Think Tank
Multilateralism and the New World Order

The fact that the liberal order may be coming to an end does not mean we should not aspire to live in a rules-based system that permits both small and medium-sized countries to promote their interests, writes Francisco de Santibañes, Director General at the Argentine Council on International Relations (CARI). The publication of this article continues online collaboration between Valdai Club as part of its Think Tank project and CARI. 

The world is now facing a more difficult and unstable scenario than what we had been dealing with in recent decades. This is partly a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but also of the resurgence of nationalism and the strategic dispute that is taking place between the United States and China. Indeed, these trends may mark the end of the liberal order, a period during which Washington and its main allies promoted globalisation, liberal democracy and international organisations. As one would expect, a transition such as this tends to increase levels of uncertainty. 

As a result of this situation, we today are more in need of international collaboration than in the past. Why? In part, because multilateralism – which can be defined as coordinated work between states to achieve a common goal – promotes a dialogue between public officials from different countries. This exchange of views and information, which usually takes place in forums such as the G20 and the United Nations, helps to eliminate the kind of misunderstandings that lead to uncertainty and disorder.

International collaboration already played a key role during the economic recession of 2008, avoiding its transformation into a global depression. At that time, the G20 become a forum where presidents and ministers were able to coordinate their monetary, trade and fiscal policies. Moreover, multilateralism has also allowed states to confront a new generation of threats. Both the Paris Agreement of 2016 to combat climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, promoted by the United Nations, are good examples of this. 

Multilateralism also promotes the creation and implementation of global and regional rules. After the end of the Second World War, a series of organisations were created with the goal of regulating the behaviour of states. To take one example, if a country imposes trade restrictions on another, the World Trade Organisation may allow the injured party to impose sanctions in reciprocity. These rules bring stability, promoting not only investments and trade but also improving the welfare of societies. 

Multilateralism is particularly important for medium-size nations, since it allows them to sit at some of the tables where decisions are made -or at least discussed. At the very least, this will allow them to stay informed, and on certain occasions even limit (in coalition with other states), the behaviour of the great powers – which, in order to achieve a certain degree of legitimacy, will be willing to make concessions. 

This possibility has become particularly relevant at the present time, since the transition from one international order to a new one represents an opportunity for medium-size states to shape the rules of the system in a way that will benefit their interests in the decades to come. If they are not able to do this, they could get stuck between the demands of world powers. 

But despite its importance, multilateralism has been losing influence. In the last years, a more nationalistic generation of world leaders, distrustful of international bureaucracies, has led many states to prioritise their short-term interests. As a result, collaboration has become increasingly difficult. And now the conflict between China and the United States has introduced an additional threat: the possibility that international organisations become a mere venue where great powers try to marginalise their rivals. The possible exit of the United States from the World Health Organisation, due to the alleged influence that China exercises over this body, is one example.

Given these difficulties, how can we strengthen multilateralism and the international institutions that promote it? First of all, we should not repeat the mistakes of the past. International organisations accomplish their goals when they limit themselves to coordinating the actions of their member states. Past attempts to provide them with high degrees of autonomy vis-a-vis the states that form them have, in most cases, failed – and weakened multilateralism in the process.

Let’s consider the case of the United Nations. In theory, this organisation can establish incentives to prevent unnecessary conflicts between states, but when it has attempted to restrict the behaviour of great powers, it has, in most cases, failed. For instance, Russia and the United States have been able to intervene militarily abroad without the United Nations being able to do much. Something similar happens within the European Union.

For a period, European elites perceived the EU as a project that eventually could be above the states which make it up, developing in this way a stronger sense of identity than loyalty to the nation-state. But nowadays the EU is going through a major crisis because national populations have rejected this vision; Brexit provides a clear example of this. Thus, in order to be successful, supporters of international collaboration should be more realistic regarding the goals that global and regional organisations (and multilateralism in general) can achieve.

One way of being realistic is to promote forums such as the G20. Unlike the organisations that were created after the Second World War, the G20 does not need a central bureaucracy and does not demand that states give away their sovereignty. This makes it compatible with the wishes of the conservative and realist leaders that prevail today.

In fact, the international order that seems to be emerging today has more in common with the conservative order that existed in Europe from the defeat of Napoleon to the beginning of the First World War than with the liberal one. More conservative at home and more realistic abroad, governments may be returning to a system in which leaders regularly met to coordinate their actions. The result was the Metternich era, one of the most peaceful and stable periods in the history of international relations. Nowadays, the G20 reflects this understating of world politics probably better than any other organisation. 

But there are some obvious differences between what happened during the 19th century and our current situation. For instance, international politics and economics have become more complex. We face threats such as global warming, nuclear proliferation and the necessity to coordinate monetary, trade and fiscal policies. This is one of the reasons why institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, although less influential than in the past, still have a relevant role to play.

Another way we can support multilateralism is by strengthening regional alliances. In fact, these relationships serve as the main pillar upon which regional organisations rest. 

In the years to come, alliances and organisations may be able to avoid the kind of regional tensions that can lead to global disputes. A successful example of this kind of association is the alliance reached by Brazil and Argentina at the end of the 1970s, a development that brought not only peace and stability to South America but permitted the creation of Mercosur – a regional customs union. However, this scenario could come to an end if one of these states decides to side with Beijing and the other one with Washington, becoming proxies in their fight. To avoid this, Buenos Aires and Brasilia (and other regional powers) should start coordinating their foreign policies.

To conclude, the fact that the liberal order may be coming to an end does not mean we should not aspire to live in a rules-based system that permits both small and medium-sized countries to promote their interests. A diplomatic coalition among these nations, with the ultimate goal of promoting multilateralism, should thus be welcomed.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.