Crisis of multilateralism

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.

At the same time, both at the regional and global levels, multilateral institutions have been and continue to be under increasing pressure to act beyond some of their own fundamental principles and norms. One of the most critical examples of the deficiencies of multilateralism relates to  the issue of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as clearly illustrated by the lack of progress in the multilateral negotiating machinery on disarmament.

On the other hand, at the regional level, it may be true that the European vision about integration elaborated over decades has been developing a sclerotic character, but this precarious  stage  is also due to an  ongoing crisis of  European leadership, which is only  a partial  chapter of a larger crisis of inspirational leadership at the universal level, as  made evident  by frequent  inadequate political and practical  reactions to  unexpected challenges.

A new kind of political  leadership is urgently needed in order to make  genuine  persuasion a priority tool in regional and global negotiations, in particular when the process of  bargaining  becomes perplexing  and difficult in dealing with  some highly  controversial matters on which achieving consensus seems to be a distant  dream.  As pointed out by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his recent remarks at Tel Aviv University, in Tel Aviv: “Leaders need to move beyond repeating the same phrases and expecting different results.” This is an imperative prerequisite for reaching win-win situations in regional and global negotiations.

A more enlightened, transformational  leadership is also necessary to reinvigorate the political dialogue between big powers as a precondition for successful negotiations at the level of G-7 and G-20 without which it is not realistic to anticipate positive results at the UN or at the World Trade Organization, to limit our examples to just two  universal institutions.

Returning to the regional context, it should be emphasized that Brexit is not simply a political divorce from EU with no effect whatsoever on immigration policy envisaged from a multilateral point of view.

Immigration was one of the problems invoked by the partisans of Brexit. The acceptance and fair treatment of migrant workers is, indeed, a challenge of paramount importance. There is no quick or easy way out of the daily difficulties of migrant workers. Their dramatic condition on all continents offers a highly visible example of collateral damage generated by current political and economic crises. Is there any general solution for the improvement of their situation? A legal answer not mentioned by mass media is provided by the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, adopted by the UN in 1990 and entered into force in 2003.

States party to this Convention — whose adoption was an example of successful multilateralism — have the legal obligation to ensure that all migrant workers and members of their families within their territory are treated fairly and without distinction for sex, race, color, language, religion or conviction, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, nationality, age, economic position, property, marital status, birth or other status. Unfortunately, the Convention has been ratified by only 48 countries from 193 UN member states. From ASEAN only Indonesia and the Philippines are parties to this Convention, while European countries are brilliantly absent from the list of high contracting parties.

Yet, it is not a Utopian expectation to assert that universal ratification and implementation in good faith of this multilateral legal instrument would have a positive impact on the situation of migrant workers worldwide. Why?


In accordance with one of the fundamental rules of the law of treaties, expressed in Latin as “Pacta sunt servanda”, every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith. Moreover, a party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty. Consequently, further political and diplomatic efforts for the universalisation of the relevant Convention on migrant workers are urgently needed.


The future of values


In Asia, people are left to contemplate what lessons Brexit could teach about the future of ASEAN. It should be recognized that the 10 ASEAN members have more difficulties than the EU to keep their group intact. ASEAN has no single visa system or a single currency and no parliamentary body to legislate on issues of common interest.

However, like all 193 UN members, ASEAN countries are linked by the fundamental values proclaimed in the UN Millennium Declaration of September 8, 2000. These values are: freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature and shared responsibility. They are essential for the international relations during the 21st Century, but they are also in crisis, as clearly recognized by leaders of international organizations. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan rightly emphasized that “globalization has brought us closer together in the sense that we are all affected by each other’s actions, but not in the sense that we all share the benefits and the burdens. Instead, we have allowed it to drive us further apart, increasing the disparities in wealth and power both between societies and within them. This makes a mockery of universal values.”

In this regard, it is appropriate to remind the topicality of an assertion formulated by Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian independence movement and pioneer of the philosophy and strategy of non-violence. He said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

Destiny of countries depends on many complex and unpredictable political and economic conditions, while multilateral institutions which have been created to develop their cooperation in various fields are not able to keep pace with new urgent challenges. Institutions are reforming too slowly and too timidly. Their real capacity to help their members to safely navigate through serious geopolitical intricacies they are facing now has considerably diminished, and no signals of immediate improvements are visible.

There are numerous multilateral institutions, but only a few are able to work well. Therefore, updating the visions of multilateralism for the 21st century is an imperative task. It is true that the fundamental principles and values of multilateralism, including those governing the UN system, are under permanent scrutiny. The performance and effectiveness of multilateral institutions are critically assessed, as are their decision-making procedures which cannot ignore or underestimate the fundamental principles and values.


A significant test


The fundamental principles of multilateralism, in spite of  all its current limitations, have to be re-validated in order to help the community of nations in “exiting from the disorder.” A significant test has been offered  in this regards by Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), hosted by Mongolia on 15-16 July 2016.

Fifty-one Heads of State and Government from Europe and Asia, as well as high officials of the EU and ASEAN were invited to attend the 11th  ASEM Summit to discuss crucial issues of great interest  for the two continents and to adopt  the Ulaanbaatar Declaration which  will sum up the work accomplished in the last 20 years of ASEM, the present stage and the future goals and trends of ASEM. (It should be reminded that the ASEM dialogue process was inaugurated in 1996 in Bangkok, Thailand).

On the occasion of the 11th ASEM Summit in Ulaanbaatar the Asia-Europe People’s Forum was  held under the theme “Building New Solidarities: Working for Inclusive, Just, and Equal Alternatives in Asia and Europe.” This Forum outlined ways and means of realizing the vision of the peoples of Asia and Europe for development and progress.

Despite formidable challenges of a global nature, there is reasonable hope that Asia-Europe dialogue will lead to positive transformations. In both Asia and Europe, people need to reach out across continents on a more dynamic basis. They have to cultivate mutual understanding and beyond global vulnerabilities and perplexities of the present they have to work collectively to establish a more peaceful and prosperous world and further strengthen peace-oriented values. Effective multilateralism can be instrumental in promoting these noble objectives by helping states and peoples to address the new challenges confronting them with creative solutions that can positively respond to the pressing demands of a rapidly changing world order.


*Dr. Ioan Voicu is a visiting professor at Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand.

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