The World Around Us
March 2, 2021
The Case for a more Inclusive Multilateralism

IN ITS STRICTEST sense, multilateralism refers to cooperation between three or more countries. However, many readily associate it with cooperation amongst multiple states to address common global concerns, often through international bodies such as the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) among many others.

Beyond the institutional dimension to multilateralism, according to the UN, it also involves adherence to a common political project based on the respect of a shared system of norms and values. The UN further notes that multilateralism is particularly based on founding principles such as consultation, inclusion and solidarity. In summary, the UN sees multilateralism as both a method of cooperation and a form of organization of the international system.

Notwithstanding the importance of and need for multilateralism, it is currently in a state of flux. Some world leaders are openly disavowing multilateralism and others are championing alternative governance structures.

Trade and economic protectionism have once again become attractive for some and major multilateral bodies have become hamstrung by what the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva refers to as “institutional sclerosis and ideological infighting.”

The rise of China, a resurgent Russia, the rise of illiberalism and extremist political ideologies, as well as the persistent threats of environmental emergencies and the climate crisis are placing pressure on multilateralism in a manner hardly seen before. However, the situation is not beyond repair.

Traditionally, states have been at the forefront of multilateralism. Afterall, it is true that states, namely a handful of powerful states, created the current global order. However, the world is comprised of more than just states and to revive multilateralism, we need to look beyond states.

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has written that “we need an inclusive multilateralism that engages businesses, cities, universities and movements.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning at the United States State Department and Gordon Laforge, Senior Researcher at Princeton University, recently contended in the March/April 2021 edition of Foreign Affairs Magazine that the world cannot successfully address twenty- first-century threats without mobilizing a new set of actors. These new actors include non-state actors which are sufficiently strong to both create international problems and help solve them.

Slaughter and Laforge agree that existing institutions remain valuable. However, these were built for a world when power was concentrated among a handful of states which largely determined the global agenda. With the current diffusion of power beyond states, the global order has to expand by accommodating new categories of non-state actors.

The response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic provides a glimpse of post-state multilateralism. Philanthropic entities and public, private, and civil society organizations all combined to either supplement or outright supplant the state. These entities raised billions of dollars to help the global vaccine efforts and procure treatment and protective equipment to fight COVID-19. In other areas such as climate change, sustainable development and human rights, non-state actors have also emerged as vital to global efforts to combat these problems.

Of course, states will not go away and frankly speaking, any notion of a stateless world is utopian at best. Afterall, states do command legitimacy because in principle, they represent the will of the people while many nonstate actors, irrespective of their good work, are ultimately answerable to their shareholders and their boardrooms.

Finally, Slaughter and Laforge acknowledge that the greater involvement of non-state actors in multilateralism could have the added benefit of enhancing transparency, accountability, and problem- solving capacity at the global level. Invariably, some of this could trickle down to the national level where national governments around the world could start adopting a more deliberate approach in allowing for decision making to become more participatory and eclectic. This would ultimately redound to the benefit of everyone as it would enhance governance and give a wider array of stakeholders a voice in solving common problems.