A Plenary Speech on the Evolution of Multilateralism at the 11th World Peace Forum
The World Peace Forum has become an internationally recognized and influential venue bringing together prominent politicians and leading experts to address current security issues of global and regional dimensions. Such meetings and frank exchanges of opinions are more than in demand today because our world, citing Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “has approached dangerous line, and perhaps even a more dangerous, than in the Cold War years”. And the Russian minister is not alone in his alarming assessment of recent developments in the world. The situation around Ukraine has far exceeded the scope of a regional crisis. In fact, we are witness to the biggest international military and political conflict in decades, with direct involvement of major European and global powers, including nuclear powers. Risks have reached the highest level. Conventional mechanisms of political settlement do not work, while new mechanisms have not yet been created.
The organizers of the Conference, assessing the dramatic situation in the world in a realistic way, suggested for our discussion a difficult question: Is it possible to bring stability to the currently unstable world through cooperation and harmony? And what role could multilateralism play in this regard?
Before exploring different options of how security issues could be resolved, we should review the current stage in international relations.
Most would agree that the modern world is undergoing a period of profound, revolutionary changes that shape all aspects of human activity. These changes are logical and inevitable, as they reflect objective trends and the new needs of social development. The current changes are, in fact, undermining the foundations of the world order established in the mid-20th century, which served for the bipolar model existed until the early 1990s and, later, the unipolar model that replaced bipolarity. Today, the two models have irrevocably become a thing of the past. And we are now witnessing a fierce struggle for a new arrangement of the world order that would reflect the new realities taking shape in the world. What we see is reinforcing sovereignty and consolidating national consciousness in the vast majority of states, favoring new centers of geopolitical and economic influence.
Unfortunately, humanity has proved unprepared for the global challenges of this era. Instead of jointly seeking answers to the challenges and international tensions of our time, we see attempts to hold back the natural course of history at all costs, aiming to retain the old mechanisms of global governance in the hands of a limited number of states for a single purpose: to keep their global influence intact. This is what we see in the Euro-Atlantic, in the Asia-Pacific and in other parts of the globe.
An example of such a one-sided approach to the problems of the world order can be the results of the recent G7 summit in Japan. The summit outcome documents are an example of the policy of dictate, when a group of states, formally hiding behind references to the UN Charter, in fact tries to dictate to other states how to solve certain security and development problems. The international community does not and will not accept such Western rules that seek to divide the world based on ideologies and values and to eliminate Russia and China as geopolitical competitors.
Before our eyes, the arms race is gathering momentum, offensive capabilities are increasing, the system of arms control treaties is being dismantled. All this inevitably leads to an increase in distrust, to the loss of the culture of dialogue, and as a result to an increase of risk of clashes between major powers, including nuclear powers.
Is it in our power to stop this catastrophic course of events, and direct it towards a constructive path of cooperation for the sake of common security and development? This fundamental question deserves only a positive answer. Any other answer would condemn humanity to self-destruction.
In March 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, introduced a concept formulated as “Community of Common Destiny.” The Chinese vision was formulated as follows: “In the face of the profoundly changed international landscape and the objective need for the world to rally together like passengers in the same boat, all countries should join hands in building a new model of international relations featuring cooperation and mutual benefit, and all people should work together to safeguard world peace and promote common development”.
“Community of Common Destiny” is conceptually rooted in China’s ancient traditional culture, and it reflects the multifaceted experience of Chinese foreign policy and diplomacy. However, the basic principles that it contains—such as lasting peace, comprehensive security, shared prosperity, openness and tolerance—are universal and represent the essence of multilateralism enshrined in the UN Charter.
President Xi Jinping formulated his proposals for a new world order in 2013, a decade ago. Unfortunately, the world has not turned into a more prosperous and secure place. Disintegration of the world order that we knew is accelerating, while a new world order remains stalled. Still, the past decade gave us another proof that true multilateralism, rooted in a strict adherence with the UN Charter and the generally acknowledged norms of the international law, has no alternatives.
What are the bases of this conclusion?
First, leading international actors feel the mounting pressure of common challenges and threats. These include climate change, lack of resources, issues of biodiversity, cross-border migration, emerging pandemics, food security, cybercrime, and so on. Even if the elusive goal of a universal prosperity and social justice is put aside for the time being, humanity—simply to survive—will have to agree on common rules of the game and take joint action in matters of common significance. This means that multilateral agreements are in an increasingly higher demand.
