The demise of (State) multilateralism in a multi-polar world

, par Goran Fejić

How come that thirty years after the end of the Cold War, instead of an open and inclusive multilateralism (a free acknowledgement of inter-dependence and a coming together of all for the common benefit) we have something totally different on the international scene : something better described by the terms unilateralism, confusion and even chaos. Why ?

Definitions and time-periods

We should perhaps start by defining some of the terms we will use.

By Cold War, we usually understand the period between the end of WWII and 1989, when the dominant feature of international relations was the division of the world into two antagonistic blocs, a kind of frozen geopolitical landscape, frozen by threat and by fear : the threat by and the fear of, mutual nuclear annihilation.

This definition of the Cold War is not perfect, none is.

First, it is not perfect because the bipolarity, though dominant, was far from being total. The bipolarity was challenged as of the mid-fifties by the emergence on the international scene of important new actors, former colonies, such as India, Indonesia, Arab and African countries, which gathered first Bandung in 1955, than in Belgrade in 1961, where they established the movement of Non Aligned countries, a group which grew steadily over the years, to become the majority group in the United Nations, a majority that did not have a hegemonic power, but could still challenge and indent the dominant bipolarity. We shall come back to that.

Second, the definition is not perfect because the war was far from being a "cold" one everywhere. It was "cold" in Europe, North America and to some extent in the space called today Eurasia. It was fully-fledged, burning and deadly in Asia and Africa ; suffice to mention the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the wars of national liberation in Africa, the bloody CIA-led coups d’Etat in Latin America. Even in Europe where the "backyards" of the two superpowers were more clearly defined by the Yalta agreements, conflicts would occasionally erupt from within the two blocs and blood would be shed before the bi-polar Yalta order would be re-established : let us recall the uprising in Hungary in 1956, the reform attempts in Czechoslovakia in 1968 (both ended by Soviet military intervention), the uprisings in France, also in 1968, the bombs exploding in trains and on public squares in Italy in the 1970s etc. Yet, none of those eruptions or simmering internal conflicts went far enough to undermine the dominant bi-polarity of the world. Until 1989.

(From the Vietnam War)

Finally, the definition is not perfect precisely when we refer to that ominous year - 1989 because remnant features of the Cold War seem to persist and survive in some parts of the world, even if the latter is no longer bipolar : Ukraine, Korea, perhaps Taiwan ?

(North Korea, 90s)

What do we understand as multilateralism in international relations ?

Of course, multilateralism is not just a question of numbers : having one, two or more players on the international scene. The term is polysemantic and has its long history, basically a history of imagining relations between states as determined by commonly agreed rules rather than by pure force and sovereign will. Today, the term most frequently used is "international governance".

The idea itself can be traced back to the French Enlightenment. It includes envisioning a "rationality" in international relations, envisioning peace as a value to be pursued and maintained by rational behaviour of states and political leaders, perhaps through some sort of social contract between states.

Until the first half of the Twentieth century attempts to subject international relations to commonly agreed rules of behaviour were sporadic and limited.

The first attempt to establish such a system at a global level was the League of Nations created in 1920, after WWI. Its primary goal included preventing wars and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. As we know, the League blatantly failed to stop the Nazi and fascist powers to carry out their aggressions and to trigger WWII. But even before that, the League’s credibility was undermined by the fact that the United States never joined it, that the Soviet Union joined late and was soon expelled after invading Finland, and, of course its credibility was flawed by the very fact that a huge part of the world - the colonised countries were simply left out. As to Germany, Japan and Italy, they withdrew from the League, as it became a burden to their expansionist policies.

(UN HQ, New York)

The best known, only relatively successful, but still active body of global governance is, of course, the United Nations, established after WWII with the stated aim :

" - To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

- To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the
Human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and
small, and

- To establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising
from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom. "

I have quoted from the preamble of the UN Charter not only because I believe it is a beautiful, clear and rather straightforward text, but also because it states the purpose and mandate of the organisation : a mandate focused on three key objectives : peace, human rights and social development.

The United Nations evolved into a very large system. We shall not examine here the role of its different bodies and their respective successes and failures.

Of course, the United Nations is not the only organisation embodying and practicing multilateralism today. An important role is played by regional organisations in all parts of the world or by organisations specialized in very specific areas where the need exists at international level to share information, to observe some common rules and to conform to joint standards.

