Mind the Gap: Pitfalls of Multilateralism


Multilateralism is a much-acclaimed concept. But what does this term actual refer to, a certain way of process or a substantial goal? What are the merits as well as the drawbacks of multilateral endeavors?

UN Charter

From the perspective of a world beset by grave global challenges, effective multilateralism is the Holy Grail. As the sad end of UN Climate Change Conference COP 25 in Madrid demonstrated, the struggle to slow climate change cannot be taken forward if multilateral cooperation fails. Yet multilateralism is a double-edged sword: depending on how it is understood and how it is practiced, it can also degenerate into a substitute for effective action, or even subvert international order.

The first problem with “multilateralism” is what the term means. At its most elementary, multilateralism simply describes forms of diplomacy that involve more than two parties. A more demanding understanding of multilateralism defines it as a way in which diplomacy is conducted: to involve relevant parties in negotiations, and to continue talking until compromise is achieved. In this definition, multilateralism is about process. More exacting still is an understanding of multilateralism that focuses on the context and objective of diplomatic processes: the strengthening of an international order that is ruled by law, not by force. This definition of multilateralism assumes that international diplomacy will be guided by rules and norms as well as watched over by dedicated international institutions. Yet this definition begs the questions: What are the rules and norms that form the basis of international order? Are governments really prepared to follow them? What, in other words, is the substance around which the processes of multilateral diplomacy take place?

Only a substantive understanding of multilateralism can engender sustainable policies

There can be no doubt that the current U.S. administration’s commitment to the rules and norms of today’s international order is limited and selective; President Donald Trump, it seems, does not like rules and norms at all – except when they serve his own interests. Yet it is also somewhat odd to have China’s President Xi Jinping pose (as he famously did at the World Economic Forum in Davos in February 2017) as the champion of a liberal international order; China’s policies often systematically violate the spirit and even the letter of that order. The final, and in my view the only adequate, definition of multilateralism sets the term in the context of the huge demand for, and the inadequate supply of, global governance. This recognizes a) that the world has a lot to do to secure a good future for mankind, and b) that this can be achieved only through broad-based international cooperation and integration. There are simply too many relevant parties to any of the major global challenges – from climate change to arms control and pandemics – for any unilateral or bilateral efforts to succeed. Take global warming: even the two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, China and the United States, could not contain global warming below 2 degrees on their own, nor by working together bilaterally. (This is not to say that their cooperation would be irrelevant; on the contrary, if the United States and China were able to agree on a joint approach towards the problem of climate change, they could then bring others on board of their solution. This is what made the Paris Agreement on Climate Change at COP 21 possible in 2015).  This understanding of multilateralism combines process with substance and ambition; implicitly, it also provides benchmarks to measure the results of multilateral diplomacy.

When Washington, Beijing or Moscow, or even the European Union, today pose as good multilateralists, scepticism seems warranted. Of course, all diplomacy, including multilateral diplomacy, aims at pursuing “national interests”, that is, the objectives that governments define for their countries. Multilateralism therefore is a tool with which parties pursue their own objectives. Yet only if the respective definitions of what constitutes the “national interest” include notions of a rules-based international order and ambitions to tackle transnational challenges effectively, if  multilateralism becomes an end, not only a means, will national policies be sustainable. Such a demanding definition of multilateralism implies a commitment by countries to forego possible short-term advantages for the sake of protecting the rules, norms and effectiveness of the international order. Put bluntly, governments need to understand that in the longer run they have more to gain from following and thus helping to preserve the rules, than by defying them for the sake of some immediate benefit.  At present, we observe a United States government whose commitment to substantive multilateralism in this sense is at best selective, a Russian regime that seems bent to undermine any substantive multilateralism that does not conform to its own ambitions, and a Chinese government that, although committed to a rules-based international order, wants to change the rules and control the outcomes. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that multilateralism today often degenerates into empty posturing, or even worse: a mimicry of effective action.

Yet even if governments were seriously committed to effective multilateralism in its most demanding form (and even Germany, which likes to portrait itself as an exemplary multilateralist, in fact has a rather mixed record on this), multilateralism is far from being a panacea. On the contrary, it is a highly demanding form of international diplomacy, with lots of built-in pitfalls that need constant attention and persistent political efforts to avoid. Thus, multilateralism is unwieldy and cumbersome. Its agenda tends to become diffuse and overcrowded, all the parties involved have different priorities that they all want to see included in the outcome. It therefore becomes difficult to set priorities and avoid being side-tracked from the most important issues. Multilateral negotiations also take time, sometimes a lot of time; this intensifies the difficulty of setting (and meeting) deadlines that reflect objective constraints and the urgency of issues. The outcomes of multilateral diplomacy usually require implementation by national governments; this raises issues of monitoring and domestic application to deliver on national commitments.

The need for leadership

In practice, this makes political leadership one of, if not the most important element of effective multilateralism. Leadership is needed to focus the agenda, to set deadlines, to rally coalitions around compromises yet push them into moving beyond the convenient lowest common denominator into ambitious undertakings. Leadership will also be required to set up mechanisms to monitor implementation and hold the parties accountable to their commitments - if necessary, through sanctions. As Washington’s leadership in the international order dissipates, the enormous importance and range of its international leadership, notwithstanding its many shortcomings and serious deviations from global responsibilities, are becoming painfully apparent: no country has yet been able to step into the breach.

Leadership does not have to be confined to one country; there is no reason why leadership could not be exercised by a coalition of countries. Yet such a coalition can deliver effective multilateralism only if the parties involved base their policies on a shared – and demanding - understanding of multilateralism. At present, the “Alliance for Multilateralism” inspired by Berlin falls short of that. So far, it seems to focus on low-hanging fruits and on process. This may help to contain a further erosion of the present international order at the margins, but it does not address the need for substantive progress in global governance. To move in that direction, the Alliance would need a committed core group of countries, including some, though not necessarily all, member states of the European Union, as well as the European Commission and others, such as Canada, South Korea, Japan and Australia.