Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 19:35 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 19:35 | SYDNEY

If not multilateralism, what?


Michael Wesley


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

7 June 2011 11:01

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

Ambassador Woker and Senator Trood argue for a well calibrated mix of multilateralism and bilateralism. I agree, but to deal with the emerging challenges to global order, we need to be more creative than just relying on these two techniques, however judiciously they are combined.

Previously I argued for a rigorous appraisal of where multilateralism works, where it has stopped working, where it will never work, and where it's making things worse. Multilateralism works on functional issues where states basically see eye-to-eye: health, communications and transport protocols, etc.

But on issues involving global public goods where major stake-holders have very different interests, prescriptions, and senses of entitlement, multilateralism has stopped working, will never work or is making things worse. This category of challenges is growing, not shrinking.

A rational response is to admit that multilateralism on its own — the traditional intergovernmental organisation and multi-state summit meeting — is of declining value. The next step is to reverse the trend of recent decades where states such as Australia have devoted increasing proportions of scarce diplomatic resources to servicing the annual agenda of multilateral meetings.

The counterpart to this is to begin investing fewer expectations on what these multilateral meetings can achieve for regional and global governance, and devoting greater resources to thinking about and experimenting with other techniques — or, as Rob Ayson suggests, non-multilateral forms of cooperation. Here are a few ideas on ways forward.

  1. Put multilateralism in the bottom drawer for all issues on which rational analysis predicts there will be major and intractable disagreement among major stakeholders. Taking a serious disagreement into a multilateral setting will only entrench disagreement and damage the organisation.
  2. On such issues, accept that agreement and compromise will need to built gradually, using non-multilateral techniques. Even if momentum is maddeningly slow, this is better than endless rounds of multilateral deadlock.
  3. Compromise and socialisation can be built using an array of methods, of which bilateral negotiations are only one. 
  4. The example of Preferential Trade Agreements shows that plurilateral negotiations (where small-scale and overlapping negotiations begin to build towards a broader outcome) can keep the momentum going in the right direction when there is little prospect of multilateralism making progress (ie. the Doha Round). 
  5. Ambassador Woker's example of development aid shows that hetero-lateral collaboration — where states, corporations, NGOs and other stakeholders collaborate towards a mutually-agreed goal — can be a way of tackling complex transnational issues that states on their own cannot address comprehensively. 
  6. Governments can be socialised towards an outcome, and then held to account, by using civil society, which has been hugely empowered by the new media. Entrenched positions (especially by rent-seekers) can be questioned and implementation shortfalls advertised through social networking — but first an effort needs to be made to include civil society actors in the campaign.
  7. Accept that sometimes, compromise and collaboration through formal agreement will not be possible, and work to achieve a stable equilibrium where the minimum requirements of the major stakeholders are respected. I think this is the likely future of Asia's geometry of power, rather than a Concert of Powers where all come together to manage crises collectively.

This is no focused manifesto calling for a radically new form of diplomacy. It is an appeal to think about other techniques before reaching instinctively for the multilateralism drawer.

Photo by Flickr user natashalcd.