However, the United Nations, by the very importance of the issues it deals with and, particularly, by its aspiration to universality (pls. note, I am saying "aspiration to", not "achieved universality [1]) remains emblematic.

My view is that multilateralism is seriously endangered today, and paradoxically, it seems to be sliding on a downward slope precisely at a time when it is most needed and when the world may be in the process of becoming truly multipolar.

In order to better understand this paradox I think we should we look at the interaction between the historical context and the functioning of the UN in different periods, from 1945 to our times.

This is important because the UN is not just a simple sum of its member states, it doesn’t just act as a mirror of the relations between its member-states. Being such a large organisation, it has its own "inertia", and that inertia can have, so to say, a positive or a negative impact. For example, UN teams engaged in peace processes or in humanitarian activities are bound to follow the principles of the Charter and other international legislation. In doing so, they often go beyond what member-states would like to do at a particular moment. We often see the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for refugees) acting as a "whistle-blower" and appealing directly to world public opinion rather than to reluctant individual member-states. This inertia can also have a negative impact. An emblematic example is probably the opposition of the big powers to any reform of the Security Council, even today, when its composition has long ceased to reflect the real balance of power in the world (for example, there is no permanent member from either Africa of Latin America, India and Brazil are not permanent members while France is, etc.) There were periods when the UN helped to boost progressive change in the world (such as decolonisation) and other periods when the UN was used and abused to prevent such change. And also, periods when the UN was seen as an obstacle or a useless entity.

I suggest considering five distinct periods :

1. The initial years - from 1945 (the founding) to the full-scale extension of the Cold War, say the mid-seventies ;

2. The period of decolonisation and of the search for a more just international economic order, (from the early sixties to the late-seventies) ;

3. The years of Thatcher-Reaganism which marked the beginnings of the demise of multilateralism (from the mid-seventies to the late eighties) ;

4. The confusion that follows the end of the Cold War - a parallel surge of multilateralism and unilateralism and the notorious effects of the so-called Washington consensus.

5. Our current times : more confusion, both institutional and ideological, the rise of populism and its toxic effects on multilateralism.

Putting history into boxes is always an oversimplification : "periods" overlap ; their beginnings and their ends are not the same depending on the issues we look at and geographical regions etc. So, this "periodisation" is just a tentative tool to organise our thinking.


We are in 1945 : the world just came out of the horrors of WWII with its massive killings and devastations, the genocide, the material misery that ensued and the moral outrage once the smoke settled. The general outcry was "never again" and the political expressions of that outcry were the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights - inspired, emancipatory, almost poetic documents (for the same reasons, very difficult to amend and adjust in the decades that followed). You could almost look at them as the "birth-certificates" of what happened to be known later as the "international community."

Yet, very soon thereafter, in fact almost simultaneously, this "coming together of nations" receded, giving room to a deep division of the world into two antagonistic, almost irreconcilable blocs.

The institutional expression of that deep lack of confidence is to be found in the fact that the UN that just got its inspiring constitution - the Charter, also got rules that drastically restrained the equality of its members. I am referring of course to the Security Council and to the so-called veto power of its five permanent members.

This was idealism balanced by diplomatic realism : It meant : "we shall all have access to the floor, but our words do not have the same weight". "Some of us, but not all of us, will have the ability to generate or to reject legal commitments". Diplomats are people with a sense for realism and they understand that. If you want the big ones to continue discussing issues in a common forum, you should accord them the privileges they demand for themselves. Otherwise, they will simply go away and discuss what they deem important elsewhere, among themselves. Precisely what is happening today with the G-7, G-20 etc.

In one way or another, this "realistic" balance between universality of membership and special privileges for the few has contributed for a long time to making the UN a forum where debates were indeed engaged and solutions sought for the most important issues of peace and development. With a very mixed success, of course. However, the role of the UN, as THE world multilateral forum, was not questioned.


The number of UN member-states has doubled from the 51 founding members to 100 in 1960 and continued to grow. Most of the new members were decolonised African and Asian states who did not recognise themselves in the Cold War division and aspired to a different world - one that would be free from the nuclear threat and in which they would be free to chose their political system and to set their developmental priorities.

