By guest blogger Arthur Stein

1) multilateralism does not imply the non-use of force. One can imagine circumstances in which one expects either universal agreement or the use of force being foreclosed as an option. But there are too many issues that matter to many members of the international community that include states that act as renegades and where the option of force to obtain compliance is clearly on the table. Multilateralism implies a cooperative enterprise among a set of countries but not necessarily all countries. And in some cases, force will be one of the options. Joint humanitarian intervention is a cooperative venture among the interveners but is clearly conflictual towards the miscreant country. To foreswear force an element of multilateral action necessarily limits it to mere peacekeeping functions where agreement between contending parties has been achieved or to areas of minor contention. Certainly, the classical notion of “collective security” is clearly multilateral in current parlance.

2) I’ve argued that multilateral action requires agreement both on objectives and tactics. Yet there are tactical differences among states engaged in concerted action, and this raises the question of what differences are compatible with sustained multilateralism.

First, the line between strategic and tactical can be blurry, as can the line between ultimate and instrumental objectives.

Second, there can be a division of labor when both goals and strategies are agreed upon. Countries can fight in concert but still provide different forms of military capability. Similarly, countries can provide debt relief in different forms. My point is simply that there must be broad agreement on goals and on the nature of policy.

Third, views between governments are rarely going to be so aligned that there will not be some disagreement. Any assessment of national politics clearly demonstrates that there is always the prospect of disagreement. Politicians, even when operating within a very narrow spectrum of difference, can always parse in order to distinguish themselves and thus signal disagreement. The ability to play a “Goldilocks” is ever present, if only to argue about too little or too much, too soon or too late.

Fourth, given possibilities for differentiation, what constitute departures from collective action can be contested. Take the case of the free rider. Imagine a group of countries agreeing on an objective and a strategy, but in which one country acts as a free rider. Imagine an arrangement such as NATO in which there is an agreement to provide collective defense, and there is agreement on the nature and character of the alliance, but imagine that some states shirk on their contribution. This would still constitute concerted action with substantial agreement. The shirking does not vitiate the multilateral character of the enterprise.

On the other hand, there are cases in which a free rider can be seen as destroying the ability to achieve an objective and thus of undercutting multilateralism. Take the case of debt relief as an example. Developed countries may agree that the poorest countries need some debt relief, but again, as an example, imagine a country that doesn’t extend relief, or only on the most meager of terms. In effect, it is insisting that the relief provided by some be used to compensate it (by having its loans repaid on terms much closer to those originally extended). In such a case, those extending real debt relief might very well argue that the attempt to be a free rider is essentially destroying the possibility of multilateral debt relief. This is why collective debt relief exercises can be quite complicated to work out and require the agreement of all large lendors. Not extending relief on terms acceptable to the others can indeed by seen as reneging on any agreement to extend relief. In effect, the degree of acceptable differentiation has itself to be agreed upon.

Ironically, then, multilateralism has even been sustained by acquiescence and not just agreement. An abstention in the UN Security Council on a sanctions resolution constitutes an acquiescence that in effect sustains a multilateral response. It constitutes both a willingness to let a joint measure pass and a commitment to abide by it. Indeed, this has been the norm in great power cooperation in recent years. Multilateralism has been sustained through the venue of the Security Council by a willingness to eschew the veto. The West has rarely gotten China’s affirmative agreement, it has more typically obtained its acquiescence.

All this makes the assessment of multilateralism and an understanding of its requisites somewhat complicated. Some things are clear. When one observes joint operations one clearly sees multilateralism. When one observes public disagreement and opposition, one clearly sees the absence of multilateralism.

My point is that the perceived collapse of multilateralism in recent years has occurred at times over disagreements on policy and not overall objectives. No country has stood up for the sovereign right of ethnic cleansing, and all oppose proliferation except those threatening it (and in the case of Iran, it too claims that its actions are justified within the bounds of peaceful use and extant international agreements. The disagreements are over how to achieve those objectives, through diplomacy and engagements and inducements, or through the threat of force and even its use. And this means that even the existence of an international community and a set of agreed upon norms of conduct are insufficient to assure multilateral responses to miscreants.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.