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Debate: Multilateralism and its critics

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In my book, There Goes the Neighbourhood, I describe multilateralism as 'the band aid of Australian diplomacy'.

It's a habit Australian policy-makers have fallen into, a universal solution to any problem that arises. Once an institutional solution is proposed, it cauterizes the need to think about the problem any more. By focusing on the familiar, comfortable mechanisms of multilateralism, policy-makers can avoid the need to think really hard about the problem itself. Australia has so fetishized multilateralism that the other options in its diplomatic toolkit have been starved of resources and serious intellectual engagement.

This is really dangerous, because multilateralism has become the copper wire phone network of twenty-first century international relations: it's good that it's there and still performs useful functions, but it's useless for dealing with the really important and pressing tasks. There's little prospect that the big challenges we face – global warming, financial imbalances and instability, food, water and energy competition, a changing and unpredictable global power balance, rising migration pressures, nuclear weapons proliferation – will be addressed multilaterally.

Multilateralism's malaise has five causes:

  1. Inflexibility in both membership and mandate: international organisations tend to preserve their memberships, power hierarchies, agendas and decision procedures in aspic. They are very hard to change. They can admit new members as required but find it impossible to exclude members that are no longer relevant. Those countries that used to be powerful but are no longer stubbornly refuse to countenance a demotion. The result is that regional and global institutions become obsolete as the world around them changes.
  2. Institutions have become more conducive to conflict than co-operation: any major issue that requires international collaboration will be referred to a multilateral body, and it is here that opponents of the proposed solution can kill it. Multilateralism has been around long enough that all countries know the many ways it can be gamed. The veto points are numerous and familiar, from loading down agendas to weak chairs to filibustering to leaders who agree to save face but instruct officials not to act on the agreement.
  3. The contradiction between size and capacity: the bigger the organisation, the harder it is to get agreement, and the less binding and decisive its decisions become. A great example is the Doha Round. So tortuous have been its deliberations that the deal on the table – estimated by the Petersen Institute to promise the equivalent of just one day's global trade in trade gains – is regarded as not worth the pain of fighting an agreement through the US Congress.
  4. The rise of competitive co-operation: the unwieldiness of universal membership organisations has spawned smaller organisations – 'the herd of Gs' – from the G77 to the G7 to our latest fetish, the G20. But smaller organisations inevitably breed internal and external opposition: internal from countries that prefer a different configuration (what about a G10; the old G7 minus Canada and Italy plus the BRICs? [all said in a French accent]); external from the countries left out (reference Singapore's campaign to start a 3G – the Global Governance Group).
  5. Old institutions never die, they just clog the landscape. It's very rare for institutions that have outlived their usefulness to be killed off. It's much easier to just propose a new body for each new problem that arises, or constellation of countries that become important. Meanwhile, the space junk of past multilateralism chews up diplomatic capacity, leaving fewer and fewer resources to work on pressing problems.

This isn't a call to scrap multilateral institutions; they perform a wealth of useful functions. But let's get real about the prospects for multilateralism in dealing with the really pressing issues the world and this country are facing. It's time to start thinking of new techniques and mechanisms for dealing with the new international relations of the 21st century.

Photo by Flickr user nathangibbs.


Nick Bisley is a Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University.

One of the abiding features of diplomacy in the 20th century was the emergence of multilateralism as a central approach to advancing common interests and dealing with complex problems in international relations.

Multilateralism was hugely important to the economic success of the West after 1945 and crucial to efforts at a regional level to advance common goals. Europe's efforts on this front are well known, and many have come to realise just how important ASEAN was to ensuring the 'Balkans of the east' became the stable and economically prosperous Southeast Asia we know today.

But the success of multilateral institutions in the post-war era should not make us assume that such an approach will always deliver the international policy goods. Michael Wesley has helped kick-start a long-overdue debate – just how useful are multilateral institutions to 21st century world politics?

It is clear that many of the key multilateral institutions in the world today have problems. Whether it is the perennially stalled Doha Round, legitimacy and quota problems at the IMF, serious anachronism at the UN Security Council, APEC's on-going existential crisis, or the inability of states to craft a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol (to say nothing of the only institution whose acronym largely describes its existential state, SAARC), wherever one cares to look, there seems to be a lot wrong with multilateral institutions.

This is of course well recognised. In the near permanent efforts to reform the UN or in the seemingly never-ending (and entirely unrealistic) desire to create the 'right' Asian security architecture, one sees examples of well-intentioned folk trying to improve the situation. Yet few pause to ask whether the problem is not with the specific features of the institutions and their individual shortcomings but with multilateral institutions as such.

