Stephen M. Walt

On minilateralism

Moises Naim offers a characteristically outside-the-box solution to the gridlock that is currently stifling global problem-solving. Instead of pursuing the Holy Grail of multilateralism and giving all states an equal voice in global deliberations, he suggests we "forget about trying to get the planet’s nearly 200 countries to agree." Instead, he writes, "we should bring ...

Moises Naim offers a characteristically outside-the-box solution to the gridlock that is currently stifling global problem-solving. Instead of pursuing the Holy Grail of multilateralism and giving all states an equal voice in global deliberations, he suggests we "forget about trying to get the planet’s nearly 200 countries to agree." Instead, he writes, "we should bring to the table the smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem." He dubs this new approach "minilateralism."

Need I point out that this is a decidedly realist approach? Realists have always emphasized the role of power and argued that the agenda of world politics — including the prospects for meaningful cooperation — depends mostly on the actions of the major powers. If they are on board, progress is at least possible; if a sufficient number are opposed, prospects for cooperative solutions are dim.  This reality does not mean that minor states have no influence at all; nor does it imply that the great powers can simply dictate to the rest. It simply reminds us that powerful states exert more influence on average than weaker states do, and obtaining their assent is a necessary and in some cases sufficient condition for meaningful progress. You know the line: "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

And that’s why "minilateralism" will work in some contexts but not in others. In some issue-areas, agreement among the major powers can lead to cooperative arrangements that weak states must either accept if they wish to obtain the benefits of participation. As Lloyd Gruber argued in his excellent book Ruling the World: Power Politics and the Rise of Supranational Institutions, strong states are sometimes able to force weaker states to accept institutional arrangements that were less-than-optimal from the weaker actors’ point of view, because being in a sub-optimal arrangement was still preferable to being entirely excluded. If the G20 established new rules governing global trade and finance, for example, most states might be inclined to go along with these rules even if they disagreed with certain aspects and resented being excluded from the negotiating process, because remaining outside the framework would leave them even worse off.

Unfortunately, "minilateralism" won’t do much for us when the most important powers disagree, and that list includes some pretty significant issues. The main obstacle to a global agreement on climate change isn’t getting Palau, Thailand, Luxembourg or Ecuador on board; the real problem is that the interests of some of the world’s largest economies (and biggest emitters of greenhouse gases) are sharply at odds. To take the most obvious example, China and India both want some sort of exclusion that will enable them to continue to develop economically, but the U.S. Senate isn’t going to approve a climate deal that imposes stiff limits on the developed world but not on them. On this issue (and others), going "minilateral" won’t solve the problem.

Implicit in Moises’s proposal is another important piece of advice: states really ought to stop making lofty feel-good pledges that they don’t intend to keep. The failure of ambitious multilateral agreements like the Millennium Declaration or the Kyoto Protocol is regrettable in part because worthy goals aren’t met, but also because repeated failures of this sort undermine confidence in all global institutions. Adopting less ambitious targets and actually achieving them will do a lot more for humanity than symbolic declarations that soon fall by the wayside. In short, Moises is reminding us to be realistic, and who am I to disagree?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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