Multilateralism: A View From Poland

17 December 2020   ·   Maciej Pisarski

If multilateralism is in crisis today, it is because individual states turn away from it. Democracies should do their part to mitigate this by defending the values intrinsic to multilateralism. To make its White Paper a success, Germany should pursue new formats of multilateral cooperation across continents and sectors, and tap into the potential of existing ones.

Multilateralism is generally seen as a method through which more than two members of the international community pursue a common goal. We refer to multilateralism as an instrument of international collaboration based on a set of principles and generally accepted “rules of the road”. However, it goes beyond a mere technical process.

More Than a Method: Multilateralism Is Valuable Because of the Norms It Entails

Multilateralism conveys a certain normative value by placing the imperative of collaboration in the very center of international activities, searching for common ground and compromising on often conflicting interests. Thus, it produces precious added value in bridging divisions, lowering tensions, and giving the status of stakeholders and contributors to joint solutions to all involved parties – as opposed to being just passive receivers of decisions taken by more influential players. Multilateralism seems the only viable option in dealing with global challenges, which exceed the capacities and resources of even the most powerful countries.

This is all the more true for Poland, a middle-sized European country, whose security and prosperity depend on the strength and relevance of multilateral structures such as NATO and the European Union. Indeed, the very existence of Poland as an independent and sovereign country hinges on the respect of the norms of international law. This is certainly true for the vast majority of countries in the world. Therefore, Poland is guided by the belief that only international relations based on the principles and norms of international law can bring peace to the world, and that this law should not only be respected but also constantly improved. Indeed, this was the core message of Poland’s membership in the United Nations Security Council during our 2018-2019 tenure. It continues to animate Poland’s actions in the UN Human Rights Council and is at the center of attention as we prepare to chair the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2022.

If Multilateralism Is in Crisis, It’s Because Individual States Jeopardize It for Their Own Goals

The world today is experiencing a moment of heightened instability and uncertainty. The global pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends and sharpened divisions. Like never before, it brought forth unexpected vulnerabilities resulting from globalization. It reignited yet again the long-lived myth that autocracies are somehow better than democracies at mastering an effective response to such emergencies. State-sponsored disinformation campaigns of half-truths and outright lies strive to undermine confidence in the integrity of the democratic processes. Countries such as Russia continue their aggressive policies. Indeed, at the very moment when the world needs  an effective multilateral response to a global calamity more than ever, the international organizations who are striving to provide such a response have been sidelined or highly influenced by countries which, according to one prominent German politician, exercise the so-called multilateralism à la carte. Although these corrosive strategies claim to be respecting international rules, they aim in reality at securing particular interests and increasing unilateral possibilities of action. By stuffing the governing bodies of international organizations with loyal functionaries, leaving them, or blocking their activities, such actors aim to “privatize” international institutions, effectively taking them over. 

However, it is not multilateralism that has failed – it is the countries that are turning away from it, or trying to turn it into a tool for pursuing only their own particular interests. Therefore, doing away with the nefarious “zero-sum game” mentality, even if dressed in lofty language at times, must be a necessary precondition for restoring trust in international organizations. 

The United Nations system and regional organizations such as the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe boast an impressive record of ensuring peace, reducing conflicts, and stabilizing war zones. Organizations that aim to stabilize and resolve conflicts should not be jeopardized by local powers who have an interest in prolonging these conflicts. For instance, no one should be happy that the OSCE-backed Minsk Group was pushed aside in solving the recent outburst of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

New Multilateral Formats Should Be Pursued Across Continents, Including Private-Public Partnerships

The multilateral system has seen many challenges since the end of the Cold War. We live in such a moment today. To convince great or emerging powers to return to the idea of multilateralism – not only in talk but also in deed – has never been an easy task. Perhaps there will be new momentum in this regard with the incoming US administration.  However, we must never stop trying, precisely because, as it has already been mentioned, no single nation can solve global problems alone. This includes the challenges of climate change, natural disasters, health threats, frozen conflicts, mass migration, the digital revolution – especially in education, cybersecurity, and disinformation – and human rights and freedoms, including the protection of women, children, and people with disabilities in armed conflicts, as well as the freedom of religion and belief.

Other avenues to explore include initiating new formats of multilateral cooperation (like the Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism) or tapping the potential of existing ones, such as the Warsaw-based Community of Democracies, which could play an increasingly instrumental role in prompting democratic responses to autocratic challenges in areas such as digitization, artificial intelligence, and data and privacy protection.

Meaningful initiatives to revive multilateralism have also been put forward by countries outside of Europe. There is a need to include key players from other continents, such as India, Japan, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, as well as key African countries. There is a wealth of experience with multilateralism in Africa, Latin America, and across Asia, from the African Union to ASEAN. An important dimension of multilateralism could also come in form of public-private partnerships, contributing, for example, to enhancing global public health or combatting climate change.

Democracies Should Promote the Universal Values That Underpin Multilateralism

As we face the uncertain third decade of the 21st century, we must go back to the basics of diplomacy, look for compromises, common goals, and interests. But multilateralism and organizations based on its idea should not strive for uniformity at the expense of individualism of its members. This has never worked, and is bound to fail again. Yet, we cannot build effective multilateralism in a normative vacuum or on vaguely formulated principles. Values enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe should be upheld as the common foundation for international cooperation. They have stood the test of time and are universally accepted – albeit not always respected.

Democratic countries bear a special responsibility for promoting these values. Europe and the United States, which share common values and close interests, should be able to work together within international organizations to advance a rules-based global order – which is much needed in a world of constant flux. Poland is willing to do its part.

Cooperation Multilateralismus Völkerrecht

Maciej Pisarski

Maciej Pisarski is Director-General of the Department of Foreign Policy Strategy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Poland.