After the First Conference of the Non-aligned movement in 1961 in Belgrade, these countries increasingly acted as a pressure group in the United Nations. Old-fashioned colonialism was loosing ground. Non-aligned countries strongly supported the national liberation movements in Africa and Asia, taking advantage of the provisions of international law, including the UN Charter, which refers to the right to peoples to self-determination in its very first article.

Numbers started to matter in the UN regardless of the fact that the resolutions of the General Assembly were devoid of legal force as opposed to those of the Security Council. Instruments existed that could be used when necessary to circumvent the paralysis of the Security Council, in cases when the latter failed to act in a conflict, due to the veto of a permanent member (GA resolution 377 "United for Peace", dating from 1950).

The two super-powers, in pursuance of their "zero-sum game" policies, sought to "lure" and "seduce” the non-aligned and, indeed, managed to engage some of them as their proxies or "extended arms" (Cuba for the USSR, some of the Gulf states or some Latin Americas states for the US). Yet, the core group continued to push for a world that would no longer be divided along antagonistic blocks, for decolonisation and disarmament etc.

Most importantly, the non aligned countries became the acting spirit behind the so called Group of 77 - a coalition of developing countries that came together for the first time in 1964 in Geneva and decided to pursue the ideal of a more equal and just international economic order. The group was initially composed of 77 countries, hence its name, but grew to more than 134 members and constituted itself in practically all United Nations bodies dealing with social, economic, and even cultural and information issues : UNCTAD (the UN Conference on Trade and Development), UNIDO (the UN Industrial Development Organisation), the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organisation), UNEP (the UN Environment Programme), UNESCO etc.

The leading idea was that the post-colonial economic playing field should be made less biased in favour of the rich and powerful, that the system of commodity markets, trade barriers, finance for development etc. should not systematically favour the owners of capital and of means of economic coercion.

The idea may seem naive and incongruous in today’s dominant neo-liberal environment. Today, you don’t discuss and you don’t vote any longer in international fora on economic and financial issues, on the basis of the "one country-one vote" principle. Today, such negotiations are a matter of finance and power only, not something you can influence by mobilising numbers of have-nots.

We have long forgotten that back in the 60s and the 70s this idea of a more just and balanced world economic order was credible and seemed attainable. It carried huge expectations throughout the global South and was advocated by eminent economist such as Raoul Prebish from Argentina, Celso Furtato from Brazil or Samir Amin from Egypt.

What did this period mean for multilateralism and for the UN ?

On the one hand, we had the already described frozen, bipolar world with the dominant powers vetoing each-other in an endless zero-sum game to perpetuate their dominant position and to secure their "spheres of influence” ; but, on the other, we had a powerful undercurrent of emerging forces, epitomized essentially, but not only, by the non-aligned movement, that kept "rocking the boat", using the UN and taking advantage of the progressive, humanistic principles enshrined in its Charter in order to promote decolonisation and a new, more progressive international legislation.

That, as we see today, worked only to some extent. The old colonial system was dismantled in its geo-political sense, much less in the minds of the powerful. In the economic field, the power principle prevailed. But, the multilateral dynamics set in motion in those times, continued for many years to generate and sustain hope in a better future for millions, particularly in the global South. These were also, in my view, the golden years of the UN and of 20th century state-multilateralism. Incidentally, they were also the years my youth. (I have no problem in admitting that for that very reason, my own recollection of those times may be positively biased). In any case they are gone with the wind ! Both.


There is nothing incidental in the fact that the advent of Thacher-Reaganism in the domestic policies of the leading Western states - the US and the UK in particular - in the late 70s and early 80s, coincided with their continued attempts to downgrade the role and the capacity of the United Nations.

"Deregulation" was the key word. Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote "there is no such thing as society" could perfectly be "internationalised" to read, "there is no such thing as international community".

Hence, there is nothing to "regulate". Market forces should do their job on both domestic and international markets. Market forces should also dictate what issues should be placed on the agenda and who should be convened to tackle them. Trade issues are limited to tariffs and should be discussed in the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, later to become the WTO). Likewise, development finance in the World Bank. And the indebtedness of the developing countries should be a matter of concern to specific debtors and specific creditors, no one else. The current economic order is the only possible one, it is the "normal way" to do business, and successful business is to be carried by successful private entrepreneurs. States, societies and international organisations have nothing to say on that matter.

