This week's blog is the first of two parts. It reviews the stages in the emerging international system and the responsiveness of the international community to the challenges facing the world. It addresses the evolution of multilateralism and will be followed up next week with insights on the contemporary challenges and actions of multilateralism.
The international community begins its annual deliberations at the United Nations General Assembly next week, September 22 - 29, 2020. Its theme is The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action. The discussions will be the focus of several landmark events. Chief among which are:
• High Level deliberations to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations.
•High-Level Summit on Biodiversity and the 24th Anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women.
• High-level meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total
Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
It is not surprising that this year’s UN General Assembly will be concerned with taking decisive actions to effectively deal with the coronavirus, which is inflicting tremendous harm on economies and societies, globally. In this 75th anniversary year, a multilateral approach to COVID-19 and the other issues comport with the main aspirational goals of the UN to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations and promote social progress, better living standards and human rights. In this COVID era, The UN like many other organizations has had to shift from in-person to virtual operations. The results from this new formula for international diplomacy are unpredictable.
Evolution of Multilateralism
The arrangements that define multilateralism are generally seen as a collection of sovereign states taking policy actions to coordinate their relations based on a common set of principles, often in line with the main goals of the UN. In this regard, winning the war against the COVID- 19 pandemic will challenge the state of multilateralism and the collective leadership it needs to do so.
At the end of World War II, the focus of attention was on the reconstruction of Western European economies devastated by war. This involved extensive policy dialogue between USA and Western Europe. These deliberations and follow-up actions offered a period of great optimism for the Western countries in building a power bloc through a range of institutional settings. They included the construction of the Marshall Plan in 1947 which helped the Western European countries to combat poverty, disease and malnutrition. This plan was instrumental in the establishment of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions and later, several treaties, agreements and other important institutions. On the other hand, the USSR and many Eastern European countries were pursuing a different path to reconstruction and development. It has led to two different strands in the emergence of the “cold war” revolving around the ideological divergence of thinking between a centrally planned and a market economy.
Historians have pointed out that the cold war experience existed since the 1930s, when it was used to describe the fraught relationships among European countries. In 1945, after the United States used the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, George Orwell introduced the term and predicted decades of nuclear anxiety in international relations. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/02/09/in-1945-george-orwell-coined-the-term-cold-war-and-predicted-decades-of-nuclear-anxiety/
The Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1947-1991 led the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear disaster. It fizzled in August 1991 with the collapse of the USSR and Eastern European economies. The post-cold war experience has demonstrated that most successful economies are "mixed" relying on smart technologies and carefully scrutinized policy actions, leadership and public-private partnerships.
The Peace Dividend and multilateralism
The concept of the peace dividend emerged at the end of the Cold War. Many Western nations began making significant cuts in military spending. In the early 1990s, various US administrations initiated programmes involving moving talent and technologies from building military capability to economic development. The relative power of the US , the rise of Japan as one of the World's largest creditors and the economically united Europe as the world's largest market were prerequisites to the dawn of globalization and a justification for an upsurge in multilateralism. This development was referred to by Chatham House (Royal Institute of International affairs) as an investment in international stability by creating the socio-economic conditions of peace through political and economic interdependence . https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/field/field_document/20150619InvestingInStabilityBaileyFordBrownBradley.pdf
Decolonization and Development
Simultaneously, what emerged, was an upsurge in demand from the developing world for transformative change. During the period of postwar reconstruction, many people living in the developing countries were seeking their national independence from the colonial rulers. Many suffered from the worse forms of subjugation under colonialism. This was the period when colonial markets were extremely profitable with little attention given to human welfare. It was a trigger for developing countries seeking their independence at a time when the UK , other European countries and North America were industrializing, and the colonial arrangements were beginning to become less profitable.
Various circumstances evolved and different outcomes emerged in the developing world. Many Latin America countries participated in the League of Nations, an international diplomatic group developed after WW1 because they attained their independence from Spain much earlier than most African and Caribbean Countries. Notwithstanding, their status the US government in the 1930s made provisions for Latin American countries to participate in the New Deal and other arrangements to counter the communist influences in the region. On the other hand, before India attained independence, the European colonial powers used a number of measures to represent the colonies (the current developing countries) in multilateral institutions through various colonial arrangements.
Independence of India in 1947 signaled the advent of many new independent states in the international arena, revolutionizing the multilateral system and shifting the international system toward a development agenda . This orientation over time, influenced new ways of looking at a range of issues including security matters.
In 1994 the UN Human Development Report introduced the concept of human security, which equates security with people rather than territories and with development rather than arms. The creative will of the developing countries was now on display at the UN. Recognizing these trends, the industrialized countries developed new ways to subjugate the aspirations of the developing countries. This was best illustrated during the 1980s with the emergence of the international debt crisis and the significant roles that were given to the Bretton Woods Institutions. In contrast, to the experience of the support given to the European countries in the post war reconstruction, developing countries were treated under the familiar model of risk management where “one size fit all”, where agreements were operationalized, and countries were assumed to be consuming and often importing more than they were producing. As a result, policies were constructed that sought to constrain consumption, imports and significant cuts in public expenditures. These policies in many instances led to a number of economic and social pathologies in developing countries.
Globalization and Development
By the last quarter of the twentieth century, globalization ushered in the gradual spread of trade, the growing presence of international corporations operating as internationally integrated production systems, the expansion and mobility of capital along with increasing restrictions on labor mobility and mass real-time access to information. As a result, many developing countries faced consequences of globalization due to the erosion of their autonomy and sovereignty. This was compounded by an increase in the importance of non-state actors such as transnational corporations, private financial institutions and NGOs. With the sheer multitude of actors and the large sums of money which many of them command, the possibility for individual Governments to formulate and implement policies effectively — whether regarding exchange rates, interest rates, or wages — declined. Worse yet, many developing countries, were excluded from the globalization process. These countries are mainly exporters of primary commodities which have become less and less important in world trade.
Conclusion: Whither the future prospects of Multilateralism
In a world of ever greater globalization and inequality, developing countries risk increasing marginalization if due attention is not paid to their fragility. The UN and multilateralism can certainly play an important role in asserting itself to address the growing vulnerability of many developing countries. These conditions played a leading role in the evolution of the Millennium Development Goals (2015) and are again doing so in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Whither the future prospects of multilateralism will be explored in Part II of this Blog.
Development Economist, Senior Advisor UN Development Agenda,
former Director Sustainable Development, CARICOM
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.