Why are multilateral institutions of limited use under contemporary circumstances? Michael has set out five big problems; let me add several more:

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  • Participants: Multilateralism involves states trying to act collectively. Herein lies a really big problem. One doesn't have to buy the hyperglobalist argument that states are being utterly denuded by globalisation to realise that states can only do so much in a globalised world. If the multifaceted problems that states and societies face today (such as financial crises, infectious disease or climate change) are to be managed, then a much broader array of actors needs to be brought to the table of collective endeavour. These complex problems require not just states but firms, NGOs, individuals, markets and an array of civil society bodies to be part of the story.
  • Problems, not process: Multilateralism puts a high premium on process, indeed momentum and the appearance of diplomatic movement is often thought to be sufficient for success to be declared. More importantly, multilateral institutions too often do not put problems at the heart of their purpose. Moreover, institutions take on a life of their own that can distort even the best designed mechanism. Contemporary circumstances warrant a more fluid and ad hoc approach to cooperative activity. This would involve networks of states, firms and other entities coalescing around an issue or a problem and then moving on after the collective endeavour is complete.
  • Papering over the cracks: One of the greatest risks of multilateralism is the complacency that the pretence of action can breed. Asia's recent embrace of security multilateralism is a case in point. At present there are 13 different intergovernmental institutions and processes that discuss regional security concerns and in 2009 there were over 270 Track II meetings dealing with matters of regional security. Yet few in the region feel secure. Indeed, if anything, the reverse is true. The appearance of multilateralism belies a region very ill at ease. More worrying, policy-makers the region over seem to think that adding yet more institutions will make things better. Not only do they rarely do so, they can lead to worse outcomes as the underlying problems are papered over by a thin veneer of cooperation.

It's time to recognise that, while multilateralism may still have a role to play, that this role is more limited than in the past. More importantly, the collective action problems it was intended to resolve require newer, more nimble and more diffuse mechanisms. Unless we realise this and begin to seriously redesign many entities, do not expect the current international policy malaise to pass.

Photo by Flickr user Tom Bech.


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

Michael Wesley's questioning of multilateralism is a useful antidote to the tired and often empty mantra than global problems require global solutions. More often than not (as we see in climate change and trade negotiations, for example), global problems require sensible national policies on the part of the principal actors. Normally this means that the major powers need to be on the same page.

It is the discordance of interests between the big players than mainly explains why the Doha Round is failing and why Copenhagen was not a success. But this also means we should not attribute the blame for this lack of movement on multilateralism itself. Non-multilateral forms of cooperation are not necessarily going to produce an answer if those interests are still discordant. And non-cooperative answers, where a solution is imposed rather than agreed, requires the sort of supreme authority in international politics which we do not have.

The fact that multilateral processes often become venues for major power competition is not necessarily a sign of their impotence – it may also be a sign of their significance. In Asia, moreover, while it has been difficult to shut down or radically alter processes that have had their time in the sun, the answer is often to find another piece of the machinery which has the preferred focus and membership. That's where the expanded East Asia Summit comes in, for example. Other forums may not be disbanded in its place, but people know where the action is.

Photo by Flickr user misterbisson.


Tim Dunne is Professor of International Relations at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, University of Queensland.

Is the multilateral order in crisis? And is Australian foreign policy over-reliant on multilateral institutions at the expense of finding more creative and effective levers to promote its identity and interests? Michael Wesley's There Goes the Neighbourhood suggests an affirmative answer to these questions. Below I set out reasons why we should answer the questions with a resounding 'no'.

To begin with, we need to be clear what multilateralism is. There is a danger that it becomes a catch-all for every international organisation and all inter-governmental initiatives where three or more state parties are involved. Drawing on John Ruggie's brilliant work in this area, it is critical to note that multilateralism is both a process as well as a substantive goal.

In adopting an explicit commitment to multilateralism, governments are identifying a cooperative international order as one that is in their long run national interests. As the Princeton scholar John Ikenberry argues, the US adopted a multilateral approach to the global economic order after 1945. While the benefits of US support for Western Europe were immediate — in terms of security and trade — the gains for the US were longer term.

Multilateralism is a complex and slow process; consensus is the modus operandi, as it has been in the EU throughout the decades long integration project. But incremental change does not mean radical transformation is impossible — who would have thought that a six-country iron and steel community would become a political and economic union of twenty seven countries and 500 million citizens?

