Goodbye to Going it Alone

Opinion | Joseph S. Nye Jr. | November 2007

A key lesson that the next American president will take away from the experiences of the Bush administration is certain to be that multilateralism matters. Notions of American hegemony and unilateral responses make little sense when most of the serious challenges that countries face today – problems like climate change, pandemics, financial instability, and terrorism – fall outside the control of even the largest countries. All of them require multilateral cooperation.

The United Nations can play an important role in helping to legitimize and implement agreements among countries, but even its closest friends admit that its large size, rigid regional blocs, formal diplomatic procedures, and cumbersome bureaucracy often impede consensus. As one sage put it, the problem for multilateral organizations is "how to get everyone into the act and still get action."

One answer is to supplement the UN by creating informal consultative organizations at the regional and global level. For example, during the financial crises that followed the oil shocks of the 1970’s, the French government hosted the leaders of five leading economies to discuss and coordinate policies. The idea was to keep the meeting small and informal by limiting it to a number that could fit into the library of the chateau at Rambouillet.

But keeping the group small proved impossible. It soon grew to a "G-7" of advanced industrial economies. Later, Russia was added to make it the "G-8." More recently, the annual G-8 summit has invited five other countries to attend as observers, creating a de facto G-13.

With this expansion have come problems. The new invitees resent not being included as full members able to help plan and shape the meetings, and the original countries’ delegations have expanded to include hundreds of officials each. The once informal summits have become unwieldy.

There have been several proposals for new types of supplemental multilateral organizations. Todd Stern and William Antholis have suggested the creation of an "E-8": a compact forum of leaders from developed and developing countries – including the United States, the European Union, Japan, Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa – that would devote their full attention once a year to environmental challenges and global climate change. These states represent their regions’ core economies, account for three-quarters of global GDP, and include the top six emitters of greenhouse gases.

But some critics worry about restricting a group to only one topic. Leaders’ time is a scarce resource. They cannot afford to attend multiple summits for each transnational issue. Moreover, a variable geometry of attendance at meetings might weaken the development of a personal chemistry and the breadth of bargaining that can arise when the same group of leaders meets regularly to discuss a broader range of subjects.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, drawing on his personal experience with the Group of 20 finance ministers as well as the G-8, has proposed a new informal grouping that he calls an "L-20," with the "L" signifying that it is restricted to leaders. The L-20 would build upon the G-8’s original strengths of informality and flexibility to provide a consultative forum on issues such as climate change, global health, and conflict management.

Martin argues that about 20 people in a room is probably a reasonable size for attempting to tackle difficult cross-sectoral problems. With a larger group, real discussion is lost; with a smaller group, meaningful regional representation is difficult. He would include the present G-8, other leading economies, and major regional powers regardless of economic ranking.

Marcos de Azambuja, former secretary-general of Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, agrees that international life cannot be managed solely or primarily by vast assemblies of nearly 200 states with enormous disparities in their political and economic weight. He suggests something like an "L-14" would be an effective group to reflect the world as it is evolving, and could be quickly accomplished by expanding the current G-8 to include China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and a Muslim country.

Whatever the geometry of such a consultative group, it would be designed to supplement the UN in reaching decisions, and would help galvanize bureaucracies in member governments to address key transnational issues. Like the G-8, it would act as a catalyst to set agendas and focus the attention of national bureaucracies on a set of important issues as they prepare their head of government for the discussions. The G-8, for example, is often credited with helping to advance international trade rounds, addressing public health issues, and increasing aid to Africa.

In addition to membership, several other issues remain. Should such a new grouping have a secretariat to present common proposals, or should it rely solely on meetings of national officials? The former runs the risk of developing a new bureaucracy, but the latter may forego continuity. Should papers be exchanged in advance, with comments from a secretariat or from other countries? How can informality be preserved and the size of meetings be restricted? Perhaps leaders should be limited to one aide in the room and prohibited from reading formally prepared opening statements.

None of the proposals suggested thus far is perfect, and many of the details need to be worked out. But the pendulum has swung back from unilateralism to multilateralism, and the world’s largest countries are searching for ways to make it more effective. Prolonged negotiations and gridlock are not acceptable, because today’s most serious problems cannot wait for perfect institutional solutions.

Joseph S. Nye is Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. and, most recently, of Understanding International Conflicts.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.

Other articles from this issue