Two Tasks to Get Past the Crisis of Multilateralism

View of the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. (UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

It has become common to observe that the international rule-based order is in crisis, and recent developments have reinforced the view that the United Nations-based multilateral system is “under siege.” In part, this is the result of unilateral actions taken by great powers like China, Russia, and the United States, but it is also the product of a larger phenomenon of rising nationalism in domestic politics across the globe.

Yet “multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most,” as UN Secretary-General António Guterres said recently when accepting the International Charlemagne Prize. There are transnational challenges that need to be addressed collectively: climate change, migration flows, arms control, and cybersecurity, to name a few. As a result, there is a rising interest in moving past the crisis of multilateralism to reinvigorate our capacity for international cooperation and collective action.

In that spirit, France and Germany have called for an “Alliance for Multilateralism,” which will be officially launched in September at the opening of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. There is also a growing literature that explores the potential role of middle powers, especially Europeans, in reviving liberal internationalism or “rescuing multilateralism,” and the International Peace Institute recently published a report on how small states can serve as effective champions of the international rule-based order.

However, discussions of the crisis of multilateralism and the way beyond it tend to conflate two related though distinct problems: one is the weakening of the liberal international order rooted in democracy, human rights, free trade, and collective security institutions like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and the other is the wider threat to the UN system of multilateral cooperation, writ large. This includes a broader system of norms, agreed upon rules, and institutions to regulate disputes among states, manage competition, and set limits on the use of force, based on the principle of sovereign state equality, whether the state is small or large, democratic or authoritarian, or anything in between.

The liberal order could collapse completely and we would still have the broader multilateral system, but the question is in what form? How we understand the crisis of multilateralism will determine how we chart a path beyond it.

The UN multilateral system has always been a hybrid order. It is both an aspirational, liberal international order that reaffirms “faith in fundamental human rights” and a realist system of managed competition among sovereign states. At its founding, “a global organization of general competence,” observed Sir Adam Roberts, “[was] superimposed on an older system of states, with neither trumping the other.” This fact of hybridity is what produces some of the most contradictory elements of the UN system, such as the presence of human rights abusers on the Human Rights Council or the need to balance institutional commitments to the sovereign equality of all states (regardless of their form of government) with the systematic promotion of democracy worldwide.

Those that call for saving the liberal world order frame the multilateral system in terms of the former, while illiberal powers see it more in terms of the latter. In this second camp, world order is more about managed competition and the balance of power than multilateral cooperation in the pursuit of “fundamental freedoms for all,” as per Article 1 of the UN Charter. From this perspective, there is no real crisis of multilateralism, just a shift of priorities back to an older model of state relations that has never completely gone away.

This hybrid system of global order has resulted in a relative amount of international stability, with ebbs and flows over the course of 75 years. Yet, the equilibrium is shifting, and no one can be certain where it will settle.

Recently, University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer—not one to shy away from controversy—predicted that the liberal international order was “bound to fail” and that the current crisis will lead to the development of three inter-state orders that will determine international affairs in the coming period. This would include two “bounded orders” in a type of new Cold War between the US and China; and one universal, “international order” that will be of the purely realist sort of managed competition and minimal state cooperation. In this alarming scenario, the liberal, rights-based elements of the universal, international system would not survive the consolidation of multipolarity.

While it is difficult to predict the precise nature of international relations in the future, the multilateral system will likely contain multiple, overlapping rule-bound orders, as indeed it always has; and multipolarity will be more complex than a potential US-China divide. Divisions within the West are at risk of widening, and regional rivalries, for example between Iran and Saudi Arabia, must be factored into any comprehensive analysis.

However, as the global equilibrium continues to shift toward an uncertain future, two tasks are paramount for those dedicated to multilateral cooperation and the notion of an international rule-based order:

Protect bedrock principles of international order. If the international order is shifting, even temporarily, away from some of the liberal elements at its foundation, it remains vitally important to protect long-established norms that form the basis of the international rule-based order and the very possibility of international cooperation. This includes the principle of sovereign state equality, norms against the acquisition of territory by force, and other limits on the use of force, both on when and how it may be used. Mounting such a defense is of course easier said than done at a time when conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere feature broad violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and the UN Security Council remains “multilateralism’s broken sword,” unable to provide effective responses to the world’s worst challenges.

It will require small and middle powers—the vast majority of UN member states—being consistent in voice and action, insisting that, for example, the bombings of hospitals in today’s war zones represent gross violations of IHL and not an acceptable shift away from commitments to the bedrock principles of the First Geneva Convention of 1864. Small and middle powers have the most to lose if the international system returns to an older form of state relations based only on the balance of power and the right of the strongest. Small and middle powers must proactively engage with other states to understand how views of the multilateral system are shifting, where there is consensus, where there are differences, and what lays behind these differences in order to chart a path forward.

Focus on problem solving. Preoccupation with the crisis of multilateralism and the perception of gridlock does not elide the need for international cooperation. Decades of globalization, technological change, and population growth have increased interdependence. Any single nation or government on its own cannot address the great challenges of our times. However, the current geopolitical context is not amenable to new global accords. The Paris Agreement suffered a strong blow by the US pledge to withdraw, and the outcome in Europe of the Global Compact on Migration proved more divisive than salutary.

The task is to identify issue specific coalitions to begin constructive engagement around developing multilateral solutions to transnational problems. This can include smaller groupings, like the Alliance for Multilateralism, that work to develop practical responses to pressing problems like climate change, arms control, cybersecurity, transnational organized crime and terrorism, among others.

Mobilizing the requisite political will is always difficult, and so the role of pressure and innovation from non-state, sub-state, or supranational actors is critical. This would include regional organizations and provincial governments but also NGOs, the private sector, cities, and international advocacy networks. Generally, the multilateralism discussion is exclusively state focused, but orienting it around problems to solve at a time of geopolitical division will require opening up the circle. This is most evident in action around climate change, where cities, subnational governments, and the private sector are often in the lead. Better understanding where and when non-state actors can make positive contributions is an important task ahead.

The crisis of multilateralism is real, but global challenges will not wait for the countries of the world to work out their differences. The hard work of international cooperation must continue. The latest Council of Council’s Report Card on International Cooperation gave the world a “Gentleman’s C,” in recognition that things are bad, but could be decidedly worse. Progress remains possible, but the demand to identify new paths forward is urgent. Given the challenges of today, the cost of inaction rises by the hour.