Does multilateralism still matter?


For those of us who believe that international institutions are a good idea in principle, these ought to be quite exciting times. After all, we’re about to host the G20 and there will be an even bigger shindig next week in Beijing when the leaders of APEC gather for their annual gab fest. What’s not to like, as they say?

Actually, quite a lot. It’s not simply the eye-watering expense and the all-too-evident gap between the global elites and the hoi polloi whose lives are disrupted by their presence that’s rather troubling. It’s the fact that no matter how many or how grand the participants may be, they don’t actually seem to achieve much.

APEC is undoubtedly the principal exhibit in support of this thesis. It is difficult to think of a single significant outcome that can be attributed to APEC – other than alleviating Beijing’s smog for a couple of days – or one area in which its absence would have made a decisive difference to the course of international affairs. More importantly perhaps, it appears to have made no difference to the lives of those who ultimately fund it.

At least people have generally heard of the G20 now. It can even claim to have saved the world – or the bit of the world that operates out of Wall Street and the City of London, at least. For better or worse it needed saving. If there’s one idea we’ve all taken on board it is that some parts of the global financial architecture are not only too big to fail, but they’ll take us all down with them if they do.

In such perilous circumstances, some might think what we need is a set of effective institutions to regulate a potentially dangerous economic system that has been directly associated with all of the world’s great financial catastrophes. Dream on. The reality is that competing national perspectives, fuelled by powerful vested interests, make agreement and effective international cooperation all but impossible – except at moments of existential crisis, of course.

Part of the problem is scale: size matters. The UN is the quintessential example of an institution with too many members and too little capacity to act – always supposing its members could agree on what they wanted it to do. Even the much smaller Security Council only rarely agrees on any common agenda; even less often on effective action.

As one of the world’s few remaining admirers of the European Union, it pains me to have to admit that an over-burdened and unfulfilled agenda is a problem for the EU, too. The EU expanded too rapidly. Its political ambitions drove its economic agenda with disastrous results – not least in undermining its authority as an effective democratic institution.

It is questionable whether any international institution can address the pivotal problems of our era. Few people understand the byzantine, murderous politics of Middle East, for example, much less have a plan for sorting them out and encouraging or even imposing stability. The chances of ever reaching a meaningful agreement on climate change mitigation look equally remote, especially in the truncated timeframe available.

Wake-up calls don’t get much louder or more unambiguous than the latest IPCC report, but it is unlikely to change much if recent history is anything to go by. One part of society didn’t need reminding; another didn’t care, didn’t believe, or didn’t want to comprise a business model that continues to deliver short-term profitability.

An interesting question now is not simply whether international institutions can actually be effective, but what is driving them. The basic idea is that institutions are established to answer some need or address some unmet collective action problem. Plainly this is not happening at present in all the key areas of international life, be it economic, political or environmental.

The danger now is that policymakers will increasingly recognise this and use international institutions not to try and solve collective problems, but to appease powerful domestic audiences. Democracies are especially prone to this, of course.

The lack of leadership from the US on key economic and environmental issues is testimony to the constraints facing policymakers there. But we are hardly immune, as the Abbott government’s climate change policies remind us. Not only are its policies framed within an exclusively national policy calculus, but the government is keen to see that the environment doesn’t make it on to the G20’s agenda.

This is actually not such a bad idea, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The G20 is already looking over-burdened. It might be better advised to stick to Plan A and actually do something about fragile global finance, rather than being distracted by the passing policy preferences of its most powerful members. This is not to say there isn’t a desperate need for an effective institution to promote cooperation on climate change, but a dedicated organisation with an exclusive focus looks essential.

Perhaps the best hope, therefore, is fewer institutions with more modest, targeted and achievable agendas. For better or worse, there is little hope of solving big international problems without them.

Become a friend of The Conversation with a tax-deductible contribution today.