The Crisis of Multilateralism

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The Crisis of Multilateralism

The world has many regional institutions that bind nations together. For some, their time and place in global affairs may have passed.

Something has snapped in the workings of our multilateral institutions. And there seem to be too many problems in too many places for this to be entirely coincidental.

If the late 20th century was an age of coming together, the early 21st century looks like being an age of drifting apart. Some countries won’t mind that. China, for example, has always instinctively favoured bilateral negotiation over the many competing voices of the multilateral roundtable.

ASEAN’s problems over how to handle territorial disputes in the South China Sea have been well publicized: the association is now effectively split into pro- and anti-China camps. Less widely covered was last week’s move by Uzbekistan to suspend its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

While ASEAN and the CSTO are quite different groups that aim to do quite different things, they essentially have the same problem: their members have fundamentally conflicting visions of how their region’s strategic landscape ought to develop. And when the members of a club can’t agree on basic issues, the club ceases to work.

Other institutions face similarly uncertain futures. The EU, once the model for the likes of ASEAN, is in turmoil. NATO, for so long the bedrock of Western security, will limp away from Afghanistan without much sense of its future direction. The organization is now centred, from the U.S.’s perspective, on the wrong ocean; Washington has become more interested in its dynamic Asian partners than in its declining European ones. Another example is the UN Security Council: it is yet another type of multilateral grouping, but it resembles many of those already mentioned if only in its diminishing ability to function, as demonstrated by the enervating deadlock over Syria.

All these groupings of nations operate by consensus. But consensus is becoming ever more elusive. The ASEAN members, which have never balked at publishing some pretty bland assertions of like-mindedness in the past, were unable to profess solidarity in even the most superficial terms last week, failing to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in their 45-year history.

How can we explain this phenomenon of increased polarity in international politics?

In some cases it could simply be that the structure of the institution has outlived its usefulness – most would probably agree with this where the UN Security Council is concerned, with the exception of the five permanent members. The countries that first came together to form these various institutions are not the same places they were then: nations that once had similar priorities and visions may now have drifted apart politically and economically.

The structure of international politics has also been transformed beyond all recognition. Countries have risen and fallen as political and economic powers, while the institutions that serve these countries have struggled to keep pace, reforming too slowly and too timidly. The power of these groups to help their members to navigate the geopolitical challenges that they face has waned as a result.

The world has many multilateral institutions, but too few that work well. They need to update their visions of regionalism and multilateralism for the 21st century. This quest will end, for some, in the realization that in the new geopolitical order there is simply no longer a common thread that ties their members together.