Judy Asks: Is multilateralism on the wane?

Opinion piece (Carnegie Europe)
06 December 2017

Multilateral organizations have often been ignored by individual states: the Soviet Union defied the United Nations after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan; and the United States and the United Kingdom stretched the interpretation of UN Security Council resolutions to justify invading Iraq in 2003.

Elsewhere, EU member states sometimes break the union’s rules; while the UK and Russia grumble about the European Court of Human Rights. But such challenges to the authority of international organizations have not threatened multilateralism as such: countries often find they need the UN to deal with the messes that they themselves have created, for example.

What is new today is that the United States in particular, but also the UK, Russia, and others, often contrary to their own interests, are trying to go it alone more often—whether by pulling out of international agreements, leaving international organizations, or annexing territory in violation of international law. It is too early to say, however, that multilateralism is on the wane: that depends on how the rest of world responds to these moves. If others also undermine international organizations and their norms, then the system will collapse. But so far, China and the EU (in particular) seem to be trying to shore up the multilateral order. Fingers crossed that they succeed!

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.