Sunday, 6 March 2011

Is the value of multilateralism overstated in contemporary international politics?

If contemporary international politics represents the interaction between states on a global level over the last two decades i.e. in the post cold war period, then there is no denying that there has been a proliferation if International organizations and a consequence of this has been a lot more multilateral diplomacy associated with this. It will be argued that this trend away from bilateral negotiations towards multilateral hasn’t been solely as a result of the value of negotiations involving multiple parties and multiple issues but has been one of necessity due to a changing political landscape partly shaped by globalization of international politics and new items on the agenda. Multilateralism defined in the context of diplomatic negotiation is the coming together of 3 or more interested parties in order to discuss and find solutions to issues and/or interests that are common to or impact all three parties and may impact the wider political landscape. The fact of having 3 or more parties having all interests represented in negotiations is often cited, particularly by liberals as one of the reasons multilateral negotiations are extremely valuable. Liberals would also argue that if the parties with interests are excluded from any talks, apart from the fact that they feel isolated and left out … meaning they could scupper progress at a later date, the agenda and hence topics of discussion would not be representative. Paradoxically this could be interpreted as the same side of the coin of a realist critique that parties always pursue their national interests and that is always where the balance would flow too.

The argument of total involvement was the logic behind the six party talks in an attempt to get North Korea to acquiesce to abandon its attempts to acquire Nuclear weapons. This is despite what has been a clear desire expressed by the regime of Kim Jong-il to have bilateral talks with particularly the US but also China. The involvement of all the other parties i.e. Russia, Japan, South Korea has more than anything produced what is a complex structure that needs complex logistical planning and schedule. The complexity of interest represented make the process slower and also provides too many exit points during negotiations. Similar to global contemporary issues like Climate Change, the rise of terrorism, Human and Drug Trafficking Crime, Nuclear proliferation indirectly even if not directly impacts majority of states in the world today. Involving all parties in multilateral issues as we face today is not primarily driven by the value that might add, but more so to mitigate the backlash not doing it would cause. Liberals of course would cite this as a benefit.

The proliferation of various non-state actors like NGO’s in the last two decades of the contemporary world for example in an area such as climate change explains the recent difficulties faced by parties at the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change. One of the main issues on the agenda was that of financing particularly how the richer countries who were blamed for causing carbon emissions would provide funding etc to the developing world, primarily Africa, Latin America and Asia who are perceived to be most impacted by this.This sticking point of financial support proved to be the lowest ebb of the negotiations and the ‘G77’ nations even threatened both boycott and walk out at various points of the negotiations. It is arguable that concurrently held bilateral and trilateral negotiations would have been able to take advantage of ‘windows of opportunity’ to achieve quick wins which are essential to continue to build diplomatic momentum.

Referring back to the case of DPRK and the NPT, economic sanctions are viewed as ineffective if not applied multilaterally by all to have the maximum coercive influence. What liberals and institutionalists might however fail to highlight is the power imbalance that realists look at both economically and militarily. Economically the reality is that China proves the primary nation that can influence the DPRK in terms of sanctions. DPRK depends on China for its food and energy needs and unilateral sanctions would remain most effective when applied by China. This was evident when China cut off gas supplies to North Korea for 3 days in a thinly veiled threat using the excuse of ‘technical problems’.

The reasons it’s valuable to involve countries like Japan and Russia, though lies in interests is also because of ensuring legitimacy of any outcome of negotiations. The proliferation of NGO’s has also shown a growing norm of the power of Global Civil Society in influencing agenda outcomes and multilateral institutions have no choice but to include them in negotiation. Jessica Matthews writing and illustrating the ‘Power Shift’ in International Contemporary politics demonstrates how NGO’s of all kinds have moved from negotiating in the corridors to having a place at the negotiating table. Globalization has played a dominant role in the need to act multilaterally in diplomacy. The democratization of finance, information and technology means that states can no longer ignore actors and they have to do it very quickly.

The CNN effect means that even when traditional bilateral diplomacy, with its quick wins, easier structure, focus on interests has already produced a desired effect, this still has to placed in a multilateral framework, not because of added value but because Global Civil Society demands it.

In conclusion therefore, multilateralism does have added value in bringing legitimacy, ensuring all interests are considered and being in line with the norm of Global solutions for Global problems. This value is overstated because it serves more to deal as a response to globalization and proliferation of new issues and acts – resolving its problems. Bilateral negotiations on the other hand tend to be future focused and by ensuring transparency and adequate reporting to other parties that may have limited interests in the issues being discussed, mitigate potential multilateral pitfalls like isolation, exit options and legitimacy needs.

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