Thus, the old East-West divide in the UN got combined with a new North-South divide. The latter would often take the form of protracted and inconclusive debates in the General Assembly and other fora such as UNCTAD, between the Group of 77 (developing countries) and the industrialised countries (members of the OECD).

Whenever possible the G-77 would seek consensus to move things ahead. They knew they were the majority group. But, on economic and social issues there was no point in getting resolutions adopted by vote, as it was obvious that the industrialised countries would never implement a resolution imposed upon them by vote if they saw it as opposed to their convictions. On the rare occasions when some sort of consensus was reached, it was at the cost of substantive concessions by the developing countries, that would totally dilute their intent and deprive the agreement of any chance to generate meaningful change.

US and UK diplomacies, as well as those of some other developed Western countries, increasingly started looking at and depicting the UN as an overgrown, useless entity that only disturbs the smooth running of businesses and only draws large amounts of money from their tax-payers’ pockets.

The negative attitude of the US towards the United Nations was particularly awkward if one recalls that the US, not only was among the founders of the UN after WWII, but that President Roosevelt himself did a lot to convince other allies, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in particular, to join the organisation.

In fact, the turbulent relation of the US with the UN has a long history. It starts before Thatcher-reaganism, and derives essentially from political rather than economic disagreements. One of the early clashes erupted for example when "the People’s Republic of China" replaced "the Republic of China" (Taiwan) in the UN in 1971 - in spite of the fact that the US was soon to follow the majority in the UN after Nixon’s visit to Beijing.

Yet, the most frequent sources of friction were UN resolutions on the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The US systematically used its veto power to block resolutions condemning or criticizing Israel.

With the advent of Thatcher-Reaganism, the rejection of the demands of developing countries on economic and social issues coupled with the old animosity generated by the unilateral and extremely biased policy of the US in the Middle East. What was emerging was indeed a sense of incompatibility of a global multilateral organisation such as the UN with a unipolar worldview and strategy of a superpower.

This attitude of the US had a direct negative impact on the institutional capacity of the UN. The US - the largesst financial contributor to the organisation. (25% of the budget, subsequently reduced to 22%) refused on a number of occasions to pay its UN dues in order to force UN compliance with US policies including on internal UN reforms - essentially the scaling-down of programmes of technical and other assistance to developing countries. Part of these policies was also the US withdrawal from UNESCO.


In the late 80s, when Gorbatchev set rolling the perestroika it was obvious that a major change was taking place in the Soviet Union. When the change of government in Poland did not, as some feared, end up with a Soviet invasion, but on the contrary, provoked a domino effect in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the change acquired the proportions of a historical breakthrough. Still, when people started demolishing the Berlin wall in November 1989, few could imagine what the-post Cold War world would look like. It was a tectonic shift and no one was prepared for it.

- Some, like the famous (or infamous) Francis Fukuyama called it "the end of History".

- "By the grace of God, America won the Cold War", said President George H.W. Bush in his address on the state of the Union, 1992.

- Much before that, Gorbachev’s advisor Alexander Arbatov had reportedly said to his US counterparts : "We are going to do a terrible thing to you : we are going to deprive you of an enemy".

Now, how can one win a war when deprived of an enemy is less clear ; the claim of the American President was obviously intended essentially for domestic audiences.

This "end of the short 20th century" as described by the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm stimulated the political imagination of many, boosted huge expectations, but also provoked deep feelings of political disorientation, loss and uncertainty (as rendered poignantly by the testimonies gathered by Svetlana Alexejevitch, (Byelorussian writer and Nobel prize winner) in her political essays.

As far as the international political landscape is concerned, two views prevailed : 1) "The West won the Cold war" and 2) "the World finally came together". Both, of course, were huge oversimplifications ; none is completely false though, and each of them, when translated into a political strategy, produced far-reaching implications.

The new geopolitical setting had some positive effects. The long civil wars in Central America, for example, lost their dimension of "proxy wars" as they ceased to be looked at by the US as part of their strategy of "containment of communism". Insurgent guerrilla movements and governments finally engaged in serious negotiations and reached meaningful peace agreements, as in El Salvador and in Guatemala in the mid-nineties. These peace processes were encouraged, supported and monitored by the United Nations.

