Stephen M. Walt

On “messy multilateralism”

Writing earlier this week in the Financial Times, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass made "The Case for Messy Multilateralism."  Haass is almost always sensible, and this piece was too.  His basic argument is that many global issues are increasingly complex, and trying to negotiate big global treaties or pacts (like Kyoto or the ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Writing earlier this week in the Financial Times, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass made "The Case for Messy Multilateralism."  Haass is almost always sensible, and this piece was too.  His basic argument is that many global issues are increasingly complex, and trying to negotiate big global treaties or pacts (like Kyoto or the Doha Round) are probably beyond anyone’s capacity, due to the enormous number of players involved and their widely diverging interests and capacities.  Better to go with more limited agreements (i.e. involving the most powerful or engaged stakeholders), or various "coalitions of the willing."  With luck, this flexible and opportunistic approach will produce a gradual evolution in the world’s institutional structure (e.g., from G8 to G20, etc.), and allow us to make progress on issues that might otherwise defy solution.  You know, the best is the enemy of the good, and all that.

Of course, FP readers will recognize that this idea bears a lot of resemblance to Moisés Naím’s earlier argument for "minilateralism," and my minor reservations about that concept apply here too.   But one passage in Haass’ piece leapt out at me, where he says:

"In many cases it will prove impossible to negotiate international accords that will be approved by national parliaments. Instead, governments would sign up to implementing, as best they can, a series of measures consistent with agreed-upon international norms."

I haven’t thought about this notion for very long, but at first read this sounds like a retreat from our usual ideas about democratic accountability, or at least the form that it normally takes here in the United States (i.e., where the Senate has to approve treaties).  In essence, Haass seems to be saying that executives need to make an end-run around constitutional limits, by negotiating informal or tacit measures that don’t need to be ratified by legislatures.  I can see the appeal of that idea, I suppose, but despite my concerns about excessive congressional oversight (read: gridlock), I’m at least as worried by the damage that unconstrained executives can do.

Bottom line: this proposal ought to be read in conjunction with James Fallows’ Atlantic cover story (which I’m still digesting) on the need for institutional reform here at home.  I’ve been thinking similar thoughts myself, and I’ll share them when they’ve gelled a bit more.  The Burkean conservative in me says: "don’t go there," but I have occasional Jacobin moments too.

P.S.  I’ll be traveling over the next week, so posting will be limited by my schedule and by internet availability.  I’m counting on all of you to keep things quiet, ok?

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

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