Since the creation of the UN, over the past 75 years different modalities of multilateral agreements between states have contributed to shaping a system of agreements, institutions and mechanisms to underpin global security and stability in different areas and to promote a set of rules and principles. These rules and principles have responded primarily to Western values and narratives associated with the international liberal system that was established after World War II and consolidated under U.S. hegemony after the end of the Cold War.
The global multilateral system is currently undergoing a crisis characterized by significant deficits in terms of legitimacy, transparency, accountability and equitable representation, and is seriously affected by the reconfiguration of global power relations and by limitations in its ability to address and respond to new global and regional risks and threats.
This crisis is due both to the shortcomings and constraints of multilateral mechanisms and to a reconfiguration of global power relations with the emergence of new players as a result of the shift of the economic dynamic from the North Atlantic to the Asian-Pacific regions, and in particular with the economic rise and geopolitical projection of China.
In this context, multilateralism has been affected by unilateral and protectionist positions and policies of a few major international players and by nationalist and populist resurgence in different countries. In recent years, with the emergence of nationalist and populist movements, and particularly under US President Donald Trump’s administration, multilateralism has experienced a crisis of legitimacy and trust. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating at all levels, but it has mainly affected international cooperation and the ability to provide goods on a global scale through multilateral agreements and mechanisms. In this sense, the collective ability to come up with a sanitary solution to the global pandemic has been limited, both in terms of traditional multilateralism among states and of a complex multilateralism that includes non-state players.
The narrative of multilateralism as a useful instrument for improving the well-being of all nations and for providing global or regional public goods through collective action among states, in its predominantly Western version, is also undergoing a crisis. Consequently, a spectrum of narratives –as expressions of the geostrategic interests of various actors and elites– that diverge in their perceptions, conceptions and proposals around multilateralism, has arised.
At the global level, two predominant narratives have developed in relation to the UN and its associated agencies and instruments as multilateral mechanisms that shape the architecture of global governance. One of them proposes the continuity and preservation of these mechanisms despite the response and the existing questions from various sectors, while considering that the relevance of these mechanisms and the associated rules to promote global stability has not waned or disappeared. The other proposes a reform and redesign of multilateral mechanisms at the global level to overcome existing institutional shortcomings and to meet the challenges of a more complex, diversified and multidimensional global environment.
Both narratives –of global scope– express, broadly and with intermediate nuances, the political visions of the main actors of the current international system, strongly conditioned by the configuration of a combination of a multipolar order -based on the existence and emergence of old and new international protagonists- and of a bipolar order based on strategic competition between China and the United States. It is paradoxical that, in this context, many of the criticisms and appeals aimed at introducing changes in the multilateral system, as in the case of China, Russia or the BRICS group, emphasize in their rhetoric the defense of this system, but call for a series of reforms of it, with emphasis on the principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention and, in some cases such as China's, the development of parallel multilateral mechanisms. Similarly, the two narratives seem to establish, with intermediate nuances, a watershed between the liberal visions of nations that have traditionally acted as "rule makers" and the predominantly illiberal or revisionist views of new actors aspiring to move from their role of "rule takers" to "rule makers".
The G20 summit in Italy at the end of June seems to accentuate this division. While Western countries and their allies attended the summit in person promoting –especially because of the Biden administration's proactive attitude– a revival of multilateralism in its traditional form, China and Russia have been absent and China has participated virtually appealing to the need to defend a multilateralism with new characteristics.
The case of China and its vision of a "multilateralism with Chinese characteristics" –as some analysts call it–, within the framework of its increasingly assertive participation in the international system and in multilateral bodies, is illustrative of a narrative that accepts the existing multilateral system –in particular, the UN and its mechanisms and agencies–, but demands reforms to it according to its own geostrategic values and interests.
While conventional and binary wisdom condenses these struggles into strategic bipolarity between the United States and China as the driving force of the transition to a new global order, the world is tending more towards a geopolitical reconfiguration that includes diverse actors and that is characterized not only by multipolarity and the multiplication of protagonists –state and non-state–, but also by a complex multidimensionality at multiple levels that Amitav Acharya describes as a multiplex world. On this diverse and fractured geopolitical basis -which in turn implies complex multipolarity-, it becomes problematic to build (or impose) consensus and to develop multilateral mechanisms and agreements at the global level, with common rules and with stable and transparent principles.
The divergences in the narratives around the global multilateral system, however, find their own hold at the regional (and, eventually, interregional) level, with the development of a "multilateralism of friends" based on alliances, associations and coalitions of "like-minded" states with related values and interests.
In this context, Biden's recent European tour with the culmination of his meeting with Putin, and the aspiration to reactivate global multilateralism under the leadership of the United States, clashes with its own limitations and forces the development of regional or transversal multilateralisms between partners and allies that share common interests and values but diverge from those of other leading actors in the international system. In the case of the U.S. strategy, the restoration of alliances and ties within the framework of the G-7, NATO or the Quad in the Indo-Pacific have failed to lay the groundwork for a global narrative of reviving multilateralism, in the same way as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, ASEAN or BRICS only express a multilateralism of another kind with other interests and values –eventually illiberal–, or the Silk Road a more unilateral multilateralism, but with Chinese characteristics.
Informal groups such as the G7 or the G20 that were able to respond to previous crises are now showing little impact on global governance mechanisms in general and on the necessary reforms of the UN system in particular, beyond their appeals to combat and curb the COVID-19 pandemic. The rise and decline of these informal groups is linked to the development of neoliberal globalization, questioned firstly by the global South and later by emerging countries that aspire to be included in the mechanisms of global governance. As one analyst points out, "it does not seem that neither the G7 nor the G20 have sufficient political leadership to continue setting an agenda that is becoming less and less multilateral (at the global level) and that is more fragmented”.
On the other hand, regions are particularly prone to the development of multilateral schemes that respond to a "multilateralism of friends", beyond their validation by the UN and the frequent balances that they must develop internally and externally in order not to be absorbed by the bilateral dispute, as is the case of ASEAN. This experience of multilateralism that tries to maintain its neutrality and be a gravitating factor at the regional level, despite its heterogeneity, its close economic interdependence with China and its relationship with the United States as a guarantor of its security –as well as, with its own nuances, the case of the European Union- fully demonstrates the possibilities and limits of the development of a regional multilateralism that simultaneously assumes the challenges and tensions between a multipolar world –which involves greater risks and uncertainties– and a bipolar world –which may imply greater guarantees of stability at the cost of greater dependence on the conditions of asymmetry existing with greater powers. And it shows that regional options can be, with their ups and downs, viable options in the face of the crisis of global multilateralism and the larger narrative options, conditioned, nevertheless, on the scope of their "strategic autonomy" by the interdependence imposed by the current global dynamics.
In short, the current crisis of multilateralism cuts through the international system as a whole at the global, regional or cross-cutting levels, particularly under the impact of divergent narratives associated with both long-term national strategies and short-term reactive responses that different informal groups or different regional mechanisms fail to articulate in building a consensus around global governance, despite threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the impact of climate change.
Andrés Serbín is an international analyst and President of the Regional Coordinator of Economic and Social Research (CRIES).