Stopping the Great Splintering: A 5-Step Plan to Revive Multilateralism

(c) Willi Heidelbach, Paxabay

I miss 2015. It was a landmark year. In the space of 12 short months governments signed a slew of groundbreaking agreements: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

At the time, many of us interpreted these agreements as milestones towards an inevitable outcome: a community of nations that finally would be able to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems.

How wrong we were. Since 2015, people around the world have voted for populist leaders, nativist platforms or decisions that explicitly renounce a collective approach to common challenges: the UK’s choice to leave the EU (“Brexit”), Trump’s election as President of the US, and the elections of Duterte in the Philippines, Salvini in Italy, and Bolsonaro in Brazil. Far-right populist parties are now in power, or sharing power, in seven EU nations.

A defining characteristic of populist politics, on both the right and the left, is the depiction of multilateralism as driven by global elites at the expense of the “common man.” Countries under the influence of populist messages are retreating from the global stage and defining their politics in terms of opposition to foreigners and a distrust of multilateral organizations – the UN, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the EU in particular.

Countries have pulled out of critical accords like the Paris Agreement and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Jair Bolsonaro threatened to withdraw Brazil from the UN. Donald Trump is openly hostile to the Organization. For example, in May 2019 –to the delight of the US National Rifle Association – Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the UN’s 2013 arms control treaty that aims to stem the illegal trade in conventional weapons.

A new publication on SDGs and foreign policy, prepared by researchers at the German thinktank adelphi, highlights the phenomenon described above. I call this the ‘Great Splintering’ – the fracturing of political will for collective action on the global stage. The fragile ties binding countries together are fraying, with serious impacts: divisive politics, trade wars, disintegrating anti-proliferation treaties, an explosion of hate speech, conflict and division. While the dissolution of the EU or the UN may be unlikely, these trends risk undermining those institutions to the extent that they become ineffective and irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the world’s most pressing cross-border challenges – international terrorism, climate change, species loss, financial contagion, pandemics, growing inequality – have not gone away. Indeed, most are getting worse. Many of the SDGs are off-track, and we risk losing momentum on the implementation of what is perhaps our most important blueprint for a better world.

Is this a passing phase, or an enduring pivot in world politics? Is a new iron curtain falling between us? Is there anything we can do to revive multilateralism?

Here are five steps we could take:

Step 1: Admit You Have a Problem

As any alcoholic knows, the first step to recovery is acknowledging a problem. Those who believe in the ideals of multilateralism assume that the value of working together to tackle common problems is self-evident. This is reinforced as we often work, travel and talk among small circles of the “converted.”

But it’s not so clear to everyone else. Take for example, the fact that in many countries being labelled a “globalist” has—amazingly—become an insult. Many of us live this fiction that the arc of history bends inevitably towards greater cooperation across borders. But the direction of this arc is not automatic, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Step 2: Meet People Where They Are

People working in multilateral organisations tend to respond to criticism of multilateralism by retreating to defensive speaking points about accepted mandates, institutional history and abstract achievements (reports published, conferences hosted, etc.).

This is the wrong strategy. We need to meet people where they are: people experience global challenges locally, even if the only effective response to many of those challenges is collective action on the part of many countries. We need to move beyond preaching to the converted and understand how we can better frame multilateral action in a way that makes sense to people’s real-life experiences.

Step 3: Rebuild Trust in Multilateral Institutions

Part of the necessary reframing is dealing with real problems in the multilateral system, which is suffering from a deficit of popular trust – some of it deserved, much of it not. Reform of these global organizations should be a matter of priority. It is more important than ever that they be more inclusive and totally transparent, reduce bureaucratic friction, and walk their own talk. Foreign policy professionals, as the recent publication from the German thinktank adelphi points out, can and should play a critical role in ensuring that happens.

Step 4: Focus on Results

Multilateralism is based on the idea that common problems are best solved by collective action that generates benefits for every country. The multilateral system needs to find concrete, communicable ways to demonstrate that this is true: that global action delivers meaningful change for people around the world, and thus directly serves the interests of individual nations. This means fewer self-important conferences and more on-the-ground projects. It means fewer “generals” and more “foot soldiers.” It requires a relentless focus on results that change people’s lives.

Step 5: Rinse and Repeat

The current multilateral system was built from the ashes of two World Wars with a combined death toll of more than a 100 million people. This searing experience led people to create an entirely new architecture for cooperation to ensure that such devastation was never again unleashed on the world. That architecture is in graver danger than many of us realize.

The fabric of international cooperation, painstakingly woven over the past 70 years, is beginning to unravel. In 1918 and again in 1945, war-traumatized countries said, “Never again.” It is incumbent on all of us to redouble our efforts to ensure that dialogue trumps division, and that cooperation beats conflict.

This article first appeared in IISD’s SDG news: