building agreement and trust.
  2. By loading too much onto the multilateral agenda, its partisans risk advertising its failures and eroding support for the institutions which Russell Trood reminds us play such an important role in underpinning the global order. Because perceptions do matter. It is governments that bankroll international organisations, and in the current environment of public debt and fiscal tightening, taxpayers just might start questioning why money is being used to keep institutions they feel are irrelevant, incompetent or ineffectual running.

Multilateralism's partisans need to accept that it will not bring about agreement on all issues needing to be addressed collectively.

As I'll argue in my next post, the range of issues that multilateralism can't fix is growing. It's time to heed Ian Hall's call for pragmatism and take a good hard look at multilateralism's progress: where it's working; where it has stopped working; where it will never work; and where it's making things worse. And for the last three of these categories, it's time to put aside the multilateralism-only fetish and get creative about what mechanisms might actually do a better job at building collective action on the pressing challenges the planet faces.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.