Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 21:31 | SYDNEY
Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 21:31 | SYDNEY

Overcrowding multilateralism

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

16 June 2011 11:03

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

Robert Ayson is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, Wellington.

Something has been bugging me since this fascinating multilateralism debate was launched on The Interpreter a month ago, and in light of Michael Wesley's most recent posts (and to mix metaphors horribly), I now feel the need to scratch that itch.

This is my problem: so many of the attacks on multilateralism are aimed at an almost mythically universal form which involves the maximum number of participants and is by that reason alone too cumbersome to deal with the issues that really matter.

Hence the Doha Round becomes the poster child of the case for multilateral paralysis. The global climate change negotiations of the Copenhagen variety attract similar derision. And in the meantime we have a bit of a quiet laugh about the UN (even though Australia and New Zealand have their eyes on a term in the Security Council). And then we proceed to use this super-sized species of multilateralism as a stick to beat the entire genus.

A chink in Michael Wesley's armour is to be found in his recent argument — which is in fact really an admission — that plurilateral cooperation can be used to make progress when multilateralism is just too big and unwieldy to deal with an issue.

But wait just a minute, isn't plurilateralism just the multilateralism of the few, the multilateralist's version of a coalition of the willing?

And isn't the European Union, which Ian Hall tells us is where multilateralism has worked, based on strongly plurilateral lines with its origins in a six-member European Steel and Coal Community? Indeed, isn't any regional form of multilateralism bound to be something less than universal? Ghana and Guatemala weren't part of the EU the last time I looked.

I agree with Tim Dunne that we still need to be careful about including too much in the multilateralism basket. It is not the case, to adapt a passage from Matthew's gospel, that 'wherever two or three are gathered' multilateralism can be said to exist.But neither is it the case that everyone with all of their baggage has to be in the room.

We see this in the origins of ASEAN, the multilateral diplomatic community which we all relied on to help preserve cordial relations between the core states of Southeast Asia. And how many of them were there? Only four of five. Shouldn't we be giving Asia just a bit more credit, even if the subsequent expansion of ASEAN has not been without its challenges?

Moreover, isn't the attempt to keep the East Asian Summit to a group of 18 — to the annoyance of the Canadians and EU — another example from Asia of the principle that you don't have to be universal to be multilateral? And what about the Trans-Pacific Partnership? This is not a bilateral deal, it is a not some small side-arrangement between two parties in the absence of Doha progress. What gives us a reason to reject it as a member of the multilateral genus?

I think we are being invited to flog a horse that is more imagined than dead.

Photo by Flickr user Annie Mole.