Plurilateralism… get used to it

Those Orga­ni­za­tions will go on. So will mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism. This week is only anoth­er reminder that col­lab­o­ra­tive man­age­ment of the glob­al com­mons (peace, trade… pos­si­bly emis­sions) is, and always has been, very dif­fi­cult to achieve. The ‘one-world, one vision’ approach endorsed­by the U.N. in its cur­rent form and backed for six­ty years by the U.S. and Europe (chiefly) may be too hard to sus­tain for the next lit­tle while.

Dur­ing the past decade, the veil of mul­ti­lat­er­al col­lab­o­ra­tion thrown over the inner-work­ings of the U.N./Bretton-Woods man­age­ment frame­work has grown thin­ner and thin­ner. There has always been a cer­tain amount of stiff-arm­ing behind the veil. But, with appro­pri­ate restraint—including by Japan—it worked for a long time to deliv­er effec­tive glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tion. After this week, it will nev­er be quite the same.

But there’s no need for pan­ic. It’s a shame but no emer­gency that a U.N. meet­ing turns out to be anoth­er expen­sive dud. Just relax and try to enjoy the ride. Enjoy the rich­ness of greater glob­al diver­si­ty, for one thing.

The extra­or­di­nary thing about this week in Copen­hagen is not what we didn’t see (an agree­ment on emis­sions) but what we did see, clear­ly for the first time. The veil of mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism has fall­en long enough to show the world the present real­i­ties behind it.
  • First, of course, the expen­sive, chaot­ic sham of 192 nations in at least as many lim­ou­sines, from Tuvalu to the Unit­ed States, try­ing to agree on 1 text with at least 2 tar­gets lubri­cat­ed by a $100billion bribe (that turned out to be only a $10billion i.o.u.)
  • Sec­ond, and more impor­tant, The Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States being intro­duced to a meet­ing to which he not been invit­ed—at which he did not even have a seat—to nego­ti­ate a nar­row deal, sav­ing the appear­ance of col­lab­o­ra­tion, with Brazil, Chi­na, India and South Africa.

To enter the room, Oba­ma had to leave Europe and Japan out in the cold. He had to work out a deal with four giant economies that col­lec­tive­ly hold quite a few mark­ers on the future of the glob­al com­mons, but most of whom are by any mea­sure still poor coun­tries.

The account of this meet­ing is a vision of the glob­al frame­work for col­lab­o­ra­tion now and in the next few decades.

What we now have as a frame­work for glob­al orga­ni­za­tion is a roil­ing, argu­men­ta­tive, pluri­lat­er­al­ism where alliances and coali­tions slip and slide along a dozen dif­fer­ent planes of inter­na­tion­al endeav­our. Farewell to the old two-hand­ed back-room brawls and staged con­sen­sus of the pax atlanti­ca. In the new frame­work broad, top-down ‘solu­tions’ like Kyoto’s tar­gets and the WTO’s ‘Sin­gle Under­tak­ing’ cannnot be made to work by a fly­ing vis­it from the U.S. Pres­i­dent or alter­nate hand-wring­ing and blus­ter from Brus­sels.

The bad news—if you’d like the world to be a set­tled place ruled by, say, a benef­i­cent dic­ta­tor (oxy­moron) from Wash­ing­ton or even Beijing—is that ‘glob­al gov­er­nance’ now becomes a tricky mat­ter of rec­on­cil­ing and align­ing many dif­fer­ent, prob­a­bly autonomous, or at best region­al attempts to deal with the man­age­ment of glob­al com­mons. Guar­an­teed to be messy.

The good news—if you think that the real mea­sure of progress in the glob­al com­mons is how far ‘all boats rise’—is that the assertive­ness of the BASIC group (one re-con­fig­u­ra­tion of the BRICS) is a mark of their grow­ing wealth, con­fi­dence and sense of some sort of cor­po­rate inter­est.

I’m inclined to see this as the ear­ly stages of some­thing remark­able and pos­si­bly quite exit­ing.

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