The Crisis of Multilateralism

Something has snapped in workings of our multilateral institutions. And there seem to be too many problems in too many places for this to be entirely coincidental. If the late 20th century was an age of coming together, the early 21st century looks like being an age of drifting apart. Some countries won’t mind that. China, for example, has always instinctively favoured bilateral negotiation over many competing voices of the multilateral roundtable. ASEAN’s problems over how to handle territorial disputes in the South China Sea have been well publicized: the association is now effectively split into pro- and anti-China camps. Less widely covered was last week’s move by Uzbekistan to suspend its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. (Trefor Moss – The Diplomat – 26/07/2012)

While ASEAN and the CSTO are quite different groups that aim to do quite different things, essentially have the same problem: their members have conflicting visions of how their region’s strategic landscape ought to develop. And when members of a club can’t agree on basic issues, the club ceases to work. Other institutions face similarly uncertain futures. EU, once model for the likes of ASEAN, is in turmoil. NATO, for so long bedrock of Western security, will limp away from Afghanistan without much sense of its future direction. The organization is now centred, from U.S.’s perspective, on wrong ocean; Washington has become more interested in its dynamic Asian partners than in its declining European ones. Another example is UN Security Council: it is yet another type of multilateral grouping, but it resembles many of those already mentioned if only in its diminishing ability to function, as demonstrated by tht enervating deadlock over Syria. These groupings of nations operate by consensus. But consensus is becoming ever more elusive. The ASEAN members, which have never balked at publishing some pretty bland assertions of like-mindedness in the past, were unable to profess solidarity in even the most superficial terms last week, failing to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in their 45-year history. How can we explain this phenomenon of increased polarity in international politics? In some cases it could simply be that the structure of the institution has outlived its usefulness, most would probably agree with this where UN Security Council is concerned, with exception of the five permanent members. The countries that first came together to form these various institutions are not the same places they were then: nations that once had similar priorities and visions may now have drifted apart politically and economically. The structure of international politics has also been transformed beyond all recognition. Countries have risen and fallen as political and economic powers, while institutions that serve these countries have struggled to keep pace, reforming too slowly, too timidly. The power of these groups to help their members to navigate the geopolitical challenges that they face has waned as a result. The world has many multilateral institutions, but too few work well. They need to update their visions of regionalism and multilateralism for the 21st century. This quest will end, for some, in the realization in new geopolitical order there is no longer a common thread that ties their members together. 

Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

2 Responses to The Crisis of Multilateralism

  1. ¿Qué tienen en común el calentamiento global, la crisis de la Eurozona y las masacres en Siria? Que nadie tiene el poder de detenerlas. Cada una de estas situaciones ha venido deteriorándose ante los ojos del mundo. Las tres implican graves peligros y el sufrimiento de millones de personas. Sobre las tres hay ideas acerca de lo que se debería hacer. Y no pasa nada. Hay reuniones de ministros, cumbres de jefes de Estado, exhortaciones de personajes eminentes, líderes sociales, políticos y académicos. Nada. Los medios nos dan angustiosas dosis de noticias que confirman que cada una de estas crisis sigue su rauda carrera al despeñadero. ¿Y…? Nada. No pasa nada (…..) Estas tres crisis son una manifestación de una tendencia que va más allá de ellas y moldea muchos otros ámbitos: el fin del poder. Esto no significa que el poder vaya a desaparecer o que ya no haya actores con inmensa capacidad para imponer su voluntad a otros. Significa que el poder se ha hecho cada vez más difícil de ejercer y más fácil de perder. Y que quienes tienen poder hoy están más constreñidos en su uso que sus predecesores. El actual presidente de Estados Unidos (o de China) tiene menos poder que quienes le precedieron en ese cargo. Lo mismo vale para el Papa, el jefe del Pentágono o los responsables del Banco Mundial, Goldman Sachs, The New York Times o cualquier partido político. Vladímir Putin tiene hoy más restricciones como presidente de Rusia de las que tenía en su primer mandato o incluso como primer ministro, durante el turno que le dio a Dmitri Medvédev para que le cuidara la silla. Lo mismo sucede con Mahmud Ahmadineyad o Hugo Chávez: hoy su poder —que es aún enorme— es más precario que antes (…..)