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Michael Wesley is right to single out the specific problem that scale poses for international institutions. There is no doubt that size and effectiveness are in tension. Yet scale and efficiency need to be coupled with legitimacy. If trade issues, or questions about global security, were discussed by a small club of states — such as a 'league of democracies' as some influential US liberals would like — then effective action might result, but would it be illegitimate?

Another dimension of the 'multilateral malaise' that is misconceived, in my view, is the notion that 'old institutions never die'. It is true that institutional acronyms often live on long after the use-by date, but that is not the same as saying the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) matters in the same way today as it did in 1960 when Denmark, Sweden, and the UK were members. They left to join the EU, and EFTA is now an alliance between Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. Not exactly a dead institution but as close as you get in international relations to being in a persistent vegetative state.

Working skillfully within the range of overlapping multilateral institutions is a key challenge for Australia as it is for all internationalist powers — Michael Wesley is absolutely right about that. But these new mechanisms cannot be in place of multilateralism; I say this for two reasons.

First, if we stand back from the immediate interests of any single state, we need to ask the question, 'if not multilateralism, then what?'. The unipolar moment of the first half of the decade showed that unilateralism in security matters is ineffective and divisive (perhaps it should be 'unilateralism plus' if we include the coalition of the willing). Bilateralism is the kind of retrogressive foreign policy the current British Government has advocated; it is a strategy that has more in common with the 19th century order than our globalised world.

Second, and most importantly, multilateralism is a process and a goal. It is premised on the belief that, in addition to better regulation and coordination, a cooperative institutional order strengthens values of trust and mutual respect upon which a more secure world depends.

Photo by Flickr user looking4poetry.


Senator Russell Trood is a Liberal Senator for Queensland and a former professor of international relations at Griffith University.

As usual, Michael Wesley writes with flair and considerable insight on the failings of multilateralism. As I wrote in my 2008 Lowy paper on The Emerging Global Order: Australian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, international organisation, and by extension multilateralism, is indeed in trouble and suffering globally from a deficit of legitimacy. This  is causing governments to look increasingly sceptically on its utility as a tool of 21st century diplomacy.

Liberal politicians (and realists) such as myself have always believed that the really big and important issues in international affairs will not be resolved through institutionalism/multilateralism. Solutions to serious problems almost always demand bilateralism or extended bilateralism built around some form of great power coalition.

In this we stand in marked contrast to the Labor tradition of foreign policy, though not perhaps some its more recent variants. The Howard Government's repositioning of Australian foreign policy on the bilateral/multilateral spectrum after the Hawke/Keating era is eloquent testimony of the differences. But while Michael's critique of institutionalism reflects much of my own, it is, perhaps for the sake of emphasis, somewhat overdrawn. 

First, much that makes the global order work, to the extent it does, relies on institutionalism. International air travel, delivering the mail, managing international banking, facilitating global trade, maintaining something like a law of the sea and a great deal more would hardly be possible without functioning international institutions. And arguably there are some things that might be preferably left to institutions if we could find an effective way to do so — global health, nuclear non-proliferation and the management of refugees could be among them.

Second, institutionalism is arguably a critically important element of a liberal international order, serving as a kind of buffer against the colliding aspirations of ambitious states, and not necessarily just those of great powers.

Third, while some of Australia's governments have been on occasions rather delusional about the extent of our international influence, we arguably have something of a talent for multilateralism. We are better international engineers than international architects and to that extent, can often find a way to make institutionalism work in our favour. 

One of the challenges of 21st century international relations is not so much to appreciate that institutionalism is failing us, but to find a way to halt its alarming decline. As Michael intimates, we should start with modesty of purpose and expectations, acknowledge that there is no quick fix for 'multilateralism' but that all institutions require different solutions, and recognise that whatever 'middle powers' might be able to do, not much is going to happen without great power leadership and that much of our hope here rests with Washington.

Photo by Flickr user Katey Nicosia.


Michael Wesley raises some very important points about the limits of multilateralism. His comments highlight the growing dilemma posed by, on the one hand, increasingly significant transnational challenges that defy individual state responses (eg. global warming, nuclear proliferation, fisheries depletion, people smuggling), and, on the other hand, the apparent inability of states to cooperate in response to these challenges.

Numerous international regimes have been created to deal with issues requiring a coordinated response from states, but on the big transnational issues there is little to suggest they are succeeding in any meaningful way.