Likewise, the apartheid regime in South Africa lost its prerogative as a "barrier against communism". The abhorrent nature of apartheid remained naked and undefendable in western public opinions. Gradually and peacefully, apartheid was dismantled and outlawed, a process crowned by the first democratic (non racial) elections in that country in 1994, also supported, accompanied and closely monitored by the UN.

Other processes were less encouraging.

As an example of the "recovered capacity of the United Nations to act" some analysts highlighted the fact that the five permanent members of the Security Council, after a long time, could reach a consensus on an important peace and security issue. They refer to the resolution by which the Security Council authorised the American intervention against Iraq in the so-called First Gulf war in 1991 [2]. I don’t think this is a good example. Yes, Iraq was occupying Kuwait, but the massive American bombing that ensued, could hardly, in my view, be described as a peacekeeping operation. More than anything, it testified of the overwhelming growth of influence in the UN of the one and only left superpower, which would be better described as a surge of unilateralism, rather than multilateralism in the world.

The implosion of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe and particularly in the former Soviet Union, while, on one hand, lifting restrictions to individual liberties and political rights, also meant the demise of any functioning state. "When you lift the stone of authoritarianism", someone said, "what you find underneath is not democracy". What you find, more than anything else, is chaos, confusion, corruption, the disappearance of all social safety nets and a general frenzy of people to adjust to, and benefit from the chaos by pillaging through the débris. A kind of new "primary capital accumulation".

Chaos and insecurity induce people to look for shelter. The first, handy refuge, available immediately at no cost was identity - national or religious, or both, coming together. The political space left by ideology was soon to be re-occupied by nationalism. Nationalism became a new source of "political legitimacy" and multiple nationalisms (they are never as happy as when they act together) ended up triggering a new type of violent armed conflicts in the Caucasus, in the Balkans and elsewhere, a type of conflicts the leading international actors in the UN, in the EU and elsewhere, were unprepared and unable to deal with.

Hence we have this very contradictory geopolitical setting in the early nineties that includes some successful peace processes in Central America and the end of apartheid in South Africa, but also, new wars in Eurasia and the Balkans, and - never to be forgotten - the genocide in Rwanda.

In spite of this disconcerting diversity of situations, the new hegemonic powers - those claiming to have "won the Cold War", wanted to believe (and to make others believe) that there is basically only one way to fix all problems and lead all countries to the "bright new world" of peace, democracy and development. It would be sufficient, according to them, to install everywhere, transparent multi-party regimes, legitimised by free and fair elections and even more importantly, to make sure that governments apply systematically the economic recipes supposed to have generated the prosperity of the developed western world.

All these recipes, without exception, rely on the acknowledgement of the supposedly unfaltering and undebatable virtues of market forces and private ownership.

A set of neoliberal policy prescriptions was developed that constituted a standard reform recipe to be applied in all so called "countries in transition", East European and African alike, as if those countries were blank pages, with no history, memory or experience of their own. These recipes became the centrepiece of the genuine new ideology known as the Washington consensus (the name, of course refers to the city that hosts the three main institutions where such policy advice had been elaborated : The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Department of Treasury).

Prescriptions included, among other things, a total opening of national economies to global market forces, a privatisation of public and state enterprises, the avoidance of fiscal deficits, which most often meant restrictions in public spending for education and health. The implementation of these measures, it goes without saying, was supposed to take place in a liberal, multi-party political environment. Yet, if and when, free elections happened to bring to the fore governments with different social priorities, the new world policemen, the international financial institutions (IFIs) and creditors’ clubs, applied the necessary pressure so as to minimize deviations from their prescriptions, even if this implied ignoring the political programme with which the government in question won the elections (the recent emblematic case in point is Greece after the accession to power of the Syriza party).

Washington consensus policies were applied for more than two decades and their disastrous effects on social policies and poverty levels are well known today and acknowledged even by their initial promoters, IMF and WB economists. The poorest African countries to which such policies were indiscriminately applied experienced an economic stagnation during those years while their social inequalities deepened and poverty spread. At the same time, East Asian countries where the state continued to play an important role in promoting industrial and social policies as well as in poverty alleviation, registered a 5% average growth. It is not surprising that such policies prompted popular unrest and contributed to the recrudescence of civil wars in the 1990s and in the first decade of the new millennium.

