Roll up your pants, time to wade back into “minilateralism”…
I watched with detached amusement as a number of other bloggers on the FP website rolled out reactions to Moisés Naím’s "minilateralism" article that were almost as predictable as press conferences at which prominent U.S. politicians appeal for forgiveness from their wives. The comments fell into the usual buckets in which you typically find reflexive ...
I watched with detached amusement as a number of other bloggers on the FP website rolled out reactions to Moisés Naím's "minilateralism" article that were almost as predictable as press conferences at which prominent U.S. politicians appeal for forgiveness from their wives.
I watched with detached amusement as a number of other bloggers on the FP website rolled out reactions to Moisés Naím’s "minilateralism" article that were almost as predictable as press conferences at which prominent U.S. politicians appeal for forgiveness from their wives.
The comments fell into the usual buckets in which you typically find reflexive critiques. There was the "this won’t always work" critique, the "this approach won’t work if it isn’t accompanied with good ideas and good leadership" critique and the "I will buy into just as much of this as I can use to support the world view I am selling" critique. Such critiques are as bullet-proof as they are hackneyed. It’s hard to argue with the notion that if you do something stupidly or extend the idea farther than intended that you will end up disappointed.
Then I saw the usually thoughtful Peter Feaver’s piece, "When Smart People Say Stupid Things." I’m just insecure enough to be pleased to be referred to as smart even when I am being insulted two words later. But as I read the article, I thought, wait, maybe I’m a narcissist. Maybe the title wasn’t a reference to me. Maybe it was a warning to Peter’s readers about what he was about to do.
Because he then went on to take issue with one element of my "sensible" discussion of Moisés’s article, the fact that I seem to have missed that the Bush administration was a leading practitioner of "minilateralism" through its trail-blazing work with "coalitions of the willing." He also took issue with what he suggested was my "caricature of Bush unilateralism."
Let me take these two points in reverse order. First, he gives me too much credit. How could I ever possibly top the Bush administration’s own caricature of unilateralism which effectively discredited a tool that has been a valued option for every American president since way back in the days before think tanks and arcane policy debates? Which brings me neatly to the next point, which relates to Peter’s apparent misunderstanding of the value of minilateralism.
Bush "minilateralism" was just a fig leaf for unilateralism, "coalitions of the willing" simply described the small group of countries we managed to pull together to help advance U.S. policy to create the illusion of something truly multilateral and thus ok in the eyes of the international community. But of course, these coalitions were shallow, half-hearted and had a half-life roughly akin to that of a basket of raspberries. (Which last, mold-free, in my experience here in Washington, almost until you get them from the store into your car.)
This is not the minilateralism that as I see as the core strength of Moisés’s idea. His minilateralism is about coalitions of the influential rather than the comparatively weak. It is about finding a practical path to effective multilateralism rather than merely creating a politically expedient illusion of multilateralism.
The reality is that the discussion about minilateralism is timely precisely because we understand what does not work. We know it is very difficult to get broad agreement from every single nation on every important issue. We know that one big nation bullying others into a simulated alliance is not the answer. And we also know that there is a history of agreements among smaller groups of influentials leading to broader acceptance of ideas worldwide.
Indeed, for example, on trade, sound thinkers like former USTR Charlene Barshefsky have long argued that continuing to pursue big multilateral rounds like Doha is likely to be an exercise in futility and that we would do better to focus on sectoral agreements in which we bring together the small groups of countries that really represent the vast amount of world trade in the product or service in question. Her logical point is that much more focused, constructive exchanges can be had among these key players, deals can be cut, progress can be made.
In brief, all Moisés is arguing for is finding a more practical path to effective global governance. He would be among the first to note that misapplied, the idea isn’t a helpful one. It’s not a panacea. But in enough key circumstances to make a real difference in how we manage the current problems confronting the world, starting with seeking agreement among the biggest players…especially if they represent a broad cross-section of the dominant international views on the subject in question…a minilateralist approach is a natural first step and would be a reasonable one for policymakers such as those in the United States to consider embracing.
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