The international treaties and organisations set up to deal with, for example, climate change (the UNFCCC), international trade (WTO), non-proliferation (NPT), commercial whaling (the IWC), illegal trade in endangered species (CITES), and over-fishing (a host of regional organisations) all have been weakened by the kinds of deadlocks, suspicions, power inequalities and concerns over national interest that realists point to when they argue against the optimism of liberal institutionalists and some constructivists.

A good case in point is the ongoing failure of the climate change regime to encourage a reduction deal between the major carbon producing states. Here the realist argument about states being more focused on relative over absolute gains (and costs) is well illustrated by the unwillingness of coal dependent states (both developed and developing) to impose higher energy prices on their societies for fear of the economic, political, and security impacts such a move would have. 

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Other states already using cleaner energy sources like natural gas not surprisingly are less concerned by the relative costs and gains of cutting emissions, since they would operate in their favour (eg. the UK's support for the Kyoto Protocol as opposed to US and Australian opposition until 2007).

The absolute benefit to all of cutting emissions, as realists predict, seems to be canceled out by the fears states have about others being relatively better off as a result of everyone cooperating to reduce emissions.

Adding to this reluctance is the multitude of uncertainties surrounding the scale and nature of future climate change impacts, which make cost-benefit calculations of the various policy options, like Nicholas Stern's, highly contentious and unhelpful.

Another problem is that even if international cooperation can be agreed to, it is not necessarily effective due to the wide range of differing state capabilities that makes some states more or less able to act than others.

Known as 'the implementation gap', the problem is that, for a great many states — often those most vulnerable to transnational threats — what they sign up to in an international treaty and what they can actually deliver are usually two very different things. The nature of the state and its capabilities matter, something the proponents of multilateral solutions often overlook.

In the realm of environmental issues, supporters of multilateral institutions usually point to the success of the Montreal Protocol as evidence of how regimes can and do work. Indeed, the mostly successful phase out of chlorofluorocarbons achieved under the 1987 Montreal deal made it the poster child of environmental regime advocates, so much so that the basic framework of the ozone protection regime became the core model for the Kyoto Protocol.

But as others have observed (see Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner), this is certainly a case of the 'wrong trousers', since the complexities posed by climate change are far greater than the essentially single issue ozone depletion problem, as are the potential costs due to the absence of a single, low cost solution of the kind that made cooperation on preventing ozone depletion possible (ie. Dupont's release of more ozone-friendly HCFcs and HFCs in the the late 1980s and early 1990s).

The real lesson that the Montreal Protocol's success seems to point to is that multilateral institutions work when the issue is simple enough to allow a solution that satisfies (or doesn't cost) most of the people, most of the time. But when faced with 'wicked' policy problems — where even defining the issues at stake is a challenge — multilateral cooperation more often than not stalls in the face of mounting uncertainty, mutual suspicion, and conflicting domestic priorities.

All of this is of course very depressing given that the need for international cooperation on transnational problems is now more urgent than ever as the pressure on resources grows and their depletion accelerates.

It seems clear that regional and global problems require regional and global responses, but it seems equally clear that the prospects for collaborative responses to collective problems, in the short term at least, remain bleak. Ultimately, we get what we deserve and that is probably as good an explanation as any for where we are currently at, so now would be a good time for some of 'the new techniques and mechanisms' called for by Michael to start making an appearance.

Photo by Flickr user freelancing god.


Ian Hall is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Griffith University.

Michael Wesley's one-man assault on multilateralism goes a bit too far, but not much. Multilateralism surely has its place, in contexts where all the players are happy with the rules of the game – like Europe, for example, where dreary horse-trading over agricultural subsidies or food standards has replaced old-fashioned high-stakes diplomacy. Whether it works in the Asia Pacific or for Australia, however, is another issue.

We ought to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic about multilateralism – if it works to our advantage, then use it, but if not, don't. Michael is right to say that some Australians think multilateralism is the solution to every problem. It patently isn't, especially in the Asia Pacific.

Open, conference-style diplomacy doesn't work when the participants have high levels of mistrust. When they do, global multilateral summits – like those in the Doha round or the Copenhagen climate change talks – become settings for public name-calling or diplomatic ambushes, lowering even further the chances of agreement.

With this in mind, we can see that multilateralism is ill-suited to Australia's region and to Australia's interests. In the Asia Pacific today there are simply too many unresolved disputes – over territory and history – and too many lingering resentments to make multilateralism workable. Levels of trust are just too low and the political will to address these differences too lacking.

