The 21st century is well-familiar with the socioeconomic phenomenon of globalism which has overtaken the world. However, globalism remains a small part of and is largely supported by a concept known as multilateralism which emerged back in the 20th century as the ‘new world order’ and gradually developed. It is a complex notion involving geopolitical and economic factors, but multilateralism represents at the same time both an ideological utopia and also a practical reality of global organization, power dynamics, and governance. This paper explores the definitions, history, and ongoing state of multilateralism in a complex world.
Defining Multilateralism and its Development
Multilateralism is a concept in the context of the historical structure of the world order. According to Cox (1992), there are three primary components in the global system which are the global political economy, an inter-state system, and global ecosystem. These elements are autonomous but intercorrelated. Multilateralism is a political-economic concept which indicates an alliance and cooperation of multiple states towards pursuing a common goal as well as structuring international economic affairs that is most conducive to capital expansion on a world scale (Cox 1992). In effect, a liberal international order was formed which had its starting point in the coexistence of the state system and the world capitalist economy. It deals with issues which compatible to the political and economic structures, ensuring stability and predictability of the world economy and cooperation among states.
Van Langenhove (2010) suggests that multilateralism is in the process of evolution. There is an inherent need of government to transition from industrial approaches and bureaucratic ideals to the informational age and network organizations of modern world. The author employs the popular ‘Web 2.0’ term as a metaphor to describe the shift in international relations. In the traditional version, agents in multilateralism are states, with national governments and the ultimate principle being sovereignty, essentially being a closed system. However, in ‘Multilateralism 2.0’ there is an emergence of network thinking and practices, and while sovereign states exist, the system is multipolar and open, allowing for distribution of power at the global level (Van Langenhove 2010).
Origin and History
The system of multilateralism originated in the period of the World War II, when the attempt for global diplomacy and collaboration through the League of Nations failed. The enigmatic American leader, President Roosevelt believed in a world order that supported essential human freedoms. Roosevelt supported in an organization that would bring countries together for international peace, security, sociocultural problems, and human rights and freedoms. The United Nations was created in 1945, essentially kickstarting multilateralism. Over the decades, to modern day, a complex system of regional and global inter-state structures and agencies exyst to address various global issues. However, multilateralism is best linked to the emergence of the Westphalian world order that is founded upon sovereign states and both the opportunities and necessities for those states to cooperate. It allowed for the emergence of international law stemming from treaties between sovereign states, which institutionalized intergovernmental cooperation (Van Langenhove 2010).
Americans were never fully supportive of the liberal international order. After WWII, Truman wanted to deepen American global engagement, particularly in Europe. Eventually, the Truman doctrine and economic aid/loans went through, but only due to fear that inaction would lead to the spread of communism. This kept repeating since U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War to create a Western order based on free trade institutions and U.S. military presence. Essentially, multilateralism was only implemented with the political support when implemented as part of the American détente in the Cold War.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the policy of the liberal international order saw significant success as Democracy spread. Economic growth was achieved in multiple regions, and countries began joining established global institutions and alliances, such as NATO, WTO, and IMF. Although the terms of liberal international order and multilateralism did not see significant use during the Cold War, Western foreign-policy experts saw it as a manner of preserving established organizational architecture created post-WWII and open up the Western bloc of democracies with the hope that all nations could participate in a unified rules-based system. Significant hopes were placed in regard to Russia and China after the fall of the Berlin Wall as cooperation on the basic questions of world order emerged as geopolitical rivalries mattered less. However leaders from Russia and China concluded that if they were to participate and the liberal order was to succeed, it would be an existential threat to their regimes, despite potentially being highly beneficial for the people of these countries (Wright 2018).
Current Affairs and Future
The world order has been organized based on a bipolar frame, generally the separation between the east and the west, with balance built around mutually assured destruction stemming back from the Cold War. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, the US hegemony lasted a short time, with the 21st century bring the shift to multipolarity. Many other countries or unions (EU) have seen unprecedented economic growth, particularly seen in the BRIC countries which have also assumed some form of respective leadership and hegemony in their regions and challenging the US on the global arena (Van Langenhove 2010).
