A key lesson that the next US president will take away from the experiences of the George W. Bush administration is certain to be that multilateralism matters. Notions of US hegemony and unilateral responses make little sense when most of the serious challenges that countries face today -- such as climate change, pandemics, financial stability and terrorism -- fall outside the control of even the largest countries. All of them require multilateral cooperation.
The UN 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 organizations at the regional and global levels. For example, during the financial crises that followed the oil shocks of the 1970s, the French government hosted leaders of five leading economies to discuss 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 it small proved impossible. It soon grew to a G7 of advanced industrial economies. Later, Russia was added to make it the G8. More recently, the G8 summit invited five other states to attend as observers, creating a de facto G13.
With this expansion has 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 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 US, the EU, 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. Time is a scarce resource. Leaders cannot afford to attend multiple summits for each transnational issue. A variable geometry of attendance at meetings might also weaken the development of personal chemistry and 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 G8, 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 G8's original strengths of informality and flexibility to provide a consultative forum on issues such a climate change, global health and conflict management.
Martin argues that 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 G8, 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 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 G8 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 G8, 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 G8, for example, is often credited with helping to advance international trade rounds, addressing public health issues and increasing aid to Africa.
Several issues remain. Should 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 restricted? Perhaps leaders should be limited to one aide in the room and prohibited from reading formal 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 Nye is a professor at Harvard University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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