I think that the current system is multilateral, which shapes how actors perceive what is appropriate. States do not invent a new response to each new problem. I have been puzzled since last fall, therefore, by the concept of a “new” multilateralism. Does this refer to the generic institutional form, or to the concrete shape it takes in a particular context? Recent posts by Art Stein leave me even more puzzled.

As an empirical proposition, Alan Alexandroff was right to suggest that Stein’s formulation might not apply to Canada, since we do not normally see multilateralism as an alternative to unilateralism. Only a power that believes itself to be (potentially) hegemonic has the ability to consider the possibility of unilateral action. Only a U.S. administration like the present one, that no more thinks in terms of an international “system” than Margaret Thatcher understood “society”, would even dream of as many unilateral options as it does. In a similar conceptual fuzziness, some writers conceive of the options in the response to problems in the control of inter-state violence as multilateralism vs. unilateral “preventive war”. If this opposition were useful, Patti Goff would be right to wonder if the use of force is fundamentally at odds with multilateralism. But surely collective security whether at the UN or NATO must envisage the use of force.  

Participants in this project might benefit from more discussion on this core idea, if a “new multilateralism” provides the reason we wish to argue for “global institutional reform”, though we can easily think of other motivations for the project. Here are three:

  1. the rise of new powers (e.g. BRICSAM) necessitates reform of international organizations
  2. globalization means that every state now wishes to be an activate participant in global governance, which requires a re-ordering of international organizations
  3. the basic structure of international organization was created in an earlier era, and the exiting organizations are old and tired, therefore global institutional reform is needed.

These three are not mutually exclusive, and none require consideration of a new multilateralism. So what does this phrase mean?

For realists of the Wall Street Journal persuasion, as for American sovereignists, “old” multilateralism is associated with universalism. Coalitions of the willing are a “new” multilateralism because they include no more countries than needed for the task at hand, and nobody (other than the USA) has a veto, especially not the French or the Russians. On the left, “new multilateralism” seems to mean a radical restructuring of multilateral institutions from the bottom up. In Canada, where the term was used in the Martin government’s foreign policy review, new multilateralism seems to refer to a diplomacy oriented to promoting democracy, public health, and sustainable development. Before offering some thoughts on our key term, let me offer some comments on recent posts.

Art Stein March 8

When people talk of multilateralism or the lack of it, they really have in mind the US and whether it is going it alone or in concert with others.  The US is the LRS (the lone remaining superpower), and thus other countries have a heightened interest in the US acting in concert with them rather than going it alone ….  For the US to act in concert with others, it must have an interest in doing so; any argument today about mutlilateralism has perforce to start with an argument about the interests of the US in doing anything but going it alone.
Wolfe comment

There are few issues on which the USA actually tries to go it alone, and few where it succeeds. Any argument about multilateralism and the USA, therefore, should actually start with the wide array of situations where that country does respect global norms, or seeks to work with others. There is a question of form and substance here. Americans (especially in Congress) do not like to believe that foreigners, even a treaty or an international organization, could compel the USA to do anything. In practice, U.S. action is often shaped by multilateral norms and rules as much as any other country, even if officials are not required to admit it.  

Art Stein March 20

When we talk about multilateralism then we mean more than a set of states combining their capabilities to achieve some objective.  We also have in mind the legitimacy that comes from states acting in concert because their objectives are not particularistic national interests but common interests.

This raises a number of issues about multilateral concerted action.  How many states are needed to achieve the legitimacy that multilateralism is intended to provide? Conversely, how much opposition and by how many and whom undercuts the legitimacy of multilateral efforts?  Moreover, does multilateralism require more than merely a signal of commitment?  The US obtained many signatories in the second Iraq War and even small and medium contributions and yet was seen as acting unilaterally?  Why was that?

Wolfe comment:

First, multilateralism is legitimate in itself because it is now deeply embedded in the constitutional structure of contemporary global order. The procedural norms of the society of states include notably sovereign equality and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The legitimate use of military or economic force other than in self-defense requires collective authorization. Action can be legitimate, in short, because it is multilateral.

