Multilateralism – Dead or alive?

On Friday, more than 70 nations reaffirmed their commitment to international cooperation and the United Nations. Yet, actions and policies suggest a different attitude.

The privilege of making a statement in the most powerful body of the United Nations – the Security Council – is usually reserved to its fifteen member states. That is why Friday’s open debate, in which any UN country could participate, attracted speeches from almost 80 nations. But it was not just the exclusive venue which explained the enormous interest in the debate. It was the agenda which promised a heated discussion: multilateralism.

Multilateralism generally refers to the resolution of conflicts via concerted action and international dialogue. As opposed to unilateralism, it implies a commitment to shared interests, mutual respect and global institutions, most notably the UN, but not only. Recent examples such as the climate deal COP21 or the forthcoming Global Compact on Migration are believed to reflect multilateralism at its best: codified worldwide agreements that tackle transnational challenges.

Accordingly, the vast majority of Friday’s discussants underlined their steadfast support for the UN, its agencies and its priorities. There was some criticism on the apparent underrepresentation of African states and developing countries in the Security Council, but by and large the debate turned out to be harmonious, concordant, almost repetitive.

Yet, our world is neither harmonious nor concordant, and definitely not repetitive.

In fact, there appears to be a mismatch between Friday’s statements and events on the ground. Obvious disparities have been provoked by the US, such as via the withdrawal from UNESCO or the trade war with China. Other examples are much closer to Europe: The use of toxic substances in the UK by a foreign power, the stalling of trade liberalisation, or even Italy’s open conflict with the European Commission.

International discord naturally is hard to avoid. As one (North-American) representative put it during the debate, “multilateralism is work in progress”. That it certainly true. It just must not serve as an excuse to delay dialogue and cooperation.

Exactly because “true” multilateralism is impossible to achieve, it needs nations’ greatest commitment. With looming humanitarian catastrophes in Yemen and Syria or increasing consequences of climate change, there is plenty of opportunity (and necessity) for states around the world to demonstrate their goodwill as well as support of UN initiatives. After all, the UN is only as effective as its member states want it to be.

Therefore, if multilateralism ought to be upheld, Friday’s promising statements must translate into concrete actions.

A recording of the entire debate can be found on the UN’s WebTV Portal.

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