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A century of multilateralism: Will it last another 100?


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Tuesday, 14 January 2020 00:00


 As the next 100 years of multilateralism unfolds, the UN would remain pivotal, unless a third World War were to erupt, and states would look for an alternate form of collaboration

Wilsonian idealism gave birth to multilateralism a century ago as nation states emerged from the ravages of the Great War, which came to be identified as the First World War in ensuing decades. The depth of the devastation, the incomparable loss of lives, the gravity of the disaster and the determination to avoid a recurrence of such atrocities led to countries considering positively the words of the then American President Woodrow Wilson. 

Addressing the Congress of the United States of America on 8 January 1918, Wilson highlighted 14 salient aspects for the achievement and preservation of peace and stability in international interactions, chiefly in Europe and America, but also with the world. It was the 14th point that had the greatest impact, leading to it being brought to fruition through the League of Nations that was established on 10 January 1920 – thus creating the platform for multilateralism and multilateral engagement as we know it today. 

Wilson’s 14th point stated that “a general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” 

The world had hitherto not experienced such an association albeit in the form of colonialism, wherein nation states cohabitated owing to their being invaded and conquered. Under such an arrangement weaker states were under duress from stronger ones who exercised influence, changed domestic dynamics, introduced drastically new concepts, which were for the better and the worse, and also plundered natural resources in massive amounts. This gathering of states under a single banner or common identity was forged through force, and not through the voluntary amalgamation of states. 

Wilson’s idea of a gathering was unique as states had hitherto understood the nuances of bilateral engagement through which they sought to enhance ties with specific counterparts either in their own neighbourhood, or further afield in other regions of the globe. This was to be a foray into a democratic form of engagement, understood today to be the closest we have come to global governance. 

Better world cooperation

With the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles, which had been conducted from 28 June 1919 to 21 January 1920, the League of Nations ushered in a new system of diplomacy which called for and relied upon better world cooperation. The end of the First World War in 1918 and the two years to follow were filled with enthusiasm and determination to never return to conflict but more importantly to explore a whole new world of cooperation on a completely different proportion, that had not been witnessed thus far. This system of openness, public channels and summits, was to ensure Wilson’s “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike”.

The coming together of states proved the resolute nature of the leadership of these states to commit to change, new direction and more importantly lay claim to a new era. During the course of its existence from 1920 to 1946, the League was to be administered by three Secretaries General, namely, Sir James Eric Drummond of the United Kingdom from 1920 to 1933, Joseph Avenol of France from 1933 to 1940, and Ireland’s Sean Lester from 1940 to 1946. Whilst it is often argued that League failed to avert the outbreak of another World War, it is relevant to reflect upon the successes of the League that proved that joint decision making and collective defence were the need of the hour. 

In 1921, the League was asked to intervene and resolve the issue of ownership between Finland and Sweden given that the islands were equidistant between the two countries. The decision that the islands should remain with Finland but that no weapons should be kept there remains in force to date. 

In that same year, when violence broke out in Upper Silesia over a referendum result that had seen some 700,000 voting to be a part of Weimar Germany and 500 000 to be with Poland, the League decided to spilt Upper Silesia, with their decision found to be acceptable to the people of the area.

Similar adjudications on the port of Memel which was declared an international zone, the response to the humanitarian crisis in Turkey in 1923, and the resolution of the border dispute between Greece and Bulgaria, highlighted that the League wasn’t doomed from the beginning but was able to maintain peace and stability in its initial years. 

The multilateral arena was a new one, and one that depended on the goodwill of all stakeholders for its success to manifest on the world stage. Regrettably its failures, and specifically the inability to thwart Adolf Hitler and his draconian policies of Nazism, led to the outbreak of yet another devastating conflict from 1930 to 1945, and the subsequent death of the League, but the re-engagement in conflict, the death and destruction it brought and the fear it instilled in people directly affected, led to the creation of the United Nations Organisation in 1945. 

Multilateral engagement

The continuation of multilateral engagement in the reformed version of the United Nations proved that the world was not ready to abandon that which had started in 1920 and was instead the affirmation of an overwhelming belief that collective action was required for the maintenance of peace and stability in the world. 

The coining of the name ‘United Nations’ by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when the term was first used in the Declaration of 1st January 1942, whilst the war was still raging, saw the pledge of 26 nations to continue the fight against the Axis Powers. The stance that was taken by the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, South Africa and Yugoslavia would pave the way for states to pledge “to employ their full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact and its adherents with which such government(s) is (were) at war.”

Secondly their commitment “to cooperate with the Governments signatory hereto and not to make a separate armistice or peace with the enemies” indicated the collective nature of decision making and the ability for states to act cohesively when required. The deliberations of the representatives of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States at Dumbarton Oaks, from August-October 1944 led to representatives of 50 countries meeting in San Francisco in 1945 at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the United Nations Charter. 

United Nations 

With the United Nations officially coming into existence on 24 October 1945, multilateralism triumphed once more as faith was reposited in collective action over unilateral or bilateral measures alone. 

