Multilateralism in Today’s World


November 21, 2018
Multilateralism in Today’s World
Richard Burchill
Richard Burchill Director of Research & Engagement at TRENDS Research & Advisory

In a keynote speech at the Abu Dhabi Strategic Dialogue of 2018, His Excellency Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, set out the UAE’s core principles in foreign policy. At the top of the list was the UAE’s pursuit of multilateralism.  Throughout the speech, His Excellency spoke of the UAE’s contribution to, and cooperation within, a range of multilateral initiatives.  The priority of multilateralism for the UAE is also evident in the country’s previous statements and consistent actions at the United Nations.  In 2018, the UAE has embraced multilateralism in relation to collective security approaches in order to address armed extremists groups, the development of outer space, the peaceful settlement of disputes under Article 33 of the UN Charter, and the achievement and realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The importance of multilateralism has also been a focal point of discussion at recent global events, such as the Abu Dhabi Diplomacy Conference 2018, the Paris Peace Forum, the 13th East Asian Summit in Singapore, and the Annual Meeting of the Global Futures Councils of the World Economic Forum.  The stress on multilateralism should come as no surprise.  There is also a significant and ongoing debate regarding global trends that have increasingly been calling into question the benefits and value of multilateralism.

The displeasure with multilateral approaches and institutions in international relations is not unusual, starting from the origins of the concept in the 19th century, throughout the 20th century, and continuing today.  The current trends against multilateralism have gathered significant attention given that they are being viewed as damaging to the international system.  Leaders from the UAE, France, Canada, the UN Secretary-General and other international organisations, have expressed strong support for multilateralism and cautioned against embracing unilateral measures as the standard for global affairs.

The trends against multilateralism are marked by recent US actions and declarations in the past two years signalling the country’s desire to withdraw from a number of multilateral arrangements.  More concretely, the US has taken a unilateral decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership, the UN Human Rights Council, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United Nations Economic, and the Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).  The US President has also declared an intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and has expressed the idea of possible withdrawal from the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the International Postal Union.  Moreover, the President has openly declared his rejection of multilateralism in parallel with a desire for more unilateral action for the US and the pursuit of bilateral agreements with individual states.  The belief is that the US will be in a better position if it avoids multilateral arrangements and relies more upon unilateral orientations.

On a global level, the animosity towards multilateralism extends beyond the US.  It can be seen in the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, three states taking decisions to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (only one, Burundi, has carried out the decision), Presidents in other states, such as the Philippines, rejecting multilateral institutions generally, Russia threatening to withdraw from the Council of Europe (CoE) and other global leaders questioning the legitimacy or effectiveness of multilateral arrangements and international organisations.

It is important to realise that, with all of the above examples, multilateralism per se as a guiding idea of international relations is not being rejected.  There is no state that has completely withdrawn from all cooperative engagements in global affairs.  Perhaps a better summary of the current state of global affairs is that the actions and views against multilateralism are the latest indicators of new political trends.  Multilateralism and unilateralism are choices on a spectrum, not absolute descriptions.  States can choose to prefer unilateral approaches while also engaging in numerous multilateral initiatives; it depends on the subject matter or the concrete situation. The preference of multilateralism or unilateralism is an extremely fluid area and the frustration with multilateral approaches in specific areas are a constant part of international relations.  Back in 2000, John Bolton, the current US National Security Advisor, wrote that developments in global governance through multilateralism had, for the US, led to “reduced constitutional autonomy, impaired popular sovereignty, reduction of our international power and limitations on our domestic and foreign policy options.” Commentators in 2001 spoke of events at the time showing an “American reluctance to accommodate the drive towards more cooperative institutions and more international coordination… .”  And further research into the US historical records will find consistent dissatisfaction and outright rejection of multilateralism at varying stages in global affairs.

Multilateralism is not the panacea to all global problems and shortcomings are prevalent across and within international organisations and multilateral institutions.  The necessity of reform for international organisations and multilateral institutions is another constant refrain in global affairs.  The current, and past trends in rejecting multilateralism, however, have more to do with political leaders attempting to appeal to domestic political concerns in a globalising world.  In the UK, the decision to leave the EU and the arguments behind it were about the loss of sovereignty to an international institution, the high costs of being a member and how other states were exploiting the system to their own benefit.  The same arguments have been at the base of US rejection of multilateralism for over 20 years.  Even if there exists evidence that claims about loss of sovereignty or disproportionate financial costs are not accurate, the political arguments on the interference of multilateral institutions in domestic affairs still gain substantial domestic support.

