The Obama administration’s hybrid multilateralism

The Obama administration’s hybrid multilateralism

The Palestine debate is still consuming most of the oxygen at the UN’s annual General Assembly meetings. But the Obama administration is also helping to unveil two new initiatives that signal a flexible approach to multilateralism. The first is the so-called Open Government Partnership, which President Obama formally kicked off yesterday together with Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and a handful of other national leaders (snazzy video here).

The Open Government Partnership is a new multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. In the spirit of multi-stakeholder collaboration, OGP is overseen by a steering committee of governments and civil society organizations….To become a member of OGP, participating countries must embrace a high-level Open Government Declaration; deliver a country action plan developed with public consultation; and commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward.

Eight countries (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States) have committed to the program and another thirty have been deemed eligible to participate. Interestingly, Russia is currently eligible while China is not. Those countries that participate conduct regular self-assessments and are reviewed as well by outside observers. 

Tomorrow, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will help launch–with Turkey–the second major initiative: a Global Counterterrorism Forum. Like the open government initiative, the counterrorism forum is an attempt to bring together certain key players outside the formal UN structures.

The GCTF is a new multilateral counterterrorism body with 30 founding members (29 countries plus the EU) from around the world and is a major initiative within the Administration’s broader effort to build the international architecture for dealing with 21st century terrorism. It will provide a unique platform for senior counterterrorism policymakers and experts from around the world to work together to identify urgent needs, devise solutions and mobilize resources for addressing key counterterrorism challenges. With its primary focus on capacity building in relevant areas, the GCTF aims to increase the number of countries capable of dealing with the terrorist threats within their borders and regions.

The forum is designed to provide a space for senior counterterrorism practitioners to exchange information and expertise. The initiative enters a field that has become understandably crowded at the multilateral level. The UN Security Council already has its own counterterrorism committee, which formed after the 9/11 attacks, and an executive directorate that supports its work. (The UN’s structure has received decidedly mixed reviews.) Outside the UN, the G-8 countries formed their own Counter-Terrorism Action Group (CTAG) in July 2003, although much of the energy has gone out of that initiative. CTAG will continue to exist, but all indications are that the new forum will effectively displace it.

The administration is at pains to emphasize that while these programs are not part of the formal UN structure, they do not represent attempts to circumvent the organization. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has endorsed the Open Government Partnership, and I’ve been told that UN officials were consulted regularly on the counterterrorism initiative.

But both programs clearly reflect an understanding that operating within the formal UN context has severe limitations and that plenty of useful multilateralism can take place outside. The Bush administration tried its own form of ad hoc multilateralism–the Proliferation Security Initiative–which, after a bumpy start, has received good marks from some keen observers. A desire to conduct multilateralism outside the hyper-politicized and byzantine UN structure, it turns out, is bipartisan.