The effects of the Washington consensus policies on world governance were also devastating. Institutional power shifted from the United Nations as a global forum based on a one country - one vote principle, to the international financial institutions (IMF and WB) and rich-country informal groups such as the G-7. This, in my view, is a demise of true multilateralism in favour of the rule of the few.

However, it is not poverty in Africa or the rising inequalities in Eastern Europe that triggered doubts in the unfaltering virtues of the perfect free market. Two major events prompted these doubts : first, the 2008 financial crisis administered the strongest blow so far to the "true believers” in free markets and the second event was the geo-political shift in economic power. The dominance of the West became less pronounced and less obvious. The BRICS and China in particular emerged as new players with the ability to distort and disrupt the old Bretton Woods system. Smaller countries of the Global South, African countries in particular, suddenly realised that they had a choice, that they were no longer held prisoners of the "conditionaities" imposed by the Washington consensus policies. They were able to choose among different investors and creditors, and consequently, opt for development models they felt more comfortable with.

Shifts in economic hegemony entailed shifts in political influence. China doesn’t make its investments conditional upon the acceptance of certain standards in the field of human rights, fight against corruption, protection of minorities or organisation of transparent elections. The new BRICS investors often came with longer-term strategic objectives and did not necessarily expect quick returns on their capital. China understood the importance of infrastructure and started building road and railroad networks in Africa and Asia. Unlike Europe or the US, it refrained from offering political advice. On the contrary, it came with politically forthcoming signals as when it graciously donated African countries their new meeting point : China built the new palace hosting the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Columnists have already named this new phenomenon "the Beijing consensus".

(African Union HQ, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)


For nearly two decades, the United Nations has faced financial difficulties and it has been forced to cut back on important programmes in all areas, even as new mandates have arisen. The United Nations and all its agencies and funds spend about $30 billion each year, or about $4 for each of the world’s inhabitants. This is a very small sum compared to most government budgets and it is less than three percent of the world’s military spending.

It is sad and pathetic to watch a large UN body, one of the most effective by all criteria, and composed of dedicated people, like the UNHCR - the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, having to beg donors for money to help rescuing those whose very lives are threatened by war, by religious or nationalistic intolerance or natural disasters like desertification.

What I call demise in multilateralism has many faces, of course not only financial.

Sometimes, it has a foretaste of a new Cold War, like when the US withdraws from the INF (Intermediate-reange Nuclear Forces) treaty with Russia.

On other occasions, it looks like a sarcastic mocking of scientific evidence, as when the same superpower, the US, withdraws from the Paris agreement on climate change, an initial, still very shy attempt to institutionalise a kind of collective responsibility for maintaining a liveable environment on this planet.

The European Union itself, which claims to be more supportive of multilateralism than other large players, is giving a very poor image of itself. It has practically closed its external borders to refugees and asylum seekers and chosen to ignore its international commitments on these issues - or, to say the least, to implement them in a very restrictive way. Increasingly, the EU member states, go as far as to prevent NGOs and humanitarian associations from rescuing boat-people in the Mediterranean. Only when images of drowning people threaten to turn public opinions against them, some governments reluctantly authorize the entry of a handful of migrants here and there, on an ad-hoc basis and without any longer-term plans and commitments.

I am less knowledgeable about the situation in the South China sea, but for what I read, the emerging superpower in that part of the world, while claiming to be very attached to the idea of "harmony", does not seek to negotiate harmonious solutions with its neighbours.

The looming environmental disasters, climate change, the desertification of vast areas of the human habitat and the sinking of others under rising sea levels, the fast depletion of vital finite resources, the deepening and already appalling levels of inequality among and within countries, mass migrations...wherever we turn, we see red lights blinking and we hear alarm sirens sounding.

On the one hand, the call for a strong pulling together of the world’s collective wisdom - if such a thing exists at all - the need for joint multilateral action has never been stronger.

On the other, the mistrust of any multilateral strategy, the reluctance of people and political leaderships to accord their confidence to any transnational body or institution, seem to have never been stronger either.

The terms "chaos" is perhaps the most recurrent one in all attempts do describe the world in which we live today. The system is gripped, perhaps beyond repair. Most of those mandated and empowered to act have no coherent strategies on global issues, blinded as they are by short-term domestic concerns : caring about their image and boosting their ratings of popularity.