At the same time, Wright (2018) argues that world politics is returning to the level of geopolitical competition and clash of social models. It is the distinction between a free world promoted by Westphalia and the neo-authoritarian world, gaining popularity around the world, but most prominent in the large economic powers of Russia and China. The term of a liberal international order implies that eventually these authoritarian states would be brought into the liberal order and universal cooperation. Wright (2018) suggests that the best approach to modern multilateralism and American leadership is to promote the ‘free world’ strategy of maintaining and supporting democracies, particularly with alliances such as NATO which the US leads. The US can also create global and multilateral alliances connecting Asian and European allies. The ‘free world’ approach is in a sense another evolution of the traditional multilateral system developed post-WWII, but not a rejection of the liberal international order. Under such strategy, the US would continue to play a leading role in international and multilateral cooperation, even working with authoritarian powers on matters of mutual interest and global importance the likes of climate change and nonproliferation (Wright 2018).
Multilateralism in its traditional sense is under threat in the 21st century ever since the end of the Cold War. One of the biggest signs of crisis are changing international contexts which has made the traditional intergovernmental multilateralism of the post-WWII era less relevant. States are having a declining role in global security, as threats have developed to be elusive and being systemic at the same time. Multilateral institutions such as the UN have been slow to adapt to the changing contexts and adopt the modern “Multilateralism 2.0” approach described earlier (Van Langenhove 2010). Cox (1992) notes that new regimes of international institutions are difficult to create or support in the absence of a hegemony that is able and willing to commit resources. Instead regimes and institutions facilitate interaction of states and civil societies in their respective spheres of influence (most likely regional as discussed earlier). This is a conservatively adaptive attitudes towards structure of the world order (Cox 1992).
However, Gowan (2018) notes that despite the United States taking a back role and President Trump being openly critical of international mechanisms and institutions, the concept of multilateralism is far from collapsing. The majority of states stepped up their support, the existing systems are continuing to function, and new elements of international diplomacy are being implemented. However, at the same time, it is possible for the multilateralism systems to function as the world falls apart around them (Gowan 2018). This was evident during the work of League of Nations which ultimately failed to prevent WWII, and the latest COVID-19 crisis showing how WHO, IMF, ILO, the UN, OECD, and other organizations working together but ultimately failing in many key areas to subvert the crisis and then addressing it. While modern multilateral systems are sophisticated and well-developed, they ultimately face the same issue of the past of lacking true power of enforcement, as well as facing numerous challenges and threats which undercut the global diplomacy and attempts at progress of various humanitarian, ecological, or strategic projects.
Discussion and Conclusion
Multilateralism is a unique form of international world order and cooperation which emerged primarily after WWII with the establishment of the United Nations. It played a complex and unique role of bringing countries together, even in the context of significant division as was during the Cold War and the emerging hegemony of modern-day. However, the modern globalized world does exist strongly in part due to the politics of multilateralism and international institutions that have emerged. In modern day and going forward, “multilateralism is under threat and facing one of its strongest tests” in the words of Volkan Bozkir (2020), President of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly. The world is facing the crisis of rising tensions, pandemics, economic inequality, ecological catastrophes, security and other issues which make many sides to question the effectiveness of multilateralism. However, multilateralism in the context of greater universal governance and cooperation is exactly what is needed at a pivotal point for civilization when time is running out on solving the major challenges for humanity.
Bozkir, Volkan. 2020. ” The Need for Multilateralism in a Changing World.” United Nations. Web.
Cox, Robert W. 1992. “Multilateralism and World Order.” Review of International Studies 18 (2): 161–180. Web.
Gowan, Richard. 2018. ” Multilateralism in Freefall?” United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, Web.
Van Langenhove, Luk. 2010. “The Transformation of Multilateralism Mode 1.0 to Mode 2.0.” Global Policy 1 (3): 263–270. Web.
Wright, Thomas. 2018. “The Return to Great-Power Rivalry Was Inevitable.” The Atlantic, Web.