Thinking Multilateralism: A Research Programme Supported and Funded by the CNRS

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By Frédéric Ramel and Guillaume Devin


Albert Einstein had harsh words for the League of Nations, asserting that the organisation supported the strong and silenced the weak without bloodshed. These words are part of an uncompromising criticism of what was the first intergovernmental security organization with a universal scope. The United Nations has not suffered such blows since, as it has contributed in part to the establishment of relative peace between states since 1945. But the spirit of the 1990s in favour of its revival is now a long past. The UN is going through a very serious crisis which has at least three dimensions.

First, a political crisis linked to the divestment of certain influential states. The multilateral way of life is declining, making it possible to envisage the extreme: exit strategies promoted by some states that multiply forms of retreat, blockage, or capture of institutions. Then, a functional crisis resulting from the tensions surrounding the legitimacy, representativeness, and efficiency of these institutions. Third, a crisis of normativity nourished by an opposition in terms of values between countries of the Global South and Western states, in particular when it comes to human rights. Such a configuration calls for a need to think about multilateral action, more than ever. These actions far exceed intergovernmental arenas in the strict sense.

In fact, research devoted to multilateral action goes beyond the field of intergovernmental organisations and includes all forms of more or less institutionalised international cooperation. It also addresses ad hoc groups such as the G8, G20, and international conferences, while refusing to limit multilateralism to simply a technique. It also and above all corresponds to a space of political negotiation that includes an increasing number of actors, be they public, non-governmental, or private.

Several years ago, the Association Française de Science Politique supported a dynamic of collective research though a group bringing together for five years (2011-2016) more than 30 scholars from various disciplines and French and international institutions. This experience revealed the existence of a strong potential for research and encouraged the establishment of a multidisciplinary dialogue. The first GRAM—research group on multilateral action—has continued to exist as GRAM-CERI, the main activity of which is a seminar including sessions based on the sharing of field experiences and the organisation of thematic conferences. The group’s mailing list now includes more than 200 members.

Since January 1, 2020, the GRAM has become the Groupement de recherche (GDR) sur l’action multilatérale, a structure labelled and funded by the French CNRS. Coordinated by CERI and composed of ten partners (CASE at INALCO, Centre Emile Durkheim at Sciences Po Bordeaux, Centre Michel de L’Hospital at Université d’Auvergne, CERAPS at Université de Lille II, CRDT at Université Reims Champagne Ardenne, CRESSPA at Paris 8, IREDIES at Paris 1, LaSSP at Sciences Po Toulouse, PACTE at Grenoble, Printemps de l’Université Paris Saclay), the GRAM has four main objectives.

Reinforcing Existing Research Devices

The monthly seminar at CERI will—from now on—hold sessions every three weeks. The seminar is a space for discussion and dialogue on research in progress or about to be disseminated, and it includes a pedagogical dimension for its participants who are often Masters and PhD students. Among the participants are not only first year PhD students in IR, working on multilateral issues, but also professionals (diplomats, experts from intergovernmental organisation, heads of NGOs). Yearly conferences will be organised in the partner universities and will aim to enable the collective publication projects that constitute one of the hallmarks of the GRAM’s experiences to date, which we intend to amplify.

Greater Dissemination

Our ambition is to support and encourage the GDR members’ participation in various congresses. The natural space for deployment corresponds to the framework established within the AFSP, “Globalisation, circulation, transnationalisation” (Mondialisation, circulation, transnationalisation). Among other objectives is the establishment of a yearly panel on multilateral action at the annual conferences of the International Studies Association, the International Political Science Association, and the European International Studies Association.

The Creation of an Observatory on Multilateralism

The visibility of scholars working on the issue of multilateral action is imperative in order to generate more and better circulation of information within the academic community and beyond. This platform will serve as an entry point for all those (scholars or practitioners, students, professors, and researchers) interested in contemporary issues of multilateralism. The observatory is destined to become a digital resource centre for researchers and practitioners. From this point of view, the establishment of a platform beyond the identification of researchers will be an essential structuring element.

Reinforcing Relationships with Practitioners from Intergovernmental Organizations

From supporting young researchers in the organisation of workshops and conferences, to setting up regular meetings on the state of knowledge, to helping the emergence of ANR calls for tenders or European projects, the GDR encourages the promotion of themes relating to multilateral action. The creation of this Groupement de Recherche is a form of acknowledgment of the work done by dispersed yet very mobilised teams, for the promotion of a sociology of international organisations. This opens a new path that needs to be sustained in the long term because there is no other choice in the current international system. The strategy of the lone rider is no longer an option given the immense challenges we face.

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