Dr Hanna Ojanen is an expert on European foreign, security and defence policy and Adjunct Professor (docent) of international relations at the University of Helsinki. She holds a doctorate from the European University Institute in Florence. Her previous positions include Jean Monnet Professor at the University of Tampere (Faculty of Management), Programme Director of the Research Programme on the European Union, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and Head of Research, Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Her recent research has focused on inter-organisational relations (particularly EU-NATO-UN relations) and her book entitled 'The EU’s Power in Inter-Organisational Relations' was published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan. She is member of the Council of the European Council on Foreign Relations as well as Commissioner in the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (World Council of Churches, Geneva).
The challenges and future of multilateral cooperation
Comment in the seminar “The future and challenges of the multilateral cooperation – focus on the OSCE” organised by WISE on 23 November 2018
For some time now, we have been living in an era of alarming headlines about multilateral cooperation and international organisations. We hear about member states leaving organisations after decades of membership, or threatening to leave, withdrawing their funding, and obstructing decision-making in different ways.
The most worrisome of all might be that international organisations are increasingly viewed in a negative light, as if in opposition to their member states. This is a complete reversal of our traditional understanding.
The basic function of international organisations is that they help solve problems that states cannot solve on their own. Is this no longer the case? Are the organisations now somehow less functional than before? Not necessarily. In many cases, organisations have enjoyed a general legitimacy almost independently of what they actually achieve. It has been considered as something good as such that they are there; they symbolise efforts at long-term cooperation and thus also peace and stability.
In reality, many organisations function quite well and are quite useful for the member states. The expertise and norm-setting capacity of the organisations is a real asset. This is why we see not only obstruction but also use, or misuse, of the organisations by the member states for purposes other than those originally thought. A case in point is countries that show interest in controlling organisations of human rights or police cooperation and intelligence with an agenda in mind that differs from what the purpose of the organisation is for other members: they do not use the organisations for the benefit of their citizens but against their critics.
The reasons for obstructing can be manifold. A lot has been talked about the US that indeed cuts funding (UNRWA), withdraws (UNESCO, Paris climate agreement) or does not join (Global Compact on Migration). A lot is being talked about Russia trying to weaken NATO and the EU. But other countries contribute to this decay.
Interestingly, Zaki Laïdi (professor at Sciences Po in Paris) points out how similar the US here is to some emerging powers. He sees that the long economic and financial crisis in the West paved way for a strengthened voice of emergent powers. What these want, he says, is status quo: they want less say of the old powers and less intervention in their own affairs. So, the emergent powers want sovereignty rather than new binding international norms. But they also want to keep the norms that are useful for them: so, for instance, keeping trade agreements where they gain from being classified as less developed.
Laïdi sees here an interesting parallel to what is happening at the national level in many countries. He sees that this return to sovereignty and turn against multilateralism is nothing but an international expression of populism.
We have, in other words, a group of countries concerned for not letting the organisations tackle new problems or develop cooperation further. They are brought to this position by the wave of populism and nationalism that turns against multilateral cooperation. We could perhaps speak about protectionism, not only in trade terms but protecting some kind of nostalgic idea of self-determination and sovereignty.
Not many countries, or their leaders, seem to come to the defence of international organisations now: it is mainly the representatives of the organisations that speak for them. Moreover, the way of thinking about international agreements and organisations as something detrimental to national interest seems to spread very easily. Just to mention the EU and Brexit: the way in which even the UK Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the context of the Brexit agreement about sovereignty, and about taking control back, no doubt strengthens the public view that this actually could be the case.
At the same time, we know there is no shortage of problems and crises that require international cooperation; no increase in anyone’s sovereignty can possibly solve them. But what can be done?
Here, I would like to go back to why multilateral cooperation has been started in the first place. Basically, cooperation is needed to solve problems states cannot solve alone. Cooperation can take several forms: ad hoc or institutionalized, bilateral, minilateral, multilateral.
