Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 14:02 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 14:02 | SYDNEY

The multilateralism bus has sailed!


Michael Wesley


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

1 July 2011 13:37

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

In the spirit of trans-Tasman rivalry, I'm obliged have a go at topping Rob Ayson's mixed metaphors. So here goes.

In his latest contribution to the multilateralism debate, Rob accuses multilateralism's sceptics of tilting at straw men. He argues that they conjure 'an almost mythically universal form which involves the maximum number of participants' before using 'this super-sized species of multilateralism as a stick to beat the entire genus.'

Rob asks, 'isn't plurilateralism just the multilateralism of the few, the multilateralist's view of the coalition of the willing?' Well, no.

The distinction between multilateralism's universal membership and restricted membership varieties has long caused misunderstanding between trade specialists and foreign policy specialists. To the tradies, 'multilateral' means universal membership of the GATT/WTO type, to be distinguished from restricted membership, or 'regional' agreements.

But to foreign policy types, multilateral can refer to both universal and restricted associations. The problem is that IR academics have broadened its remit so far as to slide it towards meaninglessness. So, in the spirit of Tim Dunne, it's important that we specify exactly what we mean by 'multilateral'. To my mind, it's not a question of membership. To be multilateral, an association must have three properties.

First, it must involve more than two governments negotiating (though not necessarily deciding) on the basis of equality. Second, its negotiations must involve the mutual adjustment of specific national interests into a set of generalised rules or undertakings among the members. Third, it must have or be working towards an agreed set of norms and principles, an agreed membership list and criteria, and a program of regular meetings.

Plurilateralism, to my mind, is something very different. Although it can involve more, most often it involves two governments engaged in a specific trading of concessions around a specific sector. Agreement is reached on a balancing of specific costs and benefits, and once there is agreement, no further meeting is necessary. The best example I can think of is the proliferation of Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs) over the past decade — itself a case of plurilateral experimentation following the failure of multilateral trade liberalisation.

As we've seen, the steady accretion of PTAs has kept the momentum of trade liberalisation moving forward. The entire system of distributed manufacturing in our region has been pushed forward by PTAs. And it's precisely because these governments could make specific, bilateral trade-offs behind closed doors, rather than being asked to make or agree to general principles in open sessions, that the momentum has kept going.

To my mind, the prospects of progress on the big challenges the world faces, from climate change to financial instability to power transitions, will be more quickly and effectively managed by an accretion of plurilateral understandings and partnership than a multilateral grand bargain.

But first there needs to be a collective realisation that the multilateralism bus isn't getting us anywhere.

Photo by Flickr user sea turtle.