By guest blogger Arthur Stein

Bob Wolfe asks an important questions, what is new in the new multilateralism. One of his answers has to do with how the term is currently being used by different governments and different ends of the political spectrum. The tack I take here is to try to present an analytic answer which has to do with the altered international environment.

Multilateralism reflects a basic reality of international politics, the distribution of power. Modern multilateralism, consisting largely of the international institutions developed over the course of the last 150 years, has emerged in quite different settings. The first wave emerged during a multipolar age, when there were a number of great powers. The ability to fashion arrangements for such a setting was critical. Thus, the standard criticism that the League of Nations failed in part the US did not join is a critique that the institution designed was not compatible with the interests of all the parties needed to make it work, namely the set of great powers. In contrast, the United Nations was designed as if it were a multipolar age, but largely functioned in a bipolar one (see the aside following this post for a discussion of multilateral institutions in a bipolar age).

Although much can be said about the nature of the design of institutions as a function of the number of powerful states and the functional domain of concern (to be discussed in a different post), the critical point is that this provides the answer to what is new about the new multilateralism.

The new multilateralism has to deal with the core realities of power and history. First, the distribution of power has changed. Whether the current world is unipolar or hegemonic or consists of a hyperpower, we now live with a fundamentally different distribution of power. This changed reality affects all states, and changes their incentives for, and expectations from, multilateral arrangements. Any new institutions will perforce be built on the foundations of this new reality.

Second, although the US is far and away the world’s dominant power, there are also domain specific distributions of power that also matter [an aside: I leave for a future post the point that institutional design also reflects domain specific considerations other than power]. In economic terms, the world is arguably multipolar rather than unipolar, and thus the US cannot act as unilaterally in economic and financial issues as it can in military ones. In addition, the continuing existence of a balance of nuclear terror imposes constraints even on the US exercise of unilateral military power.

And third, there is the matter of history. The effects of the First and Second World Wars were so profound, and the existing international institutional infrastructure so relatively weak, that in effect designing international institutions started from scratch following each war. The League of Nations was simply scrapped, and a completely different institution was created. That is not the case today.

At the end of the Cold War there was a deep and rich array of existing international institutions. Thus, we are witnessing, perhaps for the first time in world history, great powers adapting to international institutions and not merely creating and shaping them. As I once pointed out in a discussion of China’s accession to the WTO, the rules of the institution might have been different had China been there at the time it was being designed. But at the time China came along it was negotiating entry into an existing institution and could not expect the rules to be changed simply to accommodate it. Ironically, if the institution did not exist and were being negotiated now, the rules might well be bent to accommodate China. Inversely, the US belongs to many institutions and has many institutional commitments, and must decide whether the change in relative power should be the basis for exercising exit and voice, or whether loyalty remains the order of the day [note that we confine the derisive characterization of unilateral to the exercise of exit and not voice].

Note that one implication is that the problem of US unilateralism antedates the current administration. I can document this all too extensively, but I leave it with the following quote:

The United States has a penchant these days for joining international negotiations that spin out of control. We went to Kyoto to talk about climate change and discovered we couldn’t sign the treaty. We went to Ottawa to talk about landmines and found our military problems ignored by other states. We may be the “indispensable country,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright likes to say. But we often set ourselves up as Alamo holdouts, criticized as the indispensable country with indefensible positions.
[Ruth Wedgwood, New York Times, 10 June 1998]

Note also that the issue of accommodating oneself to new power realities is a problem faced by middle powers and especially former great powers. In effect, the distribution of marbles has changed, but the players are less willing to have the one with the marbles have more of a say.

This then is what is new about the new multilateralism, that historical institutions are dealing with a quite different distribution of power and any new institutional arrangement will be constructed in the shadow of hegemony (I use this formulation to get across that it is not simply the current distribution of power, but also expectations about the future distribution of power that matter for institutional design today). This is also the challenge of today, how to adapt existing institutions so that they remain compatible with the incentives of the US, and how to fashion new multilateral arrangements in a unipolar age.

An Aside:

If the nature of global governance reflects the distribution of power, then
unilateralism reflects unipolarity, and multilateralism reflects multipolarity, how did we get multilateral institutions in an age of bipolarity? This is the interesting question, and there are two answers.

One answer often provided is that liberalism trumped bipolarity, that the US as a liberal power created liberal institutions (and liberalism is somehow linked with multilateralism).

An alternative answer is that the bipolar reality meant that there were few global institutions and they functioned only when the two superpowers agreed (read, Security Council and UN, the NPT), and that what we think of as the successful multilateral institutions were subsystemic and not global and consisted of the members of one of bloc. In effect, the multilateral order, especially the institutions dealing with trade and finance, was essentially an anti-Communist rather than global order.

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