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Global Cooperation

Multipolarity Without Multilateralism Is Just Anarchy

By December 11, 2018December 13th, 2018No Comments
UN General Assembly

A Discussion In The Context Of The 73rd UN General Assembly And Changes To The Global Order

Last month when opening a UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting on “Strengthening multilateralism and the role of the United Nations,” UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres argued that “multipolarity without multilateralism is just anarchy.” This is a theme he has staunchly defended from the start of his term in office, and it is manifest in his current ambitious proposals for UN reform. These proposals were met with support from a significant majority of nations at this year’s 73rd General Assembly (UNGA) opening debate where many spoke out in favour of multilateralism in the face of rising nationalism, notably the EU nations.  While reassuring, this trend is simply not enough.  Nations have called for UN reform and the strengthening of multilateralism for years now, but have tended to balk at the idea of actually following through with any meaningful attempts.

The paradigm has arguably shifted, however, as seen in the UNGA speeches of, among others, French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.  Governments are increasingly aware that multilateralism is no longer an inherent trait of a world system but rather a real set of mutual policy goals that must be worked for.  The rhetoric has shifted from ambivalence to defensiveness. This change will be meaningless, however, without genuine actions to follow through on it.  It can often mask a more harmful concept.  In breaking down the unipolar American system, some nations seemingly hope to carve out their own hegemonies under the banner of multipolarity.

Idealism or Urgent Necessity?

Multipolarity is a stated aim of a great many nations, notably Russia and China.  For example, Russia used its UNGA speech to criticize the alleged desire of several Western states to retain their self-proclaimed status of “world leaders,” and instead to push for a world in which nation-states have a greater sense of agency and autonomy.  This is ostensibly a noble goal, but without working to form a coordinating institution or force for the global community to structure itself through, this push for multipolarity will lead to a breakdown of world order and a return to competing spheres of regional influence. To return to our core point, “multipolarity without multilateralism is just anarchy”.

This then gives us two possible solutions.  We either resist multipolarity by trying to reinforce the supremacy of select nation-states, as was the recourse of most declining hegemons caught in the Thucydides Trap, or we can embrace multilateralism as a means to provide a structured form of multipolarity.

To attain the latter, we must engage with the emerging zeitgeist of defending multilateralism and aim to turn the rhetoric of the UNGA into the sort of meaningful reform advocated by the UNSG.  We should then move even further, continuing to push for substantive UN reform and democratization.  Nation-States need to be made aware of the precarious structure in which they are embedded and warned of the dire consequences of an anarchic state of nature.  Such reforms must be reframed from idealism to urgent necessity, with nation-states being made to realize that they cannot afford to just keep paying this subject lip-service at the UNGA.  They need to act now.

We are ironically somewhat aided in this effort by the rising threat to this system when it is reframed as a catalyst for action.  This approach is prominently utilized by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has openly declared his intention to make this manifest schism a point of policy.  Moreover, multilateralism was identified as a vital element of the global system by at least 40 other nations at the UNGA opening debate. There is even strong popular support for innovative forms of multilateralism.   A global survey in 2017 found that “nearly three quarters (71%) of those surveyed said they thought a new supranational organization should be created to make enforceable decisions to address global risks.”  We can thus see strong support for reinvigorated multilateralism, something that needs to be properly implemented if we are to protect the world order.

To this end, we should engage with accommodating to the emergent multipolar system rather than trying to resist it.  In light of this, the proposals for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) gains ever more prominence.  They provide a way to rebalance the unilateral system to ensure that all nations and peoples are held to be equal in the international community with the same privileges and responsibilities towards one another. The paradigm shift we are experiencing necessitates innovation, not regression.  To return to a system of vigorously competing nation-states would be against the best interests and the openly stated desires of the global community.

To conclude, the transition to a multipolar world could be a chance to build a newer, stronger global social structure, to empower multilateralism, and to make a more equitable world order.  To do so will require bold and innovative decisions, but there already exist some national leaders willing to defend such ideas along with the support of much of the global population.  We should therefore take the warning of the Secretary-General to heart, but we also should realize that the shift to multipolarity, accompanied by a reengagement with meaningful multilateralism, could provide the best hope for our common future.

Article edited by Ron Glossop.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

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Charles Marsh

Author Charles Marsh

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