Secondly, the Asia Pacific is simply too dynamic. Some states are rising fast and some declining, albeit slowly. Some states have embraced democracy and some have not. Some openly threaten their neighbours with annihilation. In this context, no right-minded state is going to lock itself into institutional architecture that might constrain its future ability to address these challenges.

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Lastly, the multilateral institutions that do exist are viewed less as mechanisms for mutual benefit and more as instruments for individual gain. ASEAN plays this role for Indonesia, SAARC for India, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for China. There is no guarantee that future institutions will not be again subverted by the most powerful players.

The critical question for Australia ought to not to be how can we further multilateralism, but will more 'architecture' serve our interests? When Australia was a small, far-away, vulnerable country it made sense to call loudly for more inclusive multilateralism. With luck, these institutions might restrain Australia's more unpredictable and unfriendly neighbours, while giving Australia a voice – or at least a platform from which to speak – in world affairs.

Today, however, Australia's position is quite different. It is a wealthy, relatively powerful natural resource superpower that has just not yet woken up to the creative role it can play in a rapidly changing region. Rather than designing more architecture, it needs to deal with the problems it can help solve, like aiding the development of the South Pacific and building mutually beneficial partnerships with like-minded states like India and Indonesia that need Australian know-how, investment and raw materials.

Photo by Flickr user Spinning Things.


Andrew Farran writes:

Michael Wesley makes a flick pass on multilateralism and then asserts we need new ways of dealing with multilateral problems! The issue is not multilateralism per se. It is the nature of the problems themselves in a world where national selfishness is growing along with demands for exceptionalism. We see this vividly illustrated at the moment over the future of the GATT/WTO system, which has been of enormous value over the years but is now facing irrelevance because no one will give ground over relatively minor issues. The flaw in that system may be the requirement of unanimity which should now legislate for sub-multilateral agreements as long as they adhere to core GATT principles. FTAs in some cases are an example of this, though many of these abuse an essential GATT requirement by not involving 'substantially all the trade' of the participants and are essentially preferential arrangements. Where did that lead in the 1930s?

It is frequently said that if the UN didn't exist it would have to be invented. If it were invented now it would look very different from the original. But then the probability is that in today's climate it would not be invented at all. But it is conceded that it does useful work under long-standing arrangements. While innovative arrangements to deal with specific issues are to be welcomed they should avoid doing violence to the core principles of multilateralism which are, or should be, directed at achieving the greater good for all.


Kanishka Jayasuriya is Professor of International Politics at the University of Adelaide.

Michael Wesley's post about the problems of multilateralism is persuasive and warrants careful scrutiny. In fact, the problem of multilateralism may be even deeper than Michael suggests. US President Barack Obama, despite his instinctive bias for multilateralism, has found there is no easy return to the institutions and practices of post-war multilateralism.

This would suggest that there are structural reasons for the problems of multilateralism arising from tensions between its institutional form and its function in a changing global political and economic environment. These tensions have led to the slow but sure erosion of the social and political bedrocks of the post-war liberal order.

Stated briefly — I have detailed this argument elsewhere — the crisis of post-war multilateralism is a crisis of the peculiarly trans-Atlantic origins of the institutional architecture that weaved and bound together the post-war global order. The problem of institutional fetishism that Michael rightly recognises is to be located in our failure to understand the social foundation of post-war liberal multilateralism, shaped and contoured by the social and political forces unleashed by the Cold War conflict between socialism and capitalism.

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Post-war multilateralism was marked by two social settlements, in the form of social constitutionalism. One was an internal social settlement reflected in the emergence of the social state in much of the developed non-communist world. The other refers to a set of international institutions, practices, and norms ranging from the UN Charter to the activities of UN organisations (eg. UNESCO, WHO) embodying the notion of inclusive global citizenship.

Cast in this form, post-war multilateralism was underpinned by a grammar of social democracy which helped shape and craft the management of social conflict within advanced industrial states. This also enabled the development of institutions and practices of social development and an inclusive global order. The current crisis of multilateralism reflects the end of this post-war period (or what Hobsbawm called the 'short twentieth century'). Today, it is geo-economics, not social constitutionalism, that drives global governance.

Let me finish this riff on multilateralism by noting the importance of geography to the trans-Atlantic consensus on multilateralism. This was very much an Atlantic order where the driving ideas and interests were located in the northeast of the US and in Western Europe. As the US economy has shifted to the western coast (think Silicon Valley) and the broader Pacific region, it has eroded political support for traditional multilateralism in the US. This is a deep-seated structural shift.

