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The End of Multilateralism

Not that it ever really got started.

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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Just before Christmas, the U.N. Security Council adopted an arms embargo on Eritrea, which has been supplying weapons to Islamic insurgents in nearby Somalia. In one sense, the strictly worded measure is a symbol of the international community’s determination to stop tragic conflicts in the Horn of Africa. The resolution, however, is years late and could end up having little effect. A similar U.N. embargo on Somalia has not prevented weapons from being freely traded in Mogadishu. The concept of global collective security, unfortunately, has not worked well, either last century or this one.

It is no surprise that the United Nations is not meeting important challenges, but even once-successful global institutions are losing effectiveness. The International Monetary Fund, for instance, completely failed to handle—or even anticipate—the global economic downturn. The G-7 and G-8 are now thought to be irrelevant, and the G-20, considered a replacement for these two groupings, has little to show for three grand gatherings in 2008 and 2009. The World Trade Organization has been unable to prevent a resurgence of protectionism, and its Doha Round negotiations, now more than eight years old, have stalled. These negotiations could be the first major trade talks to fail since the 1930s. Last month’s Copenhagen climate change summit, the 15th installment of the once-productive Conference of the Parties talks, flopped even though it was hailed as “the most important meeting in the history of the world.” Weak nuclear rogues like Syria are now getting the better of the once-mighty International Atomic Energy Agency. North Korea has already outsmarted the watchdog organization by covertly building plutonium-core weapons, and Iran is developing an atomic warhead with impunity. 

President Obama says the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone. Maybe that’s true, but sooner or later he has to realize he’s not going to get the help of the world’s other powers. The “international community” is not coming together to solve common problems.


This is not how we thought things would work out two decades ago. In the early 1990s, optimistic Western analysts predicted that, with the Soviet Union gone, the world would enter a generally harmonious era. As Francis Fukuyama famously argued, events would continue to occur, but “the evolution of human societies through different forms of government had culminated in modern liberal democracy and market-oriented capitalism.”

Because democracies did not fight one another, the reasoning went, the international system would become more manageable. Nations would generally tend to agree with one another on the big issues—or at least manage to get along. In this type of world, multilateralism was not only considered possible, it was thought to be necessary and even desirable.

Multilateralism, by its emphasis on consensual action, implicitly delegitimized America’s leading role in defending core Western values. So did the concept of globalization. Trade, the theory went, would lead to open -economies, open economies to prosperity, prosperity to representative governance, and representative governance to peace. In this extraordinarily benign environment, the impersonal forces of history, relentlessly grinding forward, would finish off Communists, autocrats, and bad actors of all stripes.

As we now know, the opposite occurred. When the political barriers to trade fell, globalization indeed kicked into high gear, creating unprecedented amounts of wealth and liquidity. But global prosperity also strengthened hardline states, notably China and Russia, giving them the means to resist democratization, pursue aggressive foreign policies, and even bend the international system more to their liking. The Chinese, in particular, are displaying a newfound “sense of triumphalism” (as a senior U.S. official put it to the Washington Post last week) and are acting as if their economic success means they don’t have to listen to anybody. Developing democracies, such as India and Brazil, also gained prominence and a platform to pursue policies that differed from those of the more advanced nations. 

The result is a world with many different voices, one where consensus, or even agreement, on important issues is not possible. Simply put, among the 195 nations of the world there is no common view of the troubling events of the day and no accepted approach to handling them. 

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