Second, no responsible international actor would be interested in ever-lasting military conflicts, an uncontrolled arms race, a rising tide of international terrorism or other negative developments that may directly or indirectly heighten the risks of clashes between great powers and divert enormous material resources from addressing the pressing economic and social problems. This means that, sooner or later, major players will have to return to arms control, crisis management, confidence-building and, more broadly, a shared culture of international security. It is difficult to say exactly when and in what particular form this may happen, but our instinct for self-preservation, in the end, will have to inevitably prevail.
Third, the pace of scientific and technological progress is picking up steam. As history teaches us, it is unstoppable. Among other things, this implies that there are more opportunities for various forms of cross-border communication—including business, education, social interaction, etc. The same is true of global geographical mobility. Therefore, not only are there critical economic and political needs for a transition to cooperation between nations; but the necessary technical means to make such a transition successful are also available.
Given the high level of interdependence, the global reach of numerous challenges and threats, humanity will only manage to provide effective solutions to the numerous problems and create favorable conditions for development if it pools together the potentials and efforts of the entire international community. Russia and China, representing a model of relations between great states in the modern world, consistently advocate collective discussions and joint actions of the international community in the interests of global strategic stability and maintenance of sustainable security.
The position of Russia and China is shared by many countries of the world. That is why we are already witnessing the active formation of regional and trans-regional mechanisms of economic integration and cooperation. We also see the establishment of multi-format partnerships to address specific problems. The SCO, BRICS, RIC, the G20 and other multilateral mechanisms act as examples of guiding principles of multilateralism in its various manifestations.
Then, what is multilateralism at the present stage?
The notion of multilateralism has long been subject to heated debates, both among experts and among politicians. It must be admitted that in the modern world, there is a steady mistrust, if not of the idea of multilateralism itself, then of the existing embodiments of this idea currently available. This distrust extends to the motivations of those participating in multilateral negotiations and institutions. Some believe that the declared concern for the public good often covers up selfish national or narrow group interests. Unfortunately, this is sometimes the case.
Therefore, it should not be surprising that multilateralism is becoming a convenient target for right- and left-wing populists in developed and developing countries alike.
All this shows that common understanding of what multilateralism essentially means, or should mean, is still lacking in global politics, despite the growing demand for multilateralism. In the meantime, the ongoing struggle for a new world order entails the need for a theoretical definition, at least in general terms, a contemporary model of multilateralism that would meet the realities and needs of the international system for the 21st century.
It seems appropriate to outline, in broad terms, the norms and practices that can help successfully build and foster multilateralism. This applies first and foremost to the major powers, as it is these powers who largely shape the climate in global affairs.
First, states must recognize the importance of cooperation as the best way to pursue a win-win strategy in an interdependent world. This principle applies above all to security, as all countries, especially the nuclear powers, need to realize that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Parties must commit themselves to refrain from the use of force as well as the treat of its use. There are sufficient statements made to this effect, but few real steps have been taken to reduce tensions.
Second, states must strictly abide by international law. Clearly, international law cannot remain unchanged in a rapidly changing world. Many international legal norms need to be devised or revised. However, improving the norms of international law should not be the privilege of any particular group of states: universal norms are to be negotiated and agreed on in multilateral formats by all international actors.
Third, states must learn to recognize equality of all actors in multilateral formats. Naturally, different nations cannot be fully equal on many formal counts. Nevertheless, they must respect the principle of “equality”, understood as “equality of all before the law,” as this law is enshrined in the UN Charter. This principle, for instance, was largely responsible for the success of the Helsinki Process during the Cold War.
Fourth, under a multilateral approach, shared values should not be a precondition for reaching an agreement. Only a convergence of interests can be deemed necessary and sufficient. In other words, multilateral mechanisms set up to resolve common problems should not be used to interfere in the internal affairs of states and change their political system, economic model or any of their norms. The multilateralism of the 21st century can only be universal and effective if it is suitable for the world of value, political and economic pluralism. An example of this approach is the BRICS organization, which is becoming an important platform for cooperation, actively promoting the reform of global governance system and advancing the representation and voice of emerging markets countries and developing countries.