Is there anything to suggest that we, in this region, can get something like a trans-Atlantic consensus between the US and China and other rising Indo-Pacific powers? If so, what are its social foundations? What is the likely architecture of this global and regional governance?

Photo by Flickr user Hanna-.


Daniel Woker is the Swiss Ambassador to Australia.

While I would not deny most of the critical points made in Michael Wesley's provocatively titled post, and several follow-up posts, there are three main reasons why multilateralism was, is, and will be part of the overall picture of ensuring the good functioning of international relations through the day-to-day work of foreign policy practitioners.

1. Multilateralism works and is indispensable for 'the working of the global order', as pointed out in the otherwise sceptical piece by Senator Russell Trood. To the Senator's examples, I would like to add development cooperation, where all reasonable experts (lest those who question all development cooperation, but that is another discussion) agree that only a well-calibrated mix of bi- and multilateral cooperation brings the benefits wanted by both sides (AusAID and the World Bank, not either or).

Tim Dunne asks the correct basic question, not really answered in any of the more critical pieces: 'If not multilateralism, then what?'. Incidentally, may I point out to Tim that EFTA still includes Norway, and while admittedly a waiting room area for those from Western Europe not (yet) in the EU, EFTA does perform useful work once in a while (eg. FTAs).

2. Multilateral organisations and bodies allow for the decent and generally accepted inclusion, within the daily work of the international community, of both very large and powerful and very small and 'weak' states, which is indispensable as long as that community is still based on the national state as the main actor.

Regarding the strong states, can anybody deny that China's relations with its 'near abroad' are easier for everybody with ASEAN in place? Nick Bisley argues that 'the seemingly never-ending (and entirely unrealistic) desire to create the "right" Asian security architecture' proves the futility of multilateralism. With all due respect and in the perspective of a practitioner, the opposite is true: without ASEAN and its artful 'ASEAN plus' construct, we would today not have the EAS, which is certainly imperfect, but much better than nothing at all. Read More

Nick, would you rather see all-against-all in bilateral twilight (eg. Thailand-Cambodia), or respective summits where basic rules for acceptable behaviour exist and where international (media) lights shine? Yes, there might well be a 'right' Asian security architecture; it's our common task to find it because the alternative is worse.

Interestingly enough, Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd, in his 19 May 2011 speech at the University of Oslo, says in this context: 'There is not even an OSCE (in Asia). There has never been the equivalent of a Helsinki process'. He then mentions, approvingly (and with an entirely justified side remark about the basically sound original Australian proposal for a APC, ok: APc), that the EAS is the place where '(we) begin to carve out a regional rules-based order for the future'.

Not to beat my own drum, but I have written for this very blog a piece on lessons to be learnt for future Asian architects when studying some of the ways and means (if not the entire recipe) of the Helsinki process.

The frequently heard argument that Asian states are supposedly too different for anything like 'Helsinki' to work simply won't wash. I was there, if not at the beginning but quite early in the Helsinki process, and I can tell you that in some respects participating states were very far apart indeed, with some not even recognising each other officially.

The same argument is used here by Ian Hall, who then proposes, somewhat paradoxically, that Australia should work for the development of the Pacific in tandem with India and Indonesia. Surely that is exactly what multilateralism is all about: finding like-minded partners within generally accepted structures to work together without a shadow of the suspicion of 'wanting to throw ones (bilateral) weight around'.

As for weak countries, a good case can also be made for the vital importance of multilateralism for the Pacific Island states. We all truly appreciate the tremendous bilateral efforts of Australia (and New Zealand) for orderly, sustainable and corruption-free development in the Pacific, an area which covers, we know well in Europe, roughly one third of our planet, a third which will become ever more important with the global shift from West to East.

All of this is complementary to the indispensable (because globally followed and observed) multilateral platforms where these states can demonstrate that, for example, global warming is an immediate threat to their very existence. Without the Climate Conference in Cancun, otherwise not very successful but useful in this respect, no such platform, and no follow-up action by governments and NGOs, would have been possible.

3. Last but not least, multilateralism serves as an indispensable scapegoat for governments to justify unpalatable but necessary decisions towards their electorate and people. One recent example might be enough to illustrate my point: without EU membership, thus deflecting some of the criticism on the broad but anonymous shoulders of 'Brussels', the Finnish Government would probably not have succeeded in convincing a reluctant electorate that financial help for Greece and Portugal is truly in the best long-term interest of the country.

Photo by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks.


