Multilateralism may be out of fashion as a way of addressing our global environmental problems, but the way forward is in its reform, not its abandonment.
Failures at Copenhagen climate summit, and more recently at Rio+20 have led to a loss of faith in the multilateral system throughout society. I was at both of these summits, and the disappointments of multilateralism are all the more potent when you are personally engaged. But despite these emotional roller-coasters (which are mostly downs), I believe in multilateralism. I believe in multilateralism because there are no real proven, realistic or fair alternatives. I believe in multilateralism because as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, I am reminded of how the recipe of international environmental agreements can work once we use the right ingredients.
In fact, it is the only real logical recipe to apply to our global problems. On a basic level, international ecological issues like climate change are a “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1968) and it is widely accepted that such collective action problems require cooperative solutions and decision-making (Ostrom, 1990). The basic economics of “public goods” logic suggests that collective action must be organised at the scale of the problem or externality that must be addressed (Olson, 1971). In other words: global problems require solutions organised at a global level. The most effective and proven method of doing so, while building up trust and reducing free-riding, is through multilateral frameworks. Despite this, the political inertia within environmental negotiations has proven overwhelmingly disillusioning. We are facing a death by a thousand conferences.
However, multilateralism as an idea is not out of date, our processes and institutions are. Consensus is an archaic decision-making tool, our methods of negotiating and diplomacy lack transparency or effectiveness and the bureaucratic structure of the UN and other international institutions are clearly lacking. We need to resurrect multilateralism, not bury it.
Despite this logic, it is still a rare day that I’m not questioned, by friends or colleagues on the validity of multilateralism and the pointlessness of negotiations. Even at a recent seminar panel one of the other speakers, a world renowned climatologist whom I deeply respect, couldn’t help but declare that the time of multilateral environmental treaties was over and we were better off solving climate change through a nation-based “green” industrial revolution. It seems a little odd (although poetic) to attempt to solve a problem with the same thinking and processes that created it in the first place. The Industrial Revolution was driven by greed and competition and resulted in the perverse and pervasive structural inequalities which now plague the world. This is a mismatch with sustainable development which must be based on cooperation and a thorough repair of our unbalanced structures. Even if we did solve climate change through such a state-based, business-focused paradigm, what about the other problems like biodiversity loss?
This bottom-up revolution is also short-sighted. We are already locked into some degree of climate change, and it is unlikely that such an approach will foster the form of cooperative, cohesive governance that is needed for international society to adapt to the coming environmental changes. But then the multilateral sceptics point to the numerous states, provinces and nations that have adopted carbon prices despite the absence of a global climate treaty. Well that is just fantastic, but how have overall global emissions been going? Oh right, record levels…
I don’t say this to detract from the bottom-up approaches. Minilateralism and regional forums have proven useful (look at the EU’s environmental policy, or the outcomes of the recent APEC summit), but not all regions have integration and those that do still require global coordination. Civil society is also a great tool, but I have yet to see a trans-boundary pollution problem which has been solved primarily by NGOs. Regional governance, local initiatives and non-state actors (both NGOs and businesses) are valuable as contributors to a larger international framework, not substitutes. The bottom-up is not antithetical to the top-down. On the contrary, the bottom-up feeds into the top-down, creating the necessary momentum and pressure to construct effective international agreements. Yet some wish to stop this momentum, and they are the exact same states blocking the process.
While I usually believe that it is important to address the message, not the messenger, in this case it is important to look at the proponents and their motives. The proponents of a bottom-up (particularly a pledge and review) system within climate change are the primarily the US, Canada and Australia. Those who wish to persist with a multilateral approach: The EU, and the least developed and most vulnerable nations (small island states, the African Union etc.). In the red corner we have the laggards and in the blue corner the leading progressives with the highest targets and most to lose. The contrast is telling to say the least…..
Let’s take a lesson from the birthday convention- the Montreal Protocol, which provided a holistic approach to a complex problem. Effective compliance mechanisms, skilful political leadership (surprisingly from the US), efficient decision –making procedures (double qualified majority voting), incremental membership (we don’t need to have everyone’s involvement to start with), the support of businesses, clear scientific advice, mass NGO pressure and an adequate financing system are what solve global environmental problems, not by giving in to the laggards by primarily focusing on the lowest levels of governance and promoting ‘flexibility’.
I write this defence of the multilateral approach of international treaties not out of a personal or academic endearment. I don’t even do so on the grounds of procedural justice and international ethics (although there are some valid points here). I stand by the multilateral approach because it offers us the best hope of managing both our current international environmental crises’ and rectifying the inequality that exists in the world. The principles of Sustainable Development declare that one cannot be done without the other and I see no evidence to suggest that the flexible, bottom-up approaches can solve either, let alone both. We live in a globalized and interconnected world. Multilateralism is not a choice we can turn away from, it is a necessity. The future lies in persisting with multilateralism and its reform with courage, innovation and political skill. Perhaps, with that, in another 25 years the Montreal Protocol may not be the only successful treaty with cake at the table.
OLSON, M. (ed.) 1971. The Logic of Collective Action, Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
OSTROM, E. (ed.) 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, New York: Cambridge University Press.
 I refer to multilateralism as the top-down approach of international governance and frameworks of an essentially globally nature. Not the classic definition of "the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three states or more".