How do states choose here, if they can? Research tells us the following: the multilateral way is often seen as the most difficult and the most expensive alternative, and this for two reasons. There are high transaction costs, that is, agreeing on a treaty or establishing an organisation takes a lot of time, and money. And, the end result is likely to reduce national decision-making capacity. Particularly the larger states would not easily accept binding treaties and limitations to sovereignty; after all, they have other options, including acting alone. Smaller states do not have the option of unilateralism, and this is one reason that makes multilateralism more palatable for them.
Still, it does happen that multilateral agreements are made and organisations established with even superpowers as members. Why? Even the larger states benefit from them, in terms of legitimacy, information or burden sharing. At least in theory.
In recent times, we have seen that information sharing and burden sharing do not really work that well in a large organisation, but seem easier in smaller circles. Indeed, for instance in the field of security and defence, the number of bilateral agreements has increased recently. We see the UK being active in this, but it is not alone; for instance Finland has in the past couple of years agreed on a number of such arrangements.
What may make bilateral deals more advantageous than multilateral arrangements is that you need less compromise and the deal is clearer. The agreement can be reached quicker, the focus is clearer, trust and reliability are higher, and there is more predictability: you know what you can get out of the cooperation. But again, bilateral deals are of little use when facing problems such as climate change or migration. And, they rarely enjoy the same legitimacy as agreements reached by listening to all those concerned. The challenge, thus, is how to reverse the trend of placing national interest and international cooperation against each other.
This may seem an uphill struggle. Here, the example of the UN Global Compact on Migration is revealing. It is the first intergovernmentally negotiated agreement to cover all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner. What could be more welcome? Moreover, even a new format has been chosen for this: precisely to fit the new challenging environment and the extremely divisive topic, it is not even a treaty, but a ‘Compact’. It is non-binding, grounded on state sovereignty. But still, the doubts just grow: every day we hear about more states not going to be there for the adoption of the treaty: starting, again, with the US, then Australia, Austria, Poland, Croatia, Hungary, Czech republic, and Bulgaria at least. For instance in Estonia, participation has been debated; a lot of false information has been circulating about the compact obliging states to doing something they do not want to do.
Using a new term such as the ‘compact’ seems even to increase uncertainty. We have a weaker treaty to increase the chances of adoption; but it does not seem to work this way; we might even weaken the chances of addressing the problem.
A different uphill case would seem to be that of nuclear weapons ban. This comes to the very core of security, but also in a time when new measures are needed: there is more talk on potentially using nuclear weapons, threatening to use them, and speaking about the need for spending more on modernising them.
The Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons was agreed on last year and it will enter into force when 50 countries have ratified it. It is the first legally binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons completely, as are other weapons of mass destruction, and it includes a ban on threatening to use nuclear weapons.
Sceptics, or those calling themselves realists, say that this treaty is useless. Indeed, the nuclear powers immediately said they will not sign. The US, Britain and France rejected the treaty and said that "This initiative clearly disregards the realities of the international security environment". Pressure has been exerted on other countries not to sign.
At the same time, this is an example of the ability of multilateral cooperation to establish new norms, and even more: change thinking, delegitimize nuclear weapons and see them not as a protection but as a threat to security.
What is so interesting in this treaty is whose voices it represents. First, it is the majority of the states, 122, that voted for the adoption of the treaty, including the smallest ones but together able to agree on new norms to bind the very small minority that actually possesses nuclear weapons. Second, it stems from cooperation with civil society and reflects many issues that have not been included in international treaties before, notably the concerns of those affected by nuclear weapons. For instance, it obliges to assistance for the victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons as well as environmental remediation.
This particular treaty shows that it is still possible to agree on new, binding treaties. Also the way is interesting: inclusion of non-state actors and civil society. Many experts would agree that this strengthens both legitimacy and efficiency.
In the end, this also shows that the challenges to multilateral cooperation go hand in hand with the challenges to democracy. In non-democratic states, civil society has less chance to participate, if at all. Therefore, what now seems fundamental for the good working of the organisations is taking care of the participating states’ democracy.
