Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 14:01 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 14:01 | SYDNEY

Multilateralism: Why process matters

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

19 May 2011 17:36

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

Tim Dunne is Professor of International Relations at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, University of Queensland.

Is the multilateral order in crisis? And is Australian foreign policy over-reliant on multilateral institutions at the expense of finding more creative and effective levers to promote its identity and interests? Michael Wesley's There Goes the Neighbourhood suggests an affirmative answer to these questions. Below I set out reasons why we should answer the questions with a resounding 'no'.

To begin with, we need to be clear what multilateralism is. There is a danger that it becomes a catch-all for every international organisation and all inter-governmental initiatives where three or more state parties are involved. Drawing on John Ruggie's brilliant work in this area, it is critical to note that multilateralism is both a process as well as a substantive goal.

In adopting an explicit commitment to multilateralism, governments are identifying a cooperative international order as one that is in their long run national interests. As the Princeton scholar John Ikenberry argues, the US adopted a multilateral approach to the global economic order after 1945. While the benefits of US support for Western Europe were immediate — in terms of security and trade — the gains for the US were longer term.

Multilateralism is a complex and slow process; consensus is the modus operandi, as it has been in the EU throughout the decades long integration project. But incremental change does not mean radical transformation is impossible — who would have thought that a six-country iron and steel community would become a political and economic union of twenty seven countries and 500 million citizens?

Michael Wesley is right to single out the specific problem that scale poses for international institutions. There is no doubt that size and effectiveness are in tension. Yet scale and efficiency need to be coupled with legitimacy. If trade issues, or questions about global security, were discussed by a small club of states — such as a 'league of democracies' as some influential US liberals would like — then effective action might result, but would it be illegitimate?

Another dimension of the 'multilateral malaise' that is misconceived, in my view, is the notion that 'old institutions never die'. It is true that institutional acronyms often live on long after the use-by date, but that is not the same as saying the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) matters in the same way today as it did in 1960 when Denmark, Sweden, and the UK were members. They left to join the EU, and EFTA is now an alliance between Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. Not exactly a dead institution but as close as you get in international relations to being in a persistent vegetative state.

Working skillfully within the range of overlapping multilateral institutions is a key challenge for Australia as it is for all internationalist powers — Michael Wesley is absolutely right about that. But these new mechanisms cannot be in place of multilateralism; I say this for two reasons.

First, if we stand back from the immediate interests of any single state, we need to ask the question, 'if not multilateralism, then what?'. The unipolar moment of the first half of the decade showed that unilateralism in security matters is ineffective and divisive (perhaps it should be 'unilateralism plus' if we include the coalition of the willing). Bilateralism is the kind of retrogressive foreign policy the current British Government has advocated; it is a strategy that has more in common with the 19th century order than our globalised world.

Second, and most importantly, multilateralism is a process and a goal. It is premised on the belief that, in addition to better regulation and coordination, a cooperative institutional order strengthens values of trust and mutual respect upon which a more secure world depends.

Photo by Flickr user looking4poetry.