Fifth, cooperation can be successful if it is mutually beneficial, meaning that it can prove the effectiveness of multilateral mechanisms for individual actors in the international system. In other words, it is necessary to respect the vital interests of other states—both members and formally non-members of multilateral entities—and to motivate these states to expand cooperation. A good example here is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: starting with regulating cross-border cooperation, it has gradually grown into one of the largest regional organizations with a broad agenda, ranging from security and economy to combating terrorism and other threats.
This is not a complete list of preconditions under which multilateralism can successfully develop and meet the relevant challenges. However, the main necessary condition is political will of nations and above all of great powers, that largely determine the current international agenda. Without a fundamental change in the nature of relations between the great powers, we can expect a multiplication of political risks and, above all, security risks.
In order to stop the negative dynamics in international affairs and prevent a slide into uncontrollability and chaos, it is necessary that an increase in the number of actors in global politics and world economy be accompanied by an increase in the density of the existing network of multilateral international agreements, regimes and organizations. This network can ultimately create the legal framework, instruments of control and horizontal communications that would prevent global politics from falling into a deep crisis.
If we assess the current prospects for multilateralism, we must admit that it has not yet become an overriding idea in the international political environment or in the global public conscience. Moreover, we are witnessing the rise of isolationism in many states, which inevitably limits their engagement in multilateral structures and regimes.
Still, it can be predicted—and with a high degree of certainty—that isolationist and unilateralist attitudes popular with some countries today will gradually give way to an understanding that multilateral mechanisms have no alternative as they have obvious advantages. Political elites and societies will have to let go of the old fears and prejudices and learn to live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. This “learning” will inevitably be long and painful, but any alternatives to this “learning” would be even more painful and distressing.
What are the core benefits of multilateralism at the present stage? Ones that dictate the need for its practical implementation?
Multilateralism is not a movement towards a centers of “power” rivalry, but towards their cooperation and solidarity in the name of common interests of security and development.
Multilateralism is a way to build trust among a large and diverse range of international actors with sometimes mismatched, and possibly different interests;
Multilateralism is a chance for the relatively weak players to have their voices heard and their interests being taken into account;
Multilateralism is an opportunity for the relatively strong players to make their leadership more civilized and less intrusive for other stakeholders;
Multilateralism is the prospect for non-state actors in global politics and world economy to achieve meaningful participation in the discussion and resolution of pressing issues;
Multilateralism is a mechanism for fostering greater openness and transparency in international relations, making information about the activities of governments, the private sector and international organizations easily and readily available.
In other words, the multilateralism is a mechanism of interaction between states with different politics, systems, ideologies, histories, cultures coming together for shared interests, shared rights and shared responsibilities in global affairs and creating greatest synergy for building a better world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that “the change of milestones is a painful but natural and inevitable process. The world order of the future is taking shape before our eyes. And in this world order we must listen to everyone, take every perspective into account, accept every nation, society, culture, every vision and world view, all ideas and religious beliefs, without imposing any universal truth on anyone. And only on this basis, understanding our responsibility for the fate of peoples and our planet, can we build a symphony of human civilization.”
The international community already has the necessary “building material” to create a new world order. This is an extensive system of international organizations headed by the UN, influential regional associations, and a dense fabric of bilateral interstate relations. The problem is that, based on the principles of multilateralism, to give these structures the character of an integral system that would ensure the connection of the needs of individual states with the interests of the entire world community. The emerging world order of the XXI century should be based on a solid legal basis, since this is the only way to ensure a harmonious combination of the interests of various states, predictability and stability of the future architecture of international relations. In order for the UN to continue to fulfill its mission as a model of multilateralism and coordinator of world politics, it is necessary to accelerate the reform of the Organization, including its Security Council, by expanding the representation of Asian, African and Latin American countries in its supreme body.
It is time to return to the proposal put forward two years ago by President Vladimir Putin to hold a summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in order to launch at the level of the leaders of the founding states of the United Nations a practical discussion of issues related to the principles of multilateral cooperation and ways out of the current crisis state of the international system.
The world has never been more connected than it is now and human beings have never been more interdependent as they are today.
The establishment of multilateralism in international relations is a difficult and long way. However, one cannot turn away from it if we think about the world for future generations.
Igor Ivanov is President of Russian International Affairs Council and former Secretary of the Security Council of Russian Federation.