    http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2012/07/28/actualidad/1343497669_645295.html

  2. (…..) To Washington’s eternal frustration, however, Europeans have not put their energies into becoming a full partner on global issues. For all the existential angst of the euro crisis, Europe is not as weak as people think it is. It still has the world’s largest market and represents 17 percent of world trade, compared with 12 percent for the United States. Even in military terms, the EU is the world’s No. 2 military power, with 21 percent of the world’s military spending, versus 5 percent for China, 3 percent for Russia, 2 percent for India, and 1.5 percent for Brazil, according to Harvard scholar Joseph Nye. But, ironically for a people who have embraced multilateralism more than any other on Earth, Europeans have not pooled their impressive economic, political, and military resources. And with the eurozone’s need to resolve the euro crisis, the EU may split into two or more tiers — making concerted action even more difficult.


    As a result, European power is too diffuse to be much of a help or a hindrance on many issues.

    On the other hand, Obama’s United States — although equally committed to liberal values — thinks that the best way to safeguard American interests and values is to craft a multipartner world. On the one hand, Obama continues to believe that he can transform rising powers by integrating them into existing institutions (despite much evidence to the contrary). On the other, he thinks that Europe’s overrepresentation in existing institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is a threat to the consolidation of that order. This is leading a declining America to increasingly turn against Europe on issues ranging from climate change to currencies. The most striking example came at the 2009 G-20 in Pittsburgh, when Obama worked together with the emerging powers to pressure Europeans to give up their voting power at the IMF.


    As Walter Russell Mead, the U.S. international relations scholar, has written, “[I]ncreasingly it will be in the American interest to help Asian powers rebalance the world power structure in ways that redistribute power from the former great powers of Europe to the rising great powers of Asia today.”

    But the long-term consequence of the cooling of this unique alliance could be the hollowing out of the world order that the Atlantic powers have made. The big unwritten story of the last few decades is the way that a European-inspired liberal economic and political order has been crafted in the shell of the American security order. It is an order that limits the powers of states and markets and puts the protection of individuals at its core. If the United States was the sheriff of this order, the EU was its constitutional court. And now it is being challenged by the emerging powers. Countries like Brazil, China, and India are all relatively new states forged by movements of national liberation whose experience of globalization has been bound up with their new sense of nationhood. While globalization is destroying sovereignty for the West, these former colonies are enjoying it on a scale never experienced before. As a result, they are not about to invite their former colonial masters to interfere in their internal affairs. Just look at the dynamics of the United Nations Security Council on issues from Sudan to Syria. Even in the General Assembly, the balance of power is shifting: 10 years ago, China won 43 percent of the votes on human rights in the United Nations, far behind Europe’s 78 percent. But in 2010-11, the EU won less than 50 percent to China’s nearly 60 percent, according to research by the European Council on Foreign Relations.


    Rather than being transformed by global institutions, China’s sophisticated multilateral diplomacy is changing the global order itself.

    As relative power flows Eastward, it is perhaps inevitable that the Western alliance that kept liberty’s flame alight during the Cold War and then sought to construct a liberal order in its aftermath is fading fast. It was perhaps inevitable that both Europeans and Americans should fail to live up to each other’s expectations of their respective roles in a post-Cold War world. After all, America is still too powerful to happily commit to a multilateral world order (as evidenced by Congress’s reluctance to ratify treaties). And Europe is too physically safe to be willing to match U.S. defense spending or pool its resources. What is surprising is that the passing of this alliance has not been mourned by many on either side. The legacy of Barack Obama is that the transatlantic relationship is at its most harmonious and yet least relevant in 50 years. Ironically, it may take the election of someone who is less naturally popular on the European stage for both sides to wake up and realize just what is at stake.

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/07/24/the_end_of_the_affair?page=0,0

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