Crisis of Multilateralism? Interview with Auriane Guibaud, Franck Petiteville & Frédéric Ramel

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What challenges does multilateralism face today? Auriane Guilbaud, Franck Petiteville, and Frédéric Ramel have recently coedited a volume entitled Crisis of Multilateralism? Challenges and Resilience as part of the Sciences Po series in International Relations and Political Economy. The book questions the idea of a “crisis” of multilateral cooperation and international organisations. It accounts for the pressures on and power shifts in multilateralism in recent years and illustrates the resilience of multilateralism and lessons learned from the WTO, UN Women, Secretariats of International Organisations (IOs), and global environmental governance. The three coeditors answer our questions.

Would you mind defining, in a few words, what multilateralism is in terms of its emergence and implications?
Multilateralism results from a process of cooperation between several States (three at the minimum). By extension, multilateralism encompasses universal forms of cooperation embodied by a network of international organisations such as the United Nations (and its multiple agencies), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Health Organization (WHO), and so on. As a diplomatic collective practice, multilateralism pre-existed international organisations (mostly in the form of peace conferences that took place in European history after each major war from 1648 to 1945).

Book cover Crisis of multilateralismSince 1945, multilateralism has dramatically expanded with the process of “state proliferation” and the inclusion of non-state actors (NGOs, transnational corporations, expert groups, etc.). Also, multilateralism now deals not only with the classic dilemma of war and peace, but also with many global issues such as climate, biodiversity, trade, finance, migration, development, and so on. As an ambitious normative project to promote an inclusive and cooperative world order, multilateralism has regularly been confronted with power politics, defective unilateralism, and conflicts. However, as a unique form of worldwide cooperation, it is historically and institutionally resilient.

What is the main argument of this book?

The argument of the book is that, despite the various crises it has confronted, multilateralism is not “dead”, obsolete, powerless, or in decline, as is often claimed. The authors of this book consider the concept of “crisis” as a matrix of multilateralism in its historical dynamic. Hence, they put the current geopolitical challenges in perspective and try to demonstrate the resilience of multilateralism as a unique form of international cooperation designed to address the global problems of our times.

Talking about crises, has there been an intensification or increase in the rhythm and numbers of crises linked to multilateralism?

Multilateralism has always combined steps forward—such as the creation of new institutions and the negotiation of new multilateral treaties—with recurring geopolitical tensions, setbacks, and crises. The League of Nations was hardly born in 1919 when it immediately encountered the defection of the United States, the return of power politics in Europe, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the 1930s, which caused its collapse with the Second World War. The United Nations experienced similar difficult beginnings with the advent of the Cold War two years after its inception. In the recent period, the Trump presidency in the United States prompted an unprecedented momentum of destabilisation due to a radical unilateral and disruptive foreign policy that shook the foundations of the post-1945 multilateral order. Even if Joe Biden has since reinvested the United States in major international organisations, multilateralism has been confronted with a collision of severe concomitant crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and growing tensions between the United States and China.

You mention the recent COVID-19 health crisis, which has indisputably had effects on multilateralism. Would you mind explaining to us how, and to what extent it has, or not, altered global governance in the long run?
The COVID-19 pandemic severely challenged multilateralism. International Organisations were paralysed or put under strain, diplomatic practices were altered, and new governance mechanisms were designed. For instance, the Trump Administration began to implement the withdrawal of the United States from the WHO in the spring of 2020 (before the Biden Administration, elected in the following autumn, reversed that decision), the US-Chinese dispute over the origin of the virus paralysed the UN Security Council, and the vaccine race made the North–South divide very salient. Governance meetings of IOs and international summits went online, being held only with a limited number of participants, which contributed to the side-lining of civil society. At the same time, several initiatives were undertaken, such as the creation of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (known as the ACT-Accelerator or ACT-A, which gathered nine powerful organisations active in global health, such as the Gates Foundation), demands for a “TRIPS waiver” (a suspension of intellectual property rights, put forward by India, South Africa, and others at the World Trade Organization), and multilateral negotiations opened under the auspices of the WHO to draft a new “Pandemic Treaty”. These are interesting developments, because they touch upon key principles of multilateralism such as equality, reciprocity, and sovereignty. And even if the public attention and media coverage has faded away, discussions on these issues continue.
However, this book shows that one should beware of grand statements regarding the magnitude of changes brought about by events which are labelled as crises. Historical dynamics and gradual change are important factors, and the COVID-19 pandemic also acted as a catalyst, a revealer of changes in global governance rooted elsewhere, and/or which can be amplified and made more important by another crisis, for instance the war in Ukraine. This is why we hope that this collective book will encourage new research on multilateralism and changes in global governance.

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This book is the result of collective work by scholars within the framework of a research group on multilateralism, called GRAM. Would you mind presenting this group and its aims and scope?
The Groupement de Recherche sur l’Action multilatérale (GRAM) is an academic structure labelled and funded by Section 40 of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in 2020. It extends an initiative within the French Association of Political Science, which had set up a research group between 2011 and 2016 on these issues. This research group brings together ten research centres in France and several partners abroad. The aim is to raise the academic production on multilateralism in a broad sense, i.e. beyond intergovernmental organisations, even if these remain central. The GRAM organises a seminar every three weeks which takes place at CERI-Sciences Po (and online). It has also launched initiatives such as the Prix Léon Bourgeois on international cooperation and the Observatoire du multilatéralisme et des organisations internationales. In partnership with the Association Française des Nations Unies and the Kofi Annan Foundation, the Prix Léon Bourgeois rewards PhD and Masters theses that address a topic well studied by Léon Bourgeois, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920. Bourgeois was one of the iconic figures of solidarism, whose aim was to extend the spirit of solidarism to relations between nations, from legal pacifism, emphasising arbitration procedures, to the need to improve the social and economic conditions of human beings. His project for a Society of Nations, launched at the end of the nineteenth century, is still highly topical today.
As for the Observatory, it aims to fill a gap in our understanding of multilateralism by providing an agile and scalable digital tool. The Quebec-based Peace Operations Research Network had offered numerous analyses of this format, but this platform was focused on this type of international intervention (peace operations) only. The purpose of the Observatory is to be more exhaustive, with a range of useful headings and deliverables for students, researchers, and practitioners alike. The GRAM’s aim is to shed light on the forms, challenges, and, above all, evolution of the multilateral ecosystem in the contemporary world system.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI.

More information about the book on the publisher's website
More information about GRAM

Three interconnected people. Copyright Igor Kisselev for shutterstock
Handshake by Igor Kisselev for Shutterstock

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