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Crisis of multilateralism

By Ioan Voicu - posted Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) is, indeed, an epochal, theatrical event, but, as recommended by Henry Kissinger, it must not be treated with “the vocabulary of calamity.”

In reality, Brexit – a hybrid term to denote the British exit from the EU – covers the most recent and striking manifestation of a more profound phenomenon which can be conventionally called a serious crisis of multilateralism and decline of diplomacy at the regional and global levels. It is also a crisis to be interpreted in light of the defective process of implementing multilateral treaties governing cooperation in a great variety of fields.

The Brexit shock can be fully understood only if it is put in a relevant diplomatic context characterized by an increased polarity and fragmentation in world politics. In Europe, multilateralism used to be seen at the origin as a way of life, because it is the means by which European states have tried, with a visible degree of success, to harmonize togetherness and diversity, proving by deeds that multilateralism has to be an essential component of international life.


Diplomacy on the defensive

Today, we witness a different situation both at the regional and global levels. In an important address to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, under the title “From Turmoil to Peace,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the highest representatives of 193 member states that diplomacy is on the defensive. That situation is due primarily to a declining confidence in the merits of multilateralism, a dramatic reality which has a negative impact on the very essence of multilateral cooperation.

There is no doubt that multilateral diplomacy is more instrumental than bilateral one, as it is legitimately expected  to function on the basis of universal values and principles. It embodies rules for greater and closer coordination and provides a higher effectiveness to international relations. From this perspective, the EU and ASEAN used to be normally considered and described as successful examples of multilateral diplomacy in action.

Over the years the structure of world politics has been transformed beyond all recognition and it generated a different political environment for all countries. Yet, multilateralism continues to be a remarkable process of evolution, as it involves today not only states, but also many non-state actors, such as non-governmental organizations, chambers of commerce and industry, regional bodies, provincial governments, local government organizations and professional experts.

Under such new circumstances, multilateral diplomacy is practically covering the world community of nations as a whole and remains a perennial institution characterized both by continuity and change, as well as by waves of improvement and deterioration. International life demonstrates that diplomacy is able to assume greater or lesser importance and an increasing or decreasing role with the progress or regress of globalization, while its scope may further widen and deepen, as globalization simultaneously generates new challenges and conflicting situations.

Globalization has a direct and unavoidable impact on the very nature and agenda of diplomacy. Under the permanent pressure of the irreversible process of globalization, in order to remain viable and productive, diplomacy must fortify its role in world affairs and should avoid and combat an increasing amateurism, present today in many confrontational cases which, because of their complexity, demand action guided by genuine professionalism in order to reach sustainable solutions. This indisputable fact of life is even more detrimental today, when the multilateral approach to regional and global issues is increasingly being challenged by some countries as a result of a deplorable lack of trust among major international actors. A well-known example: The UN Security Council is in accordance with the Charter of the world organization the strongest multilateral body in the world, but its deadlock over Syria shows in a startling way its diminishing ability to function properly, as demanded by its extremely responsible mandate.


On the economic arena, the crisis of the Bretton Woods institutions and of the World Trade Organization which could not finalize over decades negotiations on the Doha Development Agenda is another troubling chapter of the same crisis of multilateralism affecting the majority of international institutions.

Principles underestimated

Historically, multilateralism helped to define a set of fundamental principles and norms for the conduct of international relations, including territorial integrity, equality of states and non-intervention. The present international order could not have been established without efforts deployed under the banner of multilateralism. Effective multilateralism demonstrated that it is a vital factor to prevent instability and conflict.

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This article was first published on Inside Asean.

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About the Author

Dr Ioan Voicu is a Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok

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