So why was Iraq-2 seen as unilateral? Because it was unilateral, for reasons beyond an apparent unwillingness to wait for the Security Council to act. It was more that the Security Council was the concrete embodiment of a global discussion about how best to act against what might well have been a threat to collective security, but the USA was clearly not listening to the discussion, because there was no sense that the USA was open to being persuaded: it simply wished to get UN blessing for an action it had already decided to take.

Finally, multilateral need not mean universal, and legitimacy need not mean that all states agree. The familiar K group ideas are relevant to multilateral legitimacy as they are to action.

Art Stein May 2

All this implies that multilateralism, if it is to mean joint action in dealing with problematic global issues, must entail not only agreement on core values but also on the means of achieving desired outcomes in world affairs.  And does this imply that the price of multilateralism is the broad acceptance of the least common denominator when there is disagreement among a core group of states (however that core is defined) about tactics?  Is the price of multilateralism that it is subject to a unit veto?  Is it possible to sustain multilateralism on the basis of agreement on principles and values and objectives but with a recognition of divergent tactical approaches?

Wolfe comment:

Surely the answer to the last question is yes. Indeed Michael Walzer might argue that the only way to buttress democracy and avoid tyranny is to ensure that the answer is yes. He envisions a “third degree of global pluralism”, a possible future attempt “to overcome the radical decentraliza­tion of sovereign states [in anarchy] without creating a single all‑powerful central regime.”   The solution is, “create a set of alternative centers and an increasingly dense web of social ties that cross state boundaries,” … building “on the in­stitutional structures that now exist, or are slowly coming into existence, and to strengthen all of them, even if they are competi­tive with one another.So the third degree of global pluralism requires a U.N. with a military force of its own capable of humanitarian interventions and a strong version of peacekeeping ‑ but still a force that can only be used with the approval of the Security Council or a very large majority of the General Assembly. Then it requires a World Bank and IMF strong enough to regulate the flow of capital and the forms of international investment and a WTO able to en­force labor and environmental standards as well as trade agree­ments ‑ all these, however, must be independently governed, not tightly coordinated with the U.N. It requires a World Court with power to make arrests on its own, but needing to seek U.N. sup­port in the face of opposition from any of the (semi‑sovereign) states of international society. Add to these organizations a very large number of civic associations operating internationally, in­cluding political parties that run candidates in different coun­tries’ elections and labor unions that realize their long‑standing goal of international solidarity, as well as single‑issue movements of a more familiar kind. The larger the membership of these associations and the wider their extension across state bound­aries, the more they would knit together the politics of the global society. But they would never constitute a single center; they would always represent multiple sources of political energy; they would always be diversely focused. Now add a new layer of governmental organization ‑the re­gional federation, of which the EC is only one possible model. It is necessary to imagine both tighter and looser structures, dis­tributed across the globe, perhaps even with overlapping mem­berships: differently constituted federal unions in different parts of the world.”

For Walzer’s “pluralism” substitute “multilateralism.” Multilateralism, Ruggie argued, should be understood as a generic institutional form which coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of “generalized” principles of conduct–that is, principles which specify appropriate conduct for a class of actions, without regard to the particularistic interests of the parties or the strategic exigencies that may exist in any specific occurrence. It follows that there is an agreed indivisibility among the members of a collectivity with respect to the range of behavior in question and that there is an expectation of “diffuse reciprocity.”   The concept of multilateralism here refers to the constitutive rules that order relations in given domains of international life. Within this architectural form there are “regimes,” which are more concrete than an order (typically, the term “regime” refers to a functional or sectoral component of an order) and formal international organizations, which are palpable entities with headquarters and letterheads.

Has this generic institutional form changed? I don’t think so, but it is generic. In my contribution, I look at the changes that motivate discussion of reform of the WTO. And need we worry that disagreements about life within an international organization endanger multilateralism? I think that the U.S. government has been unduly criticized on such grounds—the institution is too robust to be endangered by the actions of one administration, even if the current UN ambassador succeeds in doing real harm to the UN as an organization (as some suspect he will).

- Robert Wolfe

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