Pulling Together or Falling Apart? Moving Past the Crisis of Multilateralism


High-risk challenges are undermining the international rule-based order on multiple fronts. This view has been growing in acceptance for several years, and recent developments have reinforced the sense that the UN-based system of multilateral cooperation is “under siege.”

Yet, international cooperation has never been more necessary. What is at stake in the weakening of the international rule-based order, and what are the paths forward? Are we pulling together to address the challenges of our age? Or are we falling apart and moving away from the very idea of a global common good?

This was the topic of discussion at the 2019 IPI Salzburg Forum, held at the Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria on September 1-3.The two-day gathering, conducted under the Chatham House rule of non-attribution, brought together diplomats, journalists, academics, think-tank experts, and representatives of civil society.

The forum was co-sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic and began with dinner remarks by the ministry’s state secretary, Frantiŝek Ružička, on September 1st.

The following day included three panel sessions and an interactive discussion to identify take-aways and action points.

The first session provided the opportunity for participants to map the crisis of multilateralism and begin outlining responses, setting the stage for the day’s discussions. What defines the crisis of multilateralism today? Is the international system of security cooperation destined to fragment further toward an era of heightened great power competition and conflict, or are we moving toward a new system? Is the system under siege, or under transformation?

Participants agreed that a number of global challenges and regional crises currently characterize the international system—including international trade, climate change, international terrorism, migration, and poverty and inequality—and discussed how they may be better managed through international cooperation. Regional crises were discussed in relation to how they affect Europe, including the crises in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the perpetual problem of the Israel/Palestine conflict. The shifting geopolitical relations among China, Russia, and the US was also a topic of discussion.

While the challenges are great, one speaker made a call for cautious optimism. The scale and scope of the difficulties we face today do not supercede those of the past. The difference is that today we lack clear global leadership, but member states are beginning to come together in response. In addition, the younger generation is beginning to show leadership in the pursuit of concrete problem solving, as with climate change. The best time to institute change is at times of crisis.

Session two continued the discussion of challenges with a dedicated focus on the re-rise of nationalism. Nationalism and international cooperation are not by definition incompatible. But recent years have witnessed the return of a strident nationalism set in opposition to global cooperation. From the United States and Brazil to Hungary, Turkey, and India, politics based upon the affirmation of national identity and the exclusion of immigrants and minorities is on the rise.

Nationalism was behind some of the great state crimes of the 20th century in Europe and beyond, but historically it was also a driving force behind decolonization and democratization. What is the relationship between nationalism and populism? What is the role of nationalism in a globalizing world? Must nationalism lead to more closed societies and less international cooperation? What are the consequences of the recent return of nationalist discourse in Europe and globally? These were some of the questions discussed in session two.

The discussion began with a recognition of distinctions. For example, it was noted that nationalism and xenophobic populism are not the same thing. Nationalism played an important role in the development of the modern nation-state and democracy, animating the very idea of rule by the people. But it risks planting the seed for an exclusionary ethnic nationalism, which can have a negative impact on democracy. One participant noted that in many respects what we are talking about is a crisis of liberal democracy, which includes a value for pluralism, and the sense that liberalism has not delivered in the context of globalization.

Session 3 turned toward issues related to peace and security.

The failure of the international system to respond successfully to the worst contemporary conflicts has fueled the perceptions of a crisis of multilateralism. Ineffectiveness on Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, South Sudan, and recently Venezuela have contributed to this sense. Currently, the UN Security Council in particular has proven to be too internally divided to make a significant impact on the most pressing peace and security issues.

Debates about current conflicts have raised new questions about the definition and conduct of just and unjust wars. When is it justified to start a war or to intervene in one? What actions are legally permissible in war, and what actions constitute war crimes? What is the proper role of multilateral institutions in deciding these questions? And how have attitudes toward International Humanitarian Law and the norms of war shifted in recent years? These were some of the questions addressed during session three.

Current trends reflect an increasing tendency of civil wars to become internationalized and an increasing vulnerability of civilians during conflict. Participants discussed how geopolitical divisions exacerbate these trends and how these trends affect our understanding of military interventions, civil wars, and how they are fought.

Participants discussed the laws of war, conflict prevention, the use of force to protect civilians, and the rising levels of criminal violence in some parts of the world.

Session 4 provided the opportunity for participants to engage in an interactive discussion to identify concrete opportunities for international cooperation. The crisis of multilateralism is real, but global challenges will not wait. The hard work of international cooperation must continue. Participants gathered in small roundtables to discuss a series of questions before reconvening as a group. 1) What issues present the best opportunities for positive multilateral engagement? 2) What mechanisms or processes offer the best chances of success of improving international cooperation? Do these need to be created, or do they already exist? 3) What kinds of actors hold the key? In addition to key member states, what is the role for regional organizations, civil society, the private sector, or other non-governmental actors?

Participants were also asked to identify their main takeaways from the day’s discussion, and what, if any, action points they would recommend. Key takeaways identified in the discussion included the need to discern which issues lend themselves to partial or functional coalitions for international cooperation and which require global, multilateral processes to move forward. At the end of the day, there was broad agreement that there is a need to broaden the circle to include more voices in multilateral processes, including civil society. In particular, the need to include women and youth was highlighted. There was also broad agreement that international cooperation cannot be only among the like-minded. There is a need to reach out to the “unlike-minded” as well.

One key action point in particular was discussed: there is a need to “bring it to the people.” The case for multilateralism must be made to the public, and the public must be engaged in questions of multilateralism.

The day ended on an optimistic note. While the challenges discussed over the course of the forum are daunting, it was generally agreed that that it is not all doom and gloom. Crises breed opportunities, and many actors are mobilizing to take advantage of them.

Speakers and panelists included: František Ružička, State Secretary, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic; Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, President, Istituto Affari Internazionali; Karin von Hippel, Director-General, The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI); Amre Moussa, Former Secretary-General of the Arab League; Turki Al Faisal, Chairman, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies; Steven Erlanger, New York Times Chief Diplomatic Correspondent for Europe; Reinhard Krumm, Head, The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Regional Office for Cooperation and Peace in Europe; Snežana Samardžić-Marković, Director-General for Democracy, The Council of Europe; Christian Strohal, Senior Adviser to the Slovak OSCE Chairperson-in-Office; Dragan Aleksoski, International Organization for Migration Austria; Anthony Dworkin, Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations; Kate Ferguson, Director, Protection Approaches; Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director, Policy Analysis and Public Affairs, UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Speaking for IPI were its president, Terje Rød-Larsen; Vice President Adam Lupel; and Senior Adviser Nasra Hassan.