The Death of Multilateralism


Disclaimer: This article solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

For many years, the fate of multilateralism has been questionable. But Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine has stopped it dead in its tracks. Multilateralism is void in the face of nuclear weapons and the breakdown of international diplomacy.

With the intention of fostering cooperation in the aftermath of World War Two, multilateralism was driven by America’s soft power strategy.  It was the gateway through which modern diplomacy was born, and world powers united. For the past few decades, multilateral organisations like the United Nations (UN), World Trade Organisation (WTO), and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been at the forefront of global development. With the help of technology, multilateralism has fostered cooperation on a scale previously unimaginable – allowing us to better respond to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN’s’ 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) demonstrate the pragmatism of multilateralism. The goals aim to create a vision for international peace and prosperity for both people and the planet. Incorporating national governments, multinational corporations and NGOs, the SGDs are a prime example of what ‘good’ multilateralism can achieve.

Whether the success of multilateralism is the cause or the effect of globalisation is down to interpretation, but there is no doubt that our world in 2022 is more interconnected than any other time in human history.

In recent years, the success of such institutions is, however, uncertain. Since its peak, with initiatives like the eurozone, multilateralism has been in slow decline. Many Western nations have experienced an all-encompassing rise in nationalism, which has posed a grave risk to the effectiveness of international institutions and the cooperative outcomes that they achieve.

The inauguration of President Donald Trump to America’s highest political office in 2017 was a significant turning-point in the story of multilateralism. Trump’s aversion to previous US foreign policy, and his renewed emphasis on national politics, was embodied in his infamous campaign slogan:  “Make America great again.” This new brand of nationalism rejected, for the first time since its inception, any concept of globalism – multilateralism included. It was a message echoed across much of the developed world, painted on placards and uttered in speeches by prominent political figures, like France’s far-right Marine Le Pen, and even current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his commitment to delivering the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

This rise in nationalism has been accompanied by several key failings on the part of international institutions, such as the WTO’s inability to conclude the Doha Development Round talks; or the UN’s ineptitude in solving the global refugee crisis. Despite the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, an approximate 30-40 million refugees continue to be externally displaced, many of whom – such as Palestinians – have lived outside of their homelands for decades. The effectiveness of this convention, and the later 1967 Protocol, seems somewhat non-existent in the face of this humanitarian crisis.

Many international institutions also fail to accurately reflect the modern world. Instead of incorporating some of the largest and most powerful countries in the 21st century – like Germany, India and Japan – the permanent members of the UN Security Council continue to reflect the power-structures of the 1945, post-war world. Their veto adds further controversy to the arrangement, begging the question of why the role of permanent members is even necessary.  Why can’t all positions on the council be rotated and non-permanent, just like membership in other international institutions?

For years these issues have plagued the fate of multilateralism. But Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has gone a step further – stopping multilateralism dead in its tracks.

The aggression of Russia has placed peace-making and diplomacy on the backburner. The Russian President, Vladamir Putin, has set a new precedent of war-making. Instead of the traditional paths of diplomacy which have defined the post-war period, Putin has shown how force, and the threat of nuclear war, can achieve the same ends and means, if not more, than traditional diplomatic relations. It is no longer a question of morals and rights, but a question of wants and physical force. This is a dangerous precedent for global security.

The repercussions of Russia’s actions are equally damaging to the stability of multilateralism. The inability of NATO members to respond to the invasion of Ukraine for fear of nuclear war is endangering many hundreds of thousands of lives – resembling the quickly forgotten stalemates of the Cold War. Even in light of allegations that the invasion is a form of “comprehensive genocide,” the hands of many world leaders are tied by both fear of retaliation and the Western world’s nasty addiction to Russian oil and gas.

Putin is nothing more than a bully. But it is clear that these tactics can damage the multilateral system, breaking it at its foundations of civil diplomacy and negotiation. You cannot negotiate with a bully, and such is the dilemma that world leaders face.

Removing Russia from the table is, however, not the answer. Suggestions that Russia might be excluded from the G20,  an international institution connecting the world’s main developed and developing economies, can only further damage the system. This would weaken any remaining channels of communication, and the potential for cooperation. Russia was previously excluded from the G8, now the G7, following its 2014 annexation of Crimea, but the effect of this was minimal – it neither hampered Russia’s position as a major global power, nor its ability to impede future international laws. 

The multilateral system may be near breaking point, but if world leaders play their cards right such weakness may be turned into a strength – for it is in times of great instability that unity may be found.Peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have appeared bumpy thus far, and so the fate of multilateralism hangs by a thread. A key question remains for those lining the corridors of power: is this the death of multilateralism, or simply a new chapter in an ever-changing world?

By Conor Walsh,

A first year reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). I’m fascinated by global inequality and humanitarian crises, with particular interest in the Calais migrant crisis and the affect of the British arms trade on war in Yemen.

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