In a world of unabashed self-interest, we need to defend multilateralism with our eyes wide open

This piece was written together with Larry Attree, Head of Policy at Saferworld.

Today, the world is reeling from US President Donald Trump’s declaration that the USA will pull out of the hard-won Paris climate change agreement.

It’s just the latest in a series of hard shocks to the system of multilateral deals that sought to address common global challenges through common global alliances. It’s a brutal world for those who believe in multilateralism. So we had better toughen up our act, too.

The trend is growing towards withdrawal from and denunciation of international human rights treaties. The UN is struggling to uphold peace, human rights and humanitarian law, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has failed to stem nuclear proliferation. There are fewer multilateral treaties being signed; UN Security Council vetoes are on the rise; and commitments to the core UN budget, as well as to peacekeeping, have all been fingered for cuts by the US government. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has failed over decades to conclude the endlessly promised Doha Development Agenda. It’s a depressing list.

Those of us who believe that joint challenges require joint solutions need to understand the cold reality, analyse the trends and adopt a fresh strategy - if we want to save multilateralism, before it is too late.

Upholding shared values

Multilateral commitments are becoming less potent because states are less and less willing to uphold shared values and solve collective challenges together. Governments are turning inwards, pushing a national perspective that wins more immediate public support.

Commitments to multilateralism depend on showing that countries have achieved more together than they would have done alone. But the politics of self-interest has grown too strong has prevented multilateral institutions from meeting their potential.

The UN was established to uphold peace and prevent conflict, but it is struggling to uphold the prohibition on the use of force by states except in self-defence without UN Security Council (UNSC) authorisation. The Council - confined to doing what is politically palatable to its permanent five members - has done too little to support preventive engagement with small, poor countries permanently on the edge of crises or to address long-term structural drivers of conflict.

Political will to address the root causes of conflict is too often absent. Many countries frantically wave the sovereignty flag, even in the face of global attempts to stop mass violence, such as in South Sudan and Syria. Even in Europe - where multilateralism was considered a way of life - it’s under threat and not seen to be working. The EU has struggled to respond in a united way to the global financial crisis, the insolvency of Greece, the chronic levels of forced displacement on its doorsteps, and even to disillusionment with its own core project of consolidating peace in Europe. And the more multilateral institutions struggle with global challenges, the less faith is placed in them.

Becoming more representative

Another problem is that multilateral institutions often appear out of touch: non-transparent, unrepresentative, and lacking in democratic accountability and input. There seem to be too many permanent winners and losers. For example, the International Criminal Court is seen as having a constant bias against Africa; the WTO seems only to favour wealthy nations; the Bretton Woods institutions remain dominated by the US. Inequalities between countries are difficult to square with the notions of reciprocity. So, while powerful states are unwilling to be constrained, smaller and poorer states are increasingly discontented with what they see as the institutionalisation of global inequality and discrimination.

The mandate of the UNSC is to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. However, its ongoing domination by the victors of World War Two, and their willingness to bypass the Council when it suits them (Libya, Iraq, Georgia and Ukraine) have eroded the ability of the Council to broker consensus on how to end conflicts like Syria and Yemen.

Reforming the status quo

Another challenge is that those of us who do believe in global collective goods have not been politically astute enough in making our case. We get side-tracked by technocratic debates around UN resolutions that often fail to change the world outside the shiny windows of the UN headquarters in New York.

Across the street from UN HQ, another shiny but black edifice - a Trump-branded tower - stands a storey higher. It is a suggestive metaphor: men like Donald Trump are shaping today’s world, looming over the collective values and shared solutions that once stood tall over the rubble of a world ravaged by two world wars. When those with the power to shape global affairs are less heedful of what it is right to do, those who believe in collective solutions must tailor their methods accordingly.

We need to adopt smarter, tougher tactics. We need to engage the public in foreign policy debate and take on the critics of multilateral solutions. We cannot defend a flawed status quo, but we can support all those pushing for major reforms of the United Nations and beyond. The new UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for an urgent refocusing on the UN’s core mission of preventing conflict. He needs support in his mission from member states. Countries like Sweden and Germany have political communities in which leaders make and the people accept the case for responsible global citizenship. This same argument can be won in other nations, including the UK.

For self-interest is, in fact, in nobody’s interest. No one nation - even the mighty USA - can hide from climate change, violent transnational movements or organised crime behind a nationalist wall. The fate of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Egypt should make leaders who propose more of the same unelectable. Only the public can deliver this message in suitably urgent tones.

The latest Global Peace Index, published yesterday, tells us that the world has become less peaceful over the past decade, and that the economic impact of violence on the economy is enormous. To resolve intractable wars, we need to speak much louder to the political leaders, generals, arms dealers and financiers who hold the reins. Governments must be reminded of how closely the true public interest is tied to peace and responsible, progressive foreign policies that address the need for effective global solutions to global problems.

In the end, support for global solutions can only be won at a national level.


Read International Alert's report on the links between climate change, conflict and fragility.


Homepage image: Iga Gozdowska (Creative Commons BY 2.0)