Recently Richard Haass, the President of the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) examined the state of multilateralism in an opinion piece called, “The Case for Messy Multilateralism” (, January 5, 2010).  As it happens one of the partners for our Princeton conference, “The New Foundations of Global Governance,” included CFR.  Stewart Patrick led the team and a number of panelists came from the Council as well.  As a premier international relations institution in the United States, CFR is taken up, among other things, with describing and evaluating the state of global governance along with many other foreign policy subjects. 

One thing you immediately see in reading the opinion piece is that Haass, similar to many American analysts, appears to have a strong allergy to use of the term “global governance.”  Instead and as the article’s title suggests (though Haass may or may not be responsible for it) “multilateralism” is the key term employed.  And in fact the article makes no reference to “global governance.” I suppose I’m being slightly conspiratorial – but not much.  Most US experts are sensitive to the national sovereignty implications for US policy implied in the term global governance in international relations.  It is less than strange that the only experts I have ever heard question the term are – you guessed it – Chinese and American ones.  Yes indeed the two countries most visibly nationalist in the international system and most protective of national sovereignty.

The articles positively does tackle the changing structure of global governance and the critical nature of the Gx process to its evolution. Now where Haass sees multiple forms of multilateralism – ‘elite multilateralism’ – the G7/8 and now the G20 Leaders Summits, ‘functional multilateralism’ - the MEF, ‘informal multilateralism’ –financial standard setting, the Gx process is all these and more.  Now Haass is right in decrying the contemporary actions of the UN institutions - the universalism of the UN General Assembly – “one man, one vote” may provide a sound basis for domestic politics, but on a global scale democracy (or, more precisely, democratic multilateralism) is a prescription for doing nothing.” and the failure to reform the key UN institution – the Security Council – “… an elite body to tackle the world’s most important issues.”

Instead Haass sees the growth of regionalism and the variety of multilateralist forms as alternatives and the institutional way forward in global governance.  But it is over the divergence, Haass describes – yhe formal and treaty-driven from the informal and collaborationist – that Haass and I appear to part company.  “Messy multilateralism” is not a ‘second best’ approach – the best we can achieve in the circumstances.  It both reflects current international policymaking and indeed enables it.  It looks and is often messy – but so’s the world.  It is not nearly as diminutive and suboptimal as Haass  seems to suggest:

 Such collective action is invariably less inclusive, less comprehensive and less predictable than formal global accords.  It can suffer from a lack of legitimacy.  But it is doable and desirable, and can lead to or a complement classic multilateralism.

It is doable and, indeed being done, or in fact has been done for quite some time now.  This is the energetic institutional side of contemporary global governance.  Yes, messy, overlapping possibly, and still with significant questions surrounding the Gx process over effectiveness – but then the latter was as equally as in evidence for classic multilateralism.  And as for the concern about binding – international decision-making is still largely a national capital approval and implementation process - treaty or no treaty, legally binding or not.

But the final conclusion Haass draws is correct:

Multilateralism in the 21st century is, like the century itself, likely to be more fluid and, at times, messy than what we are used to.    

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