Our multilateralism debate has been in abeyance for a few days, but will resume shortly. In the meantime, a couple of housekeeping matters.

The first is to alert you to the debate thread we have running on this issue. To my knowledge, debate threads are unique to The Interpreter. They not only collect all the relevant posts on a dedicated page, but unlike the front page of this blog, in the debate thread posts are presented chronologically, meaning the post that kicked off the discussion (in this case, Michael Wesley's provocative 'Australia's multilateralism fetish') is anchored to the top of the page.

All you need to do is scroll down. There's no confusing back-and-forth page navigation, and you don't have to wade through unrelated posts to follow the discussion.

But we can only include posts published on The Interpreter in these threads, and recently, the Australian policy and trade analyst Peter Gallagher joined the debate on his blog. So in order to keep our debate thread comprehensive, here's a link to Peter's post, and here's an extract:

Australia's net gains from multilateral cooperation over the past century have been very large; maybe unequalled. We've had much more benefit than we've paid for (or could pay for) in trade access guarantees thanks to the GATT/WTO MFN treaty rules. I'm not sure that the same calculus holds in security (possibly bilateral relations with the USA and UK have delivered more than any multilateral arrangement). But I suspect that there is a danger of underestimating the overall gains from multilateral collaboration because, in many domains, it is hard or impossible to evaluate the counterfactual.


The number and range of contributions to our debate on multilateralism shows just how overdue this discussion is.

Indeed, the breadth of responses shows that multilateralism has become many things to many people. Tim Dunne is right to caution that we need to be clear about what multilateralism is. Unfortunately, multilateralism seems to have acquired many incarnations.

One incarnation is multilateralism-as-ideology, or 'dogma', as Ian Hall puts it. The ideology of multilateralism is that it is a process which inevitably, if not swiftly, leads to greater levels of trust, agreement, and cooperation. To its partisans, multilateralism has an all-or-nothing quality to it. If a foreign policy is not multilateralist by default, it must be unilateralist or bilateralist — and by implication selfish, instrumental, and low-horizoned.

But by expecting multilateralism to do everything, its partisans expose it to two big risks:

  1. In some cases, rather than building trust, agreement and cooperation, multilateralism can actually deepen suspicion and aggravate rivalry. Multilateral negotiations, by definition, take place in front of an audience of leaders, policy-makers, and officials of several other countries. This at times tempts some countries to push for maximalist positions, dressed in the rhetoric of collective responsibility. Such situations lead to increased resentment among countries that disagree over being embarrassed or blindsided, and can lead to a hardening of positions and to unproductive name-calling and blaming. In these cases, the private, iterative nature of bilateral talks, which allow compromise and face-saving, can be much more effective in building agreement and trust.
  2. By loading too much onto the multilateral agenda, its partisans risk advertising its failures and eroding support for the institutions which Russell Trood reminds us play such an important role in underpinning the global order. Because perceptions do matter. It is governments that bankroll international organisations, and in the current environment of public debt and fiscal tightening, taxpayers just might start questioning why money is being used to keep institutions they feel are irrelevant, incompetent or ineffectual running.

Multilateralism's partisans need to accept that it will not bring about agreement on all issues needing to be addressed collectively.

As I'll argue in my next post, the range of issues that multilateralism can't fix is growing. It's time to heed Ian Hall's call for pragmatism and take a good hard look at multilateralism's progress: where it's working; where it has stopped working; where it will never work; and where it's making things worse. And for the last three of these categories, it's time to put aside the multilateralism-only fetish and get creative about what mechanisms might actually do a better job at building collective action on the pressing challenges the planet faces.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.


Kanishka Jayasuriya has raised the intriguing possibility that multilateralism is not a timeless and universally applicable technique, but a form of diplomacy that was enabled by a certain set of historical circumstances, and therefore in decline as those circumstances pass into history.

With no small injustice to Kanishka’'s detailed writings on this topic, he argues that the post-War multilateral order was built on two things: western global dominance and a social constitutionalist contract broadly subscribed to among western countries. To these two conditions, I would add three more.

  1. Powerful states, unchallenged in their capacity to shape global affairs by markets, corporations, civil society actors or transnational flows.
  2. The mutually-reinforcing imperatives of trade and security: alliances that kept major trading partners confident enough to trade; and trade that enriched and empowered allies.
  3. A coalition of countries that could remember the pre-World War I golden age of globalisation and were prepared to forego a fair bit of self-interest to build the supporting structures for a new age of globalisation.

