Global Ethics Corner: Is Multilateralism Dead?

Feb 25, 2013

For years, large global organizations, like the G-20 or the UN, have failed to cooperate on major international challenges, like climate change. Is "mini-lateralism," in which a few major world powers work together to tackle these problems, a viable and ethical alternative?

Global problems need global solutions. Just ask members of the G-20 or the United Nations. Both groups were founded on the assumption that multilateral cooperation is key to solving major international challenges.

There's just one problem. Multilateralism isn't working. The last global agreement that included specific commitments and concrete benchmarks was the Millennium Development Goals. That was passed in the year 2000. Since then, multilateral summits like Doha and Davos have amounted to lots of promises, but little action. Which is why a growing number of analysts are questioning the merits of multilateralism and advocating something called "mini-lateralism."

Proponents of "mini-laterialism" say multilateral negotiations have grown too inclusive. They warn that new actors like the BRICS and NGOs like Oxfam have made the search for common ground on contentious global issues impossible. More players mean more conflicts and ultimately, less consensus. So "mini-lateralists" recommend restricting the number of negotiators to those countries actually capable of enacting policy change. In other words, major world powers.

It’s that last point that has outraged critics. They say "mini-laterialism" is unethical and anti-democratic. Take the issue of climate change. Multilateral negotiations currently include small countries like the Maldives. As an island state, the Maldives will be one of the chief beneficiaries—or losers—of any climate agreement. But since it doesn't have much geostrategic power, minilateralists would exclude the Maldives from negotiations. Critics say that's unjust.

Proponents of "mini-laterialism" make a different ethical argument, however. When it comes to tackling global challenges, they say we have to sacrifice fairness for the greater good. After all, an undemocratic deal on a subject as important as climate change is better than no deal at all.

As analysts debate the failings of current international negotiations, what do you think? Is multilateralism in peril? Does mini-lateralism offer an ethical alternative?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Moisés Naím, "The G20 is a Sad Sign of Our Uncooperative World," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 15, 2013

Moisés Naím, "Minilateralism: The magic number to get real international action," Foreign Policy, July/August 2009

Peter Lloyd "Multilaterialims in Crisis," ARTNet Working Paper Series, No. 114/June 2012

"Multilateralism in trade is 'dead': French industry minister," Reuters, January 8, 2013

Gordon Brown, "Let's Stick Together," The New York Times, November 30, 2012

Mike Callaghan, "On 'minilateralism': Why we need the G20," The Interpreter, February 18, 2013

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:
Downing Street
United Nations Photo [also for picture 18]
US Mission Geneva
European External Action Service
World Economic Forum [also for picture 7]
Blog do Planalto
Christian Guthier
U.S. Army
Presidency Maldives [also for picture 13]
Lauri Myllyvirta / Greenpeace Finland
Michael Grimes
R. B. Reed
World Trade Organization

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