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Multilateralism in Crisis

Justin Vaïsse, President of the Paris Peace Forum, answers four questions about multilateralism

1. Mr Vaïsse, the international order is navigating through turbulent times, with increasingly unilateral US policies, an assertive China and Russia. Is multilateralism in crisis?

There can be no doubt it is in crisis indeed. Not that there ever has been a golden age of multilateralism, but after the Cold War, for a decade or two, countries seemed to define their national interest within the general framework of norms and institutions that had been created after World War II. They negotiated new collective treaties and organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), and were careful not to ignore the United Nations (UN) even when they bypassed it, e.g. the US concerning Iraq in 2003.
That is less and less the case today: norms are being violated (Syria), international law is being ignored (East China Sea), security treaties are being disregarded (Crimea), and institutions are being undermined (WTO). US President Trump opposes multilateral institutions in principle and his new national security adviser used his first substantive public speech to attack the ICC. President Putin has used Russia’s veto no less than 16 times since 2011 at the UN Security Council, versus six for China and three for the US (none for France or the UK). And Chinese President Xi sets up new multilateral bodies with a separate legal order, as is the case with the Belt and Road Initiative.

2. What are the root causes of the current volatility of the international order?

There is a misleading tendency to blame US President Trump for all of this. He does represent a pointed challenge to the multilateral order, and his attacks on the WTO and the launching of trade wars pose notable and obvious dangers. But troubles started long before he came in. The changing repartition in the global balance of power is key here. America is no longer dominant, emerging powers are not necessarily supportive of institutions created before they had a say, and some countries frontally challenge the rules and mechanisms of this US-led world. In other words, multipolarity makes multilateralism more difficult and more necessary at the same time. This is compounded by the backlash against globalisation in the West, with populist movements reluctant to abide by international rules and preferring to put sovereignty first.

3. The German Foreign Minister has started forming an “alliance of multilateralists”. Who should be part of this alliance?

Take a look at the list of countries ranked by nominal GDP. Get passed the first two, the US and China, and you see up to 12 countries that are liberal democracies with a strong interest in maintaining a rules-based order, a world of free trade and cooperative action on climate and other global challenges: Japan, Germany, UK, India, France, Brazil, Italy, Canada, South Korea, Australia, Spain and Mexico – I omitted Russia, which is number 11. Together, these countries should form the core of any alliance for multilateralism, which, of course, should be open to any country with the same objectives.

4. Can the existing international institutions, such as the UN and the G summits, be reformed to fit a new international order, or are they outdated?

It is extraordinarily difficult to reform existing institutions because of entrenched interests, but I do not think that it is impossible. More importantly, I do not see any replacement for the UN, which plays a central and unique role. So we should keep the reformist agenda very much alive at the UN. Now the G summits are different: they are less institutionalized, and can be changed according to needs, like the G20, which was (re-)created to address the financial crisis of 2008. Lastly, I do think we should do more to involve non-state actors, like we do at the Paris Peace Forum: how do you solve global warming or internet governance without corporations, NGOs internet, local governments or foundations? And, above all, we should not forget the citizens who will rebel against global governance if ignored or bypassed.

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