Often, in the views of states seeking to withdraw from multilateral arrangements or international organisations, the discussion is binary.  The argument presented is that the multilateral institutions infringe or hinder individual state sovereignty and the only way to get beyond this is the pursuit of unilateral approaches in global affairs.  In his speech to the UN General Assembly, the US President explained “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.”  The political rhetoric of states pursuing their own path in international affairs as the most beneficial way forward can have extensive support with domestic audiences.  This argument is too often presented as an either-or choice.  Such understandings overlook the basics of international organisations in the world, given that no state, no matter the power position, is able to pursue a wholly unilateral approach within the international arena.

States will fluctuate between the benefits of multilateral approaches and the drawbacks they present.  For great power states, such as the US, there is space for this fluctuation.  Such states can pick and choose where and how it cooperates with other states.  For medium and smaller powers, the rejection of multilateral approaches is still a possible policy choice, but one that will have a much greater impact on the ability to pursue effective foreign policy and diplomacy.  Multilateral institutions provide the necessary medium for conducting affairs and significant opportunities for smaller states to further their own national interests, engage with the larger powers, influence global developments, and more generally, heighten the visibility of their policies and messages.

There are also practical arguments for supporting multilateral approaches.  In global interactions, such as in shipping, trade, and transport, the activity in question requires cooperation with other states.  Matters are made easier through collective agreements in multilateral frameworks.  Take for example the UAE’s leading global role in areas of shipping and transport.  The UAE seeks to be a leading global transport hub.  It has airports and ports bringing passengers and cargo to the country and through the country on the way to somewhere else.  These connections and interactions bring substantial economic benefits to the UAE and also support the UAE’s soft power strengths.  To achieve this successfully, the UAE has to actively engage with a wide range of multilateral frameworks that set out common standards, facilitate interactions, and establish principles and policies for the participants to follow.  At present, the UAE is a party to 29 treaties adopted under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation and 19 treaties related to air travel and air safety.  The above-mentioned cases are only two small examples of the UAE’s engagement with multilateral institutions and frameworks.

It is apparently clear that multilateral approaches are the best way for organising global affairs.  This does not detract from state sovereignty as states will continue to pursue individual foreign policy objectives.  This may involve participating in certain international organisations and not others or the use of bilateral agreements in particular areas.  It is important to reiterate that, in contrary to the current views on the dangers of multilateralism, it is not a simple either-or approach of multilateral or unilateral.

However, it is important to keep track of how satisfaction and dissatisfaction with multilateral arrangements arise with governments and within societies.  When the shared benefits of cooperation are realised then multilateral approaches are in favour. When there are questions over the costs of cooperation then dissatisfaction possibly arises, either from within the society or from within the government.  When an international organisation is perceived as establishing standards of behaviour or requiring specific action, states will respond that sovereignty has been violated – even though the state has used it sovereign prerogative to agree to certain standards of behaviour.  Questions over the efficacy of cooperation or matters of dissatisfaction with collective institutions are not typically a result of empirical evidence; rather it is indicative of current political trends.  We are still a long way away from any real crisis in the framework of the international system as multilateralism remains the dominant form of interaction and cooperation for states.  The current discussion merely reflects the changing nature and sentiments in international relations.

The negative views towards multilateralism today are being countered by the wide range of states and other stakeholders that continue to support multilateralism.  To that extent, the Paris Peace Forum announced it would make the meeting an annual event to defend multilateralism.  The Asia-Europe Meeting in October this year, brought together 53 states and organisations adopting a concluding statement that stated the meeting was a “building block for effective multilateralism and the rules-based international order anchored in international law and with the United Nations at its core.”  As another example, the UN Global Compact on Refugees, a cooperative framework for addressing the matter of displaced persons, recently received overwhelming support from 176 member states of the UN. Over 150 states and three international organisations have declared support for the “Action for Peacekeeping” initiative of the UN Secretary-General.  And as already discussed, recent events in the UAE clearly set out support for multilateral cooperation as a key priority for UAE foreign policy and engagement.

There is no guarantee that these or any other multilateral arrangements will achieve all of the objectives they are created to address.  Some of the current criticisms regarding the shortcomings of multilateral institutions are valid and need to be addressed.  The current rejection of multilateralism has not resulted in a complete abandonment of collective action, which still leaves ample room for dialogue and a productive space for future improvements.  A wide range of multilateral institutions continue to exist and operate and many states will continue to accrue the benefits of membership.  For most states in the world, multilateralism and collective cooperation are the only options for the effective pursuit of their foreign policy objectives and the realisation of their national interests.