The problem is not just about short-sighted leaders and institutions alienated from their electorates, in other words, about a broken transmission in the system of representation. There is a lot of that too. But there is, even more, a sort of abdication of governments to the diktat of global finance and corporate interests, which in these uncertain times, send erratic and contradictory signals.

In the country where I live, France, globalisation has a bad image. The word designates something nasty, hardly graspable, but definitely harmful, a phenomenon responsible for the flight of French industries abroad, austerity politics, pressure on public spending on education and health, unemployment...and, perhaps, the loss of taste of the French bread - the famous "baguette". It is not surprising therefore that the uprising of the "yellow vests" last year, often targeted the "symbols" of globalization" : international trade agreements, expensive restaurants and luxury shops, and the President of the Republic, seen as being too supportive of globalisation and of the rich who benefit from it. Somehow, the yellow vests omitted to target employers - private entrepreneurs and also, the tax-evading multinationals like Twitter whose facilities they used extensively as their main communication and mobilisation tool. Some of the yellow vests marchers also wore what they thought to be the characteristic Gallic helmet, thus signalling their identity and their attachment to their land, their origin and their ancestors, and, implicitly, their suspicion of whatever is foreign, cosmopolitan and global.

It is true that during the past few decades, neoliberal globalization has not only become unstoppable, it - has affected countries and social groups in a very uneven way. It has reshuffled the playing fields of economy and finance within and among countries and continents. It has allowed millions in China and other countries in Asia, to pull themselves out of poverty ; it has also signalled to other millions that they are superfluous, that society doesn’t need them, that they can simply walk away and disappear. Globalisation has brought about abyssal, shocking and totally unsustainable levels of inequality, this last point being highlighted today by very influential economists like Thomas Piketty in France.

Unfortunately, in blaming their oppressors and in seeking protection and shelter from the devastating effects of globalisation, its opponents often chose the wrong targets. This is not surprising since the right targets - the power centres and lobbies of global finance - remain out of reach and their machineries too complicated, eclectic and evasive to be even identified, not to mention molested in their wrongdoing.

The visible culprits, then, are all those who insist on the positives sides of remaining open to the world, those who argue that true solutions should be sought jointly with others, in common fora. In other terms, those who see multilateralism, not as a problem, but, on the contrary, as something indispensible to address the problem, those willing to look beyond appearances and to seek allies and solidarities beyond national borders.

Unbridled neoliberal global finance has not only exacerbated material inequalities : it did the same or worse with regard to access to knowledge and people’s ability to use and share knowledge, language, dialogue, debate...

Globalisation has come to designate complication, elite thinking, the intellectual class, politicians and institutions, all of them equally alienated from the people’s daily needs and concerns. Those needs, it is claimed, should be tackled as they once were, by national governments, faithful to their peoples, their nation, a faithfulness that can’t have a better proof than ignoring, suspecting and blaming others.

In the same line, electorates will not hail and approve policy proposals to be carried-out with others, but rather those to be pursued in spite of others, if not against them. Whether it is about containing the so called "migrants" invasion" or introducing new protectionist measures, giving preference to domestic technology or domestic farmers, the logic is the same.

When they claim to be "directly responsive" to the people, populist leaders and political parties today call themselves "anti-systemic", for example the "5 Stars Movement" party in Italy. Yet, there is nothing "anti-systemic" in the way they act. They are not anarchists. They take part in elections and when they enter the government, they swear their allegiance to the Constitution as anyone else. The only "anti-systemic" aspect of their behaviour is that they refuse to be seen as part of the "elite", they reject the "left versus right paradigm" and consciously nurture ideological and programmatic confusion. They take erratic, impromptu decisions, in response of what they claim to be people’s most immediate demands - demands they have often induced themselves by what I call "politics of fear", ignoring data and any substantive analysis of any topic, refraining from any constructive pedagogy and leadership. They encourage people to distrust analysis, to refrain from political thinking, to rely on what is presented to them as "common sense", but that supposed common sense is most often only a simplistic cliché, a single element, willingly distorted, taken out of its context and expressed as a mobilising slogan such as Trump’s "America first !" or Boris Johnson’s "Take back control" ! or France’s Marine Le Pen’s "protect Europe against migrants’ invasion !"

