Prior to the start of the 21st century, multilateral diplomacy largely took a “maxilateral” form in which institutions like the UN saw inclusivity of as many countries as possible as an end in itself. However, in an increasingly divided and complicated world, this form confuses inclusivity with effectiveness as states now only sign onto vague agreements lacking legally binding force as opposed to the major global treaties of the 20th century ranging from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to the Geneva Conventions regarding humanitarian treatment in war. While many fear the decline or even collapse of multilateral forums, new ad-hoc coalitions of the willing provide a much-needed alternative path to efficient and strong mutual cooperation on specific issues. These innovative “minilateral” groupings, however short-run, can serve to embed norms into the greater international community, not just the states who explicitly join.
Despite this trend in an era of states with widely divergent interests, it seems unlikely that formal institutions such as the UN or WTO will cease to exist. Instead, they will be supplanted primarily by so-called “minilateral” coalitions which will create new ideas in groups with overlapping narrow interests.
With the exception of the Paris Agreement in 2015, no major “maxilateral” treaties—defined as those with over 100 signatories as that is approximately half of states with membership at the UN—have been concluded in the past decade. Simultaneously, the relative power of the United Nations to promote new causes and provide solutions to global issues has decreased, especially in the Security Council, where disagreement amongst the five permanent members frequently prevents the passage of meaningful resolutions. Issues like the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar or the divergent views on settling conflict in Syria demonstrate the weaknesses of a UN that merely reports information and condemns actions without the capacity for a substantial response. Outside the UN, traditional multilateral forums such as the WTO have faced criticism for an inability to control Chinese trade policies and intellectual property theft. Many observers have blamed President Trump for causing this disdain of traditional multilateralism, but his actions are merely a symptom of a longer running illness affecting global diplomatic efforts. For example, despite President Obama campaigning on promises of building new international institutions in reference to Roosevelt and Truman’s construction of the UN and Bretton Woods institutions, he failed to seriously propose institutional reforms to match modern geopolitical realities as he realised very few domestic supporters and powerful allies were keen on changing the status quo. Therefore, the past decade has witnessed overall a crumbling of the multilateral framework created in the post-World War II era. Trump undoubtedly has exacerbated and celebrated the decline of maxilateralism with actions such as withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, but he is certainly not alone in recognising the diminished role formal institutions play—even if his celebratory posture is detrimental and unique. Despite this trend in an era of states with widely divergent interests, it seems unlikely that formal institutions such as the UN or WTO will cease to exist. Instead, they will be supplanted primarily by so-called “minilateral” coalitions which will create new ideas in groups with overlapping narrow interests.
Minilateralism is defined as diplomatic efforts by more than three countries outside of traditional multilateral forums to deal with specific topics that individual states alone cannot manage but that all the states together likewise cannot agree. Of the many benefits of this minilateralism, first, all parties to the agreement or coalition are there by choice to solve a collective action problem for which they need cooperation and are desperate for new ideas. This makes the process by which states share norms with others more achievable on the micro-scale, allowing new cooperative thinking to more easily be adopted by individual states. Second, many scholars have challenged the true power of enforcement mechanisms in past agreements, even legally binding conventions.
One popular notion is that states only obey multilateral treaties when it is in their interest to do so. Thus, compliance occurs only insofar as the benefits for a state outweigh the costs of violating the rules. With new minilateral approaches, there are often no formal enforcement mechanisms, but the same social pressures for compliance persist as states who back out after agreement can still be subject to economic and diplomatic reprisals from the other parties. Thus, the relative importance of legally binding versus non-binding seems trivial when assessing minilateralism’s prospects.
Lastly, there is good reason to believe that bigger is rarely better when it comes to tackling international issues. Comprehensive international agreements often require so many compromises and exceptions that the meaning of the final text is diminished. Additionally, formal UN engagements only allow voting to official member-states while minilateralism allows for representation by non-state actors directly in the decision-making process. Abandoning states who at times are obstructionist on certain issues allows for more efficient processes and strengthens the overall language of the agreements. These policies can be tested on a smaller scale and, if proven successful, be expanded to include more members, be copied in similar forms elsewhere around the globe, or be carried to multilateral forums for global discussions and potentially adoption. Thus, minilateral coalitions can further serve as laboratories of new ideas which can later be taken up by the formal global institutions.
Despite these theoretical benefits of the rise of minilateralism it must be noted that its track record has been and likely will remain mixed. It is a more chaotic form of global governance, giving rise to cooperative and destructive groups alike.
Despite these theoretical benefits of the rise of minilateralism it must be noted that its track record has been and likely will remain mixed. It is a more chaotic form of global governance, giving rise to cooperative and destructive groups alike. The modern era is not characterized by the absence of multilateralism but its astonishing diversity. A major early example was the anti-piracy armada which emerged in the Indian Ocean involving naval vessels from the United States and its traditional allies alongside China, India, Iran, Yemen, and others. While these countries disagree on many issues and almost certainly would fail to sign an overarching new set of rules on the laws of the sea, they managed to unite behind the common cause of securing sea-lanes off the African coast. Another example following the outbreak of the Great Recession in 2008 was the evolution of the G-20, which united leaders of both developed and developing states around their shared need to avoid worsening the global economic crisis. This need sparked the formation of an exclusive global crisis-response committee which jointly injected unprecedented amounts of liquidity into the world economy, formed new regulatory standards, and insisted on global bank capital requirements. While the G-20’s momentum diminished, they managed to cause policy changes and new thinking at institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, thus they successfully managed to spark changes in formal global institutions and achieved their narrow short term goal while having a long term impact as well. One final example lies in New Zealand’s newly created special refugee visa for Pacific islanders affected by rising sea levels rendering their homes uninhabitable. While there is very little political will globally to address this issue, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has started a process inviting other willing states to join on ensuring a framework is in place before the crisis worsens.
While this minilateralism has the potential for negative consequences, it can also provide some much needed efficiency to cooperative efforts and serve as a means to test solutions before being implemented on a larger scale.
As states become increasingly frustrated with the United Nations and other formal global institutions whose power has declined, they will feel emboldened to tackle issues among ad-hoc groups of willing states on specific issues. While this minilateralism has the potential for negative consequences, it can also provide some much needed efficiency to cooperative efforts and serve as a means to test solutions before being implemented on a larger scale. Cooperation will not cease to exist even with the rhetoric of Trump but will instead navigate through new channels to pursue mutual aims, leaving obstructionist states behind.