Debating “Minilateralism”

by Chris Borgen

Moises Naim of Foreign Policy has an essay in the new issue called “Minilateralism: The magic number to get real international action.” His piece has spawned reactions from the bloggers at Naim’s essay is the latest volley in a debate on “big” or “small” multilateral action should be; however, although he and other bloggers do a good job setting out the advantages (and some weaknesses) of “minilateralism,” the issues of normativity and legality are all but ignored.

Naim begins by setting out the negotiation problems of what one could call “big” multilateralism:

When was the last time you heard that a large number of countries agreed to a major international accord on a pressing issue? Not in more than a decade. The last successful multilateral trade agreement dates back to 1994, when 123 countries gathered to negotiate the creation of the World Trade Organization and agreed on a new set of rules for international trade. Since then, all other attempts to reach a global trade deal have crashed. The same is true with multilateral efforts to curb nuclear proliferation; the last significant international nonproliferation agreement was in 1995, when 185 countries agreed to extend an existing nonproliferation treaty. In the decade and a half since, multilateral initiatives have not only failed, but India, Pakistan, and North Korea have demonstrated their certain status as nuclear powers. On the environment, the Kyoto Protocol, a global deal aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, has been ratified by 184 countries since it was adopted in 1997, but the United States, the world’s second-largest air polluter after China, has not done so, and many of the signatories have missed their targets.

He then moves on to his suggestion:

The pattern is clear: Since the early 1990s, the need for effective multicountry collaboration has soared, but at the same time multilateral talks have inevitably failed; deadlines have been missed; financial commitments and promises have not been honored; execution has stalled; and international collective action has fallen far short of what was offered and, more importantly, needed. These failures represent not only the perpetual lack of international consensus, but also a flawed obsession with multilateralism as the panacea for all the world’s ills.

So what is to be done? To start, let’s forget about trying to get the planet’s nearly 200 countries to agree. We need to abandon that fool’s errand in favor of a new idea: minilateralism.

By minilateralism, I mean a smarter, more targeted approach: We should bring to the table the smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem. Think of this as minilateralism’s magic number.

For example, in trade the G-20 comprises about 85 percent of international trade. Worry about negotating a treaty among those twenty states, not the nearly 200 states, most of which have very little impact on international trade.

Among the various responses, Daniel Drezner gives qualified agreement while noting the legitimizing role of existing  multilateral regimes and the importance of great power cooperation. Stephen Walt focuses on this latter point: the limits of minilateralism without great power agreement but also notes “states really ought to stop making lofty feel-good pledges that they don’t intend to keep.” Ian Bremmer has an especially thoughtful comment, bringing in the issue of emerging versus establishd power. He argues that “no institution that excludes China, India, Russia, Brazil, and a few other emerging heavyweights can fully address the biggest international challenges” and then observes “that some of the new players have fundamental disagreements with the established powers on some very big questions” and that the new players are more focused (overall) on domestic politcal issues than managing international problems.

These and other comments at do good job fleshing out Naim’s argument. Of course, there are further issues that need to be considered. From the view of international lawyer, one topic that looms large is normativity: does the practice promoted by a minilateral regimes violate the norms existent in a broader multilateral regime that already exists.  At times this can become a question of treaty conflicts (which I had analyzed in this article), but that is not necessarily the case. In its most general sense, the issue of normativity asks whether a minilateral regime violates, changes, or supports existing international law.

Taken at its extreme, minilateralism could become a new term for coalitions of the willing, an argument that David Rothkopf responds to by explaining that such a coalition, like the coalition ot invade Iraq, is really just disguised unilateralism. Minilateralism, he argues, is not just a coalition of the willing, but a “coalition of the influential.” But what is a coalition of the influential?  What if there is one extremely influential state and a couple of very influential state and some who are not so influential? Is that enough?  This is like debating how many angels you can get on the head of a pin. It tries to answer a normative question (is this minilateral regime legitimate?) without actually refering to normativity (and using “influence” as a stand-in). Minilateralism is essentially about effectiveness, not about what is “right” or “just” or “good.”  And that’s fine, as long as we see the limits of the theory and don’t try to use it to do something that it is not designed for. (To this extent, I think minilateralism is a useful tool for international lawyers thinking about things like the design of treaties and of international orgainizations.)

But, setting aside normativity, there is also a question as to whether smaller multilateral regimes are building blocks towards or impediments to broader multilateral regimes.  Naim’s argument implies the former, but it is important to keep in mind that minilateralism may also prevent larger multilateralism.  Minilateral trade groups, for example, may harden into trade blocs that enter into trade wars with each other, rather than act as stepping stones to a global trade agreement. Naim may respond that he is interested in the smallest number of states to solve a global problem, rather than just smaller regimes, but this opens up the whole problem of whether and how we really know not only what the "magic number" is but also who the magic states are. Such a response thus doesn’t answer the original query as set out a difficult aspect of effective minilateralism.

All that being said, I agree more than disagree with Naim’s suggestion. I do think that it can be useful at times to build smaller regimes as a way to lead to larger (but effective) institutions. I just think that the basic insight provided by negotiation theory needs to be tempered with an eye both to the normative issues that are implied by a minilateralist approach as well as to the unexplored assumptions of the theory.

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