Anti-institutionalism and a real cult of ignorance, are the defining characteristics of populist politics.

Anti-institutionalism works both on the domestic terrain and at internationally, with the same logic.

One has to admit that institutions, both domestic and international are to some extent responsible for their faltering credibility. Political parties, involved as they are in endless opportunistic manoeuvrings, are indeed losing their capacity to aggregate opinions and proposals and to represent their constituencies. Parliaments often host endless and inconclusive debates - very much like those in the UN General Assembly. The EU legislation has become at the same time too complicated and too vulnerable by corporate interests. All this is true. But then, when you throw away institutions, you have most likely thrown away the baby with the dirty water - to use the famous saying. You are left without the instance of negotiation and compromise. You have cleared the road to violent conflict, chaos and war.

I wanted to point to the link between the current rise of populisms all over the place and the demise of multilateralism. These two trends are, in my view, deeply inter-related ; they have common origins, they both feed on fear and a loss of positive vision for the future, they support each other in many ways and multiply each other’s pernicious effects.

I don’t believe any of the two can be curbed while the other is blooming.

Now, there are to additional points - one question that I would like to ask myself aloud, and one positive note on which I would like to end.

The question is the following : nationalistic populisms, populisms that sustain unilateral, self-centred behaviour at international level are on the rise not only in European countries which may indeed be seen as the net loosers of the process of globalisation (due to the outsourcing of many industries and services, consequent loss of jobs etc). They also flourish in countries that are definitely net winners in the global competition such as India or Brazil. Can the origins of these populisms also be traced-down to the already mentioned longing for a shelter and a less uncertain future ? I believe they can. In these countries too, regardless of overall increases of average income levels, inequalities have grown as well as existential uncertainties linked to exclusion, lack of access to education etc. There too, populism and nationalism can find a fertile land to grow together. There too, they remain the easiest ways to homogenize national electorates without much need for pedagogy on complex issues.

The positive endnote :

This, rather pessimistic story, speaks primarily about the fate and current disarray of what we may call state-multilateralism. I have in mind, as I already pointed out, the United Nations and their multiple bodies, specialised agencies and regional branches, but also evolving "federation-building" projects like the European Union or, on another level, the African Union. They are not in a good shape as they suffer most from the current spreading and strengthening of national-populism, of the unilateral, self-centred and testosterone-fuelled policies of the Trumps, Putins, Modis, Bolsonaros, Salvinis and the like.

Will these institutions all fail, like their predecessor, the League of Nations, to stop a new tide of fascist-like power politics ?

We can’t know. Luckily, people do come together without the mediation of states : scientists, intellectuals, scholars and students, artists, bloggers and whistle-blowers, thinkers in all imaginable domains. They are not shielded in any way from the rest of the crowd and from the contamination by national-populism. Yet, they could be more resilient to it.

Today’s whistle-blowers and boat-rockers, both outside and within institutions, those often accused of spreading alarming news and betraying national security interests, those refusing to comply with fascist-like, anti-immigrant injunctions and threats by some governments - like the two women captains of NGO ships, currently sued in Italy for having rescued shipwrecked immigrants.. are probably the bearers of the little light at the end of the tunnel.

We can only hope, in spite of all the odds, that the search for the way out of the chaos will be shorter than what has been predicted by late prof. Wallerstein - who passed away only weeks ago - when he said :

All systems have three moments : their coming into existence, their "normal" lives whose rules we can discern, and finally the moment of their structural crisis. We have arrived at this third moment, when all processes have moved far from equilibrium. We have been living in it already for perhaps fifty years and this crisis may not be resolved for another 30-40 years".

Goran Fejić

- First talk broadly derived from this text : Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Taipei, Taiwan, 5/11/2019 ;
- Second talk broadly derived from this text : International Institute for Cultural Studies, NCTU, Hsinchu, Taiwan, 27/11/2019


[1Taiwan, East Germany during the "Hallsteinn doctrine 1955-1970 etc.

[2On 29 November 1990, the Security Council passed Resolution 678 which gave Iraq until 15 January 1991 to withdraw from Kuwait and empowered states to use "all necessary means" to force Iraq out of Kuwait after the deadline. . This was the legal authorization for the Gulf War, as Iraq did not withdraw by the deadline.