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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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Even though the conditions that gave rise to multilateralism no longer exist, the concept has not only survived but attained the status almost of a geopolitical religion. In this environment, solutions are legitimate only if they are multilateral. Yet because multilateral solutions are becoming increasingly difficult to reach, problems fester. Most of the time, the best the international community can manage are lowest common denominator fixes on matters marginal to global security. It was thus utterly predictable that the Security Council chose last month to deal with Eritrea instead of, say, the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

The odds of the U.N. stopping the Iranian nuclear weapons program, which were never high to begin with, are getting vanishingly small. Why? China, which has supplanted Russia as Tehran’s primary backer, can veto any Security Council measure aimed at the mullahs. And in mid-October, Premier Wen Jiabao announced that China was going to strengthen its already robust commercial ties with Iran, thereby giving the theocracy additional means to resist international pressure. Last week China firmly blocked a fourth set of U.N. sanctions on Iran, setting back American efforts to rally the international community.

Despite China’s siding with Tehran’s atomic ayatollahs, the United States has not abandoned efforts to structure a U.N. solution. The prospect of enlisting Beijing, however, remains bleak. There are many reasons for China’s obstructionism, but the most important factor complicating ties between the two giants is the worldwide economic downturn.

Last year, the global economy contracted by 2.2 percent according to a U.N. estimate, the first drop since the Second World War. Forecasters expect an uptick this year of 2.4 percent, but it may be temporary. The principal factor creating current growth is government stimulus programs in the world’s largest economies. Beijing, for instance, pumped a massive $1.1 trillion into its $4.6 trillion economy last year, and Obama’s Washington is employing the same tactic, albeit on a smaller scale.

American and Chinese leaders know that government spending is only a short-term solution. Long-term, both want to export their way out of economic peril, putting them on a collision course. As Fred Bergsten and Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute have noted, Obama’s top economic adviser, Larry Summers, has warned China that it “can no longer behave like China because the U.S. intends to behave much more like China.” So the generally complementary economic relationship between the two nations is now a thing of the past. And global markets are not big enough for even one China-sized exporter at the moment. Indeed, Chinese exports have declined every month since November 2008. 

In a deteriorating economic environment, it was almost inevitable that the United States and China would end up bickering; they are now engaged in a series of trade disputes over tires, steel pipe, chicken, automobiles, automobile parts, paper, and nylon, among other items. And there is growing unease in Washington over China’s predatory currency practices.

The geopolitical consequence of trade friction is that the Chinese will be even less amenable to helping Washington contain Tehran, especially because Beijing places importance on its economic relations with Iran’s theocracy. The possibility of a U.N.-brokered solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, in other words, is becoming more remote.

The growing troubles between the United States and China are a leading indicator of problems that will become evident elsewhere. World trade appears to have contracted last year by almost 10 percent. If this early estimate is accurate, the falloff would be the largest decline in 80 years. In a period of slumping output and faltering trade, economies around the world will continue to “de-globalize,” in other words, to delink from each other. In these circumstances, national leaders will likely see less of a need to cooperate with each other on the great security issues of the day. Contracting trade could become the new motor for geopolitical friction.

Multilateralism, which didn’t work in a prosperous period, is even less likely to be effective in the stagnant (or declining) years ahead. The risk is that the pursuit of multilateral solutions will make the world more dangerous because critical time will be squandered pursuing approaches with little or no hope of succeeding. North Korea, for instance, used the time gained during the Beijing-sponsored six-party talks—they began in 2003 and are now stalled—to test its first nuclear device, and it could use additional time to add to its arsenal. Iran is now perfecting its nuclear technology while the Obama administration, held back by China, is unable to craft a solution in the Security Council.

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