Multilateralism 2.0: The transformation of international relations

  • 2011•05•31

    Luk Van Langenhove

    Multilateralism 2.0: The transformation of international relations

    Photo: José Cruz/Agência Brasil

    Two major developments are currently transforming the multilateral system. The first is the trend towards multi-polarity as expressed by the rising number of states that act as key players. There have been times when only a few or even one player dominated the geopolitical game. But today it seems that several states are becoming dominant players as global or regional actors. The (voting) behavior of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in the UN and their presence in the G20 illustrates this trend.

    The second development, meanwhile, is that new types of actors are changing the nature of the playing multilateral field. Regions with statehood properties are increasingly present in the area of international relations. Since 1974, the European Union (EU) for instance has been an observer in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). But on 3 May 2011, UNGA upgraded the EU’s status by giving it speaking rights. And that same resolution opens the door for other regional organizations to request the same speaking rights. Undoubtedly, this is what is what will happen in the near future. But as stated by some UN members in discussions on this resolution, this could unbalance the ‘one state, one vote’ rule within the UN. On the other hand, this opening towards regional organizations brings with it new opportunities. Together these two developments illustrate that multilateralism is no longer only a play between states: various regions as well as other actors are present and are profoundly changing the multilateral game.

    But thinking about multilateralism is still very much based upon the centrality of states: they are regarded as the constitutive elements of the multilateral system and it is their interrelations that determine the form and content of multilateralism. This implies that international politics is regarded as a closed system in at least two ways: firstly, it spans the whole world; and, secondly, there are huge barriers to enter the system. Many authors have pointed to all kinds of dys-functions such as the complexity of the UN system with its decentralized and overlapping array of councils and agencies, or to the divides between developed and developing countries.

    The emergence of truly global problems such as climate change, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and many others have indeed led to an increasing paradox of governance. As Thakur and Van Langenhove put it in Global Governance (2006, 12:3) “[t]he policy authority for tackling global problems still belong to the states, while the sources of the problems and potential solutions are situated at transnational, regional or global level”. As such the building blocks of multilateralism, the states, seem to be less and less capable of dealing with the challenges of globalization. But because the multilateral world order is so dependent on the input of states, multilateralism itself is not functioning well.

    From an open to a closed system

    One way to capture the above-mentioned developments is to use the metaphor of ‘multilateralism 2.0’  in order to stress how the playing field and the players in multilateralism are changing. The essence of the Web 2.0 metaphor is that it stresses the emergence of network thinking and practices in international relations, as well as the transformation of multilateralism from a closed to an open system. In multilateralism 1.0 the principle actors in the inter-state space of international relations are states. National governments are the ‘star players’. Intergovernmental organizations are only dependent agents whose degrees of freedom only go as far as the states allow them to go. The primacy of sovereignty is the ultimate principle of international relations.

    In contrast, in multilateralism 2.0, there are players other than sovereign states that play a role and some of these players challenge the notion of sovereignty. Regions are one such type of actor. Conceived by states, other players can have statehood properties and as such aim to be actors in the multilateral system. Regional organizations especially are willing and able to play such a role. But sub-national regions as well increasingly have multilateral ambitions as demonstrated by their efforts towards para-diplomacy. As a result ‘international relations’ is becoming much more than just inter-state relations. Regions are claiming their place as well. This has major consequences for how international relations develop and become institutionalized, as well as for how international relations ought to be studied.

    What was once an exclusive playing ground for states has now become a space that states have to share with others. It is a fascinating phenomenon: both supra- and sub-national governance entities are largely built by states and can therefore be regarded as ‘dependent agencies’ of those states. However, once created, these entities start to have a life of their own and are not always totally controllable by their founding fathers. These new sub- and supra-entities are knocking on the door of the multilateral system because the have a tendency to behave ‘as if’ they were states. This actorness gives them, at least in principle, the possibility to position themselves against other actors, including their founding fathers! All of this has weakened the Westphalian relation between state and sovereignty.

    ‘One state, one vote’

    Organizing multilateralism in a state-centric would only be possible if all states are treated as equal. This means that irrespective of the differences in territorial size, population size, military power or economic strength, all states have the same legal personality. Or in other words, the Westphalian principle of sovereign equality means working with the principle of ‘one state, one vote’, although it is universally acknowledged that this principle does not correspond to the reality. In multilateralism 2.0 this could be balanced through a more flexible system that compares actors in terms of certain dimensions (such as economic power) regardless of the type of actors they are. In other words, one can for instance compare big states with regions or small states with sub-national regions. This allows not only a more flexible form of multilateralism. It could perhaps also lead to a more just system with a more equal balance of power and representation.

    Within the present multilateral system, the UN occupies a major position. But, in order to adapt to the emerging ‘mode 2.0’ of multilateralism, it needs to open up to regions. This is a problem, as the UN is a global organization with sovereign states as members. Indeed, the way the UN is organized, only sovereign states, the star players, can be full members (see Article four of the UN Charter).

    Even though the EU was granted speaking rights, it was not granted voting rights. Chapter VIII of the Charter also mentions the possibility of cooperation with regional organizations and right from its conception there have been attempts to go beyond a state-centric approach. However, for many years now, the UN has struggled with the question of what place supra-national regional organizations should and could take in achieving UN goals. On one end of the spectrum is the position that regionalism blocks the necessary global and universal approach needed to solve the problems of today. At the other end there is the position that regionalism can serve the overall goals of the UN. Obviously, the question is not only a philosophical one. Rather, it is also about power of institutions. Are regional organizations weakening the UN or can they be considered as allies of the UN in dealing with supra-national problems?

    Further recognition required

    The key issue in relation to any institutional reform aimed at reinforcing multilateralism is how to create a balance of power among UN members and a balance of responsibilities and representation for the people of our planet. Such a complex set of balances cannot be found if reform propositions continue to be based upon states as the sole building blocks of multilateralism. A radical rethinking is needed, which recognizes that, next to states, world regions based upon integration processes between states have to play a role in establishing an effective multilateralism.

    Today’s reality is that, next to states, world regions are becoming increasingly important tools of global governance. There needs to be, however, a lot of creative and innovative thinking based upon careful analysis of the regional dimensions of ongoing conflicts and of existing cooperation between the UN and regional organizations. The upgrading of the EU’s status in the UN is an important step forward. But it is not enough. Other regional organizations such as the African Union, ASEAN or the League of Arab States should follow. And next to speaking rights, collaboration between the UN and regional organizations needs to be further developed. This is the only way to increase regional ownership of what the UN and its Security Council decide. As a matter of fact, this recently happened with the UNSC resolution 1973 regarding Libya: explicit reference is made to the African Union, the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic Conference.  Moreover, the League of Arab States’ members are requested to act in the spirit of Chapter VIII of the UN Charter in implementing the resolution. Reviving Chapter VIII seems to be a promising way to combine global concerns with local (regional) legitimacy and capacity to act.

    The challenge is that in line with the complexity of the emerging new world order, any proposal to rethink multilateralism in such a way that it incorporates regionalism needs to be flexible. A simplistic system of regional representations that replace the national representations will not work. And not only the UN, but also the regional organizations themselves need to adjust to the reality of multilateralism 2.0. In this respect it remains to be seen to what extent the EU Member States will allow the EU to speak with one vision. And above all, in order to become politically feasible, the idea of a multi-regional world order needs to be supported and promoted by civil society. As long as this is not the case, old habits and organizational structures will not change, and the world will not become a more secure place to live in.