This world has gone. The commanding heights of global affairs are no longer the exclusive domain of the Atlantic powers. The GFC, the Euro crisis and political gridlock in the old democracies have sapped their confidence in the inherent superiority of their models of governance and markets.

As Nick Bisley notes, the state’'s capacity to control events inside and outside their borders now has serious challenges. Trade, investment and security now pull at cross purposes, with major rivals becoming each other’s largest trading and investment partners. Globalisation is no longer a golden memory but a huge, complex and unforgiving freight train that states struggle to comprehend, and they are more inclined these days to try to control it than enable it further.

If multilateralism is to play the same central role in the next 60 years as it did in the last 60, it needs to be able to handle three new challenges:

  1. Can it accommodate a diversity of actors and interests that now have not only a voice but the ability to shape and block cooperation in ways they couldn't in the past? The emerging states are a diverse lot with very different interests from each other, let alone the west. And then there are multinational corporations, civil society movements, transnational flows...
  2. Can it manage the scale and complexity of global affairs, which have broadened far beyond the foreign policy agendas of states? Can multilateral processes help manage the turbulence and risk of global flows, and the wicked problems that Michael Heazle reminds us are a consequence of deepening globalisation and interdependence?
  3. Will multilateralism be a mechanism for mitigating rivalries and mutual paranoias among deeply interdependent states, or the vehicles for prosecuting those rivalries?

Multilateralism as currently practiced cannot hope to meet these challenges alone. It can do part of the job, but it needs help from new methods and mechanisms. In my next post, I'’ll suggest a few.

Photo by Flickr user scratch n sniff.


Ambassador Woker and Senator Trood argue for a well calibrated mix of multilateralism and bilateralism. I agree, but to deal with the emerging challenges to global order, we need to be more creative than just relying on these two techniques, however judiciously they are combined.

Previously I argued for a rigorous appraisal of where multilateralism works, where it has stopped working, where it will never work, and where it's making things worse. Multilateralism works on functional issues where states basically see eye-to-eye: health, communications and transport protocols, etc.

But on issues involving global public goods where major stake-holders have very different interests, prescriptions, and senses of entitlement, multilateralism has stopped working, will never work or is making things worse. This category of challenges is growing, not shrinking.

A rational response is to admit that multilateralism on its own — the traditional intergovernmental organisation and multi-state summit meeting — is of declining value. The next step is to reverse the trend of recent decades where states such as Australia have devoted increasing proportions of scarce diplomatic resources to servicing the annual agenda of multilateral meetings.

The counterpart to this is to begin investing fewer expectations on what these multilateral meetings can achieve for regional and global governance, and devoting greater resources to thinking about and experimenting with other techniques — or, as Rob Ayson suggests, non-multilateral forms of cooperation. Here are a few ideas on ways forward.

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  1. Put multilateralism in the bottom drawer for all issues on which rational analysis predicts there will be major and intractable disagreement among major stakeholders. Taking a serious disagreement into a multilateral setting will only entrench disagreement and damage the organisation.
  2. On such issues, accept that agreement and compromise will need to built gradually, using non-multilateral techniques. Even if momentum is maddeningly slow, this is better than endless rounds of multilateral deadlock.
  3. Compromise and socialisation can be built using an array of methods, of which bilateral negotiations are only one. 
  4. The example of Preferential Trade Agreements shows that plurilateral negotiations (where small-scale and overlapping negotiations begin to build towards a broader outcome) can keep the momentum going in the right direction when there is little prospect of multilateralism making progress (ie. the Doha Round). 
  5. Ambassador Woker's example of development aid shows that hetero-lateral collaboration — where states, corporations, NGOs and other stakeholders collaborate towards a mutually-agreed goal — can be a way of tackling complex transnational issues that states on their own cannot address comprehensively. 
  6. Governments can be socialised towards an outcome, and then held to account, by using civil society, which has been hugely empowered by the new media. Entrenched positions (especially by rent-seekers) can be questioned and implementation shortfalls advertised through social networking — but first an effort needs to be made to include civil society actors in the campaign.
  7. Accept that sometimes, compromise and collaboration through formal agreement will not be possible, and work to achieve a stable equilibrium where the minimum requirements of the major stakeholders are respected. I think this is the likely future of Asia's geometry of power, rather than a Concert of Powers where all come together to manage crises collectively.

This is no focused manifesto calling for a radically new form of diplomacy. It is an appeal to think about other techniques before reaching instinctively for the multilateralism drawer.

Photo by Flickr user natashalcd.


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?

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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.