The ensuing decades of the 20th century were to prove some of the hardest given the impact of the Cold War which broke out so early in its existence. The ability of the UN to manoeuver through the intrinsic confrontation it generated, and the contribution made through a plethora of initiatives, international agencies and organisations, has seen the creation of a better world, but certainly one that is damaged. Reflection generates discourse on how much worse the situation could have been if bodies such as the UN had not been in existence. 

The United Nations was bolstered further through the formation of regional groupings. Whilst regionalism is a scaled down version of what the UN and its affiliated bodies aspire to achieve through multilateralism, it is a platform from which UN principles and policies are reaffirmed in the enhancement of the overarching goodwill that the UN has been able to garner. 

Whilst in 1968 Joseph Nye argued regionalism to be a “limited number of states linked by a geographical relationship and by a degree of mutual interdependence”, the emphasis on the geographic element of regions changed in the 21st century with Peter Katzenstein claiming that regions are politically made” and Frederik Söderbaum observing that they comprise a “body of ideas, values and concrete objectives that are aimed at creating, maintaining or modifying the provision of security and wealth, peace and development.”

The direct outcome of multilateral engagement has been certainty, which Timo Behr and Juha Jokela argue is “one global public good that is in high demand in the evolving international environment and especially for the always jittery financial markets”. Yet that which provides solace can also endanger it. 

The deep degree of integration experienced in the European Union led to the grouping identified as the most integrated of bodies having moved to a supranational level of cooperation, but today it contends with calls to leave the Union, loosen the arrangement and even rethink the Euro. Yet on the other hand countries such as Turkey, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Serbia are eager to enter the Union, owing to their seeing potential through joint action over their solitary existence. 

Attracting states to the concept of multilateralism has been the power, presence and potential they see through collective action. Groupings such as BRICS, which came out of a Goldman Sachs report and BIMSTEC, focus primarily of economic cooperation, while the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) places religion at the centre of collaboration. The Organisation Internationale De La Francophonie (OIF), emphasises the importance of common linguistics and culture as the main amalgamating factor.  

Similarly other groupings which promote multilateralism such as the Commonwealth, have seen Zimbabwe, The Gambia and The Maldives leaving the body, while others such as Rwanda which does not share a colonial past with the United Kingdom, joined and would even be hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2020. 

Asian geographical perspective 

From an Asian geographical perspective, the founding of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985 bolstered multilateral cooperation. A decade later, in 1996 China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan formed the Shanghai Five which eventually included Uzbekistan in 2001 and came to be known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). With India and Pakistan becoming gaining membership in 2017 the grouping represents almost half of humanity, includes two permanent Security Council member states, and enabled a new multipolar dimension in international relations. 

In 2020, as the United Nations turns 75, it remains the largest international grouping which has grown in size and potential, evolved through varying global developments, endured internal issues including the perennial debate over the composition of the Security Council, expenditure, efficiency, among others, and yet remained relevant at the most challenging of times. This is one of its greatest victories. 

From the rigours of the Cold War, and the emergence of numerous states on the international stage with the ending of colonialism, to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the unipolar world that emerged thereafter, as well as having to contend with the rapacious manner in which humanity is consuming resources, developing technology and attempting to surge ahead, the UN continues to face daunting challenges but still ensures that sanity prevails.

UN will remain pivotal

As the next 100 years of multilateralism unfolds, the UN would remain pivotal, unless a third World War were to erupt, and states would look for an alternate form of collaboration. While nationalism remains a formidable challenge in the short to medium term, it is manner in which the UN counters concerns and formulates strategies that would ensure its preservation and the sustenance of the multilateral mode of operation. 

The Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals were timely initiatives that set lofty targets that may be criticised for their abstract or sometimes unattainable nature, but of importance is the pursuit of such goals and progress to some degree down those roads, which would have not been accomplished if such targets had not been set in the first place. 

The prevalence of non-state actors in the global arena remains a daunting challenge for multilateralism which is said to opt to operate among state actors. However given that the media, multinational corporations, terrorist groups, and individuals cross national boundaries and function within regional and international structures, their predominance will continue to evolve in varied forms. States and their global and regional groupings would need to contend with sharing the international stage, and combining efforts to cooperate rather than attempting to compete, with the acceptable while also enhancing cooperation to counter that which is illegal and detrimental. 

Artificial Intelligence, if harnessed appropriately could be of immense value, but it could also function in a devastating manner, bringing life as we know it to an end and creating a new era, which rethinks the very basics of existence and transforms, while creating new norms. Engagement among states would thus need to be rethought. 

Power, presence and potential remain the crucial, magnetic aspects of multilateralism, which have aided its preservation to date. Given the inherent nature of states, their leaders and humanity, to want more, and explore avenues of generating more, the aforementioned aspects of multilateralism will continue to grow, portending well for multilateralism as a whole. Of concern however is that that which is sought, notably power, presence and potential, could in turn generate desires for domination, leading to confrontation and conflict over the next century. 


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