Arousing the multilateral spirit

Thursday, 2019-02-07 09:15:14
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Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres addresses the UN climate change conference in Katowice, Poland in 2018. (Photo: Reuters)
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NDO – Considered as an irreversible trend in contemporary international politics and the only way to strengthen cooperation between continents, international organisations and nations, multilateralism is being challenged by the rise of nationalism, populism and protectionism. Arousing the multilateral spirit in international cooperation has become extremely urgent in the global context of fast and unpredictable transformations.

In international relations, multilateralism is understood as an alliance of many countries pursuing a common goal, or as “global governance”, as opposed to bilateralism which always upholds the supremacy of powers and is the seed of international conflict. This is a form of extensive cooperation between many international relations subjects, mainly nations, based on the core values of “equal, voluntary, mutually beneficial, and committed to common purposes”. Multilateralism, therefore, brings great benefits to all parties, contributing to building a world of peace, stability and prosperity.

Through many stages of ups and downs, it can be said that multilateralism now faces unprecedented serious challenges and threats due to what happened in 2018. So what causes the weakened multilateral spirit in international relations?

At the global level, the world is witnessing structural changes. Nearly three decades have passed since the end of the Cold War and the transitional period seems to be set to terminate with the battle between powers. The fall of the former Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar order left a power vacuum in world politics. During the first ten years after the Cold War, the United States was almost a “lone superpower”, storming the international political arena. But, the “unipolar” situation did not last long as the competition and opposition forces against the US emerged. To combat terrorism, a kind of “compulsory cooperation” has formed between the US and most countries on a global scale. This gathering of forces is reminiscent of the temporary cooperation between countries in the anti-fascism allies in the Second World War.

The rise of export-oriented emerging economies owing to the trend of globalisation, typically China, India, South Africa, and Brazil, has also resulted in fierce competition between the US and the “emerging powers”, contributing to making the world situation extremely complex, unstable and unpredictable. The power competition is accompanied by an increase in security threats, from traditional issues – such as border, territorial and sea disputes, and the arms race – to non-traditional issues – such as epidemics, smuggling, and climate change. These challenges have forced the powers to adjust their strategies and gather forces depending on their interests, capabilities and the moment.

On the regional level, after 60 years of existence and development, the European Union (EU) – the model of the most successful regional organisation since the Second World War – is now facing unprecedented challenges that threaten the existence of the union. The ambition to expand the EU and NATO to the east, to the countries of the “post-Soviet space” and the former Warsaw Pact states, is part of the reason for the EU’s uneven development and its unnecessary escalation of tensions with Russia. The culmination of the conflict is the merging of the Crimean Peninsula into Russian territory, accompanied by a three-year Ukrainian crisis still with no way out. In addition, the Eurozone crisis and the immigration wave from the Middle East and Africa into Europe have also caused severe divisions inside the EU and led to the advent of Brexit as the United Kingdom has decided to leave the “common home” and end the “marriage” after more than four decades.

From a national perspective, typically the United States, within less than two years, since taking over the “hot seat” at the White House with the slogan “America First”, President Donald Trump has made decisions that have surprised the international community, disappointing its veteran allies and hurting rivals. Notably, the 45th President of the US signed a decree to withdraw Washington from a series of multilateral agreements, mechanisms and organisations that the US and other countries have worked hard on negotiations, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Global Compact for Migration, and the historic nuclear deal that the P5+1 powers signed with Iran. The US attitude and actions have been criticised as the most pronounced manifestation of protectionism and unilateralism, countering the trend of international cooperation and weakening multilateral organisations and mechanisms.

So what should be done by the world in the current context, as the crisis of trust increases and multilateralism is threatened on a global scale? The world has become more connected, but societies are getting more and more divided. The direct consequence is that in relations between countries, cooperation becomes more fragile and more difficult. The belief in the global governance system has been doubted and eroded. International organisations and the largest multilateral organisation on the planet, the United Nations (UN), do not seem to fulfill their goals. The antagonism between multilateral and unilateral trends has become more serious, as the US president upholds national interests and opposes globalisation, while the majority of world leaders support the pursuit of the multilateral approach to solving global problems. This situation raises the question of whether the institutions and conceptions of the 20th century have become obsolete or not?

Facing these challenges, the UN and many countries have issued urgent calls for fostering solidarity, strengthening cooperation and reviving the multilateral spirit. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has urged the international community to rebuild their broken faith, through accelerating multilateral projects. European leaders insist that the multilateral approach needs to be maintained and is the unique way to shape the future of the world and to prevent war from breaking out globally. ASEAN, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), and the world’s leading developed and emerging economies (G20) all support and emphasise the importance of the trends of multilateralism and trade liberalisation, as well as warning of the danger of protectionism.

The UN has affirmed that multilateral cooperation is the “only answer”. Multilateralism still faces challenges, but global values through multilateral mechanisms are still respected throughout the world. With a network of partners across the globe, the UN continues to be expected and entrusted with the mission of taking the lead in promoting connectivity, strengthening trust and promoting multilateralism in global cooperation.