Confronting problems multilaterally can be less than effective

By Eric Lyman in Rome

There are problems in the world that cannot be confronted with any success by a single state, no matter how powerful. Big environmental issues and world hunger and poverty immediately come to mind, along with many regional peacekeeping needs and most economic and trade-related problems.

Enter multilateralism, the consensus-driven process that democratically pulls countries together for collective problem solving, usually under the auspices of an umbrella organisation such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organisation.

Multilateralism has been hailed as the natural evolution from the bipolar world order that marked the period after World War II – with influence split between the camps of US and the Soviet Union – and the unipolar order based on the power and influence of the US since the end of the Cold War. But as the need for it has increased, the multilateral process has been showing its many flaws.

This analysis will not delve into military multilateralism, which has been dominated in recent years by the problem-filled US-led war in Iraq. And it acknowledges that it is difficult to accurately assess the effectiveness of any multilateral process, mostly because they are so complex and because all of the effects may not be known for years. But from the current perspective, there is little doubt that the process at worst seems ineffective and at best is frustratingly slow.

In December of last year, for example, nearly 11,000 participants gathered in Bali, Indonesia for a UN-sponsored round of climate change talks designed to start a two-year process of constructing an international agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions to go into effect after the Kyoto Protocol expires.

Hundreds of specialised meetings and strategy sessions were held over a 13-day span. Environmental groups protested outside the conference facility, lobby groups lobbied inside and the media reported nearly every move until a passion-filled final plenary session featuring delegates from more than 180 countries stretched hours beyond the scheduled end of the meeting before it finally closed.

The result? Delegates agreed that the deadline for the final version of the post-Kyoto document should indeed be the end of 2009.

(Two smaller sets of UN-sponsored multilateral meetings since then – one in Bangkok, a second in Bonn, Germany – have for the most part produced desperate calls from delegates and interested parties for the process to move along faster, and little else.)

Fast-forward from December to early June, to the massive food security summit at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) headquarters in Rome. Again, the world was represented: 43 heads of state or government were among the more than 5,000 delegates and observers gathered from 181 countries and more than 60 non-governmental groups.

Among the main planks of the meeting was the hot topic of biofuels. An FAO study released just before the meetings opined that biofuels were partially responsible for rising food prices that pushed millions in the developing world toward hunger. Biofuel advocates argued, meanwhile, that the process of producing biofuel had a limited impact on food prices and that it helped reduce the use of petroleum and curb emissions of greenhouse gases.

After three days of high-level negotiations, the decision related to biofuels said that more study was needed.

Bogged down

“The multilateral process can be very slow and with very high costs,” Carlo Lottieri, the director of political theory at the Milan think tank Instituto Bruno Leoni, told ISN Security Watch.

“The weakened position of the US in the world – for political reasons, because of the weak currency, whatever the combination of factors – means that this kind of process is needed. But because it is missing a main actor that cannot or is unwilling to play a leadership role, it is easy for it to get bogged down. This is the situation we are in.”

The main argument in favor of confronting problems in a multilateral context is the democratic nature of the process. Microstates stand alongside super powers, and they all have the same right to be heard, the same vote. No country is excluded for its politics – even Zimbabwe‘s Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Admadinejad from Iran, for example, were included in the Rome food security summit – or for its religion, wealth or history. But those same characteristics can make the process unwieldy.

“The biggest disadvantage to multilateralism is that in the process every country has the right to have their opinions taken into account, and they usually take advantage of it,” Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate change official, told ISN Security Watch on the sidelines of the recent climate change talks in Bonn. “Needless to say, it can slow things down a lot.”

But de Boer – a strong advocate of the multilateral process – said those problems were a necessary part of the process.

“The other side of the same coin, of course, is that in this process, when priorities are set, they cannot be dominated by the major players,” he said. “Take the issue of the transfer of environmentally friendly technologies from rich countries to poor [one of the secondary issues at the Bonn meetings]. It’s very important. But if you had the richest 10 or 20 economies in a room discussing all this alone, it would never come up.”

Still the process frustrates those who are close to it.

“Sometimes you watch this process and it seems like progress comes at around the same pace as continental drift,” Pat Finnegan, founder of the Irish environmental lobby group Grian, told ISN Security watch in December in Bali. “They argue for hours over whether the punctuation mark should be a comma or a semi-colon, or whether the word in question will be ‘could’ or ‘may.'”

And those arguments come at an enormous cost, both in terms of time and money.

Multilateral processes were not always so slow moving. Those involved in the climate change process in the 1990s, for example, recall a period of great activity between meetings in 1995 in Berlin – where it was decided a protocol to limit greenhouse gas emission should be drafted – and the 1997 summit in Japan, where the Kyoto document was finalised.

The clock on the equivalent two-year period for a post-Kyoto agreement started ticking in December, and it is clear that the same kind of urgency is lacking now. That is true, not only in the context of climate change, but also in other multilateral contexts, whether related to food security or international trade agreements.

What is not clear is whether the change in effectiveness is due to the likelihood that world priorities are focused elsewhere (such as the battle against religious extremism, or slow economic growth) or whether this state is simply a characteristic of the post bipolar and post unipolar world. But if these processes continue to ineffectively spin their wheels, it will beg a new question that is even harder to answer: if multilateralism is already running its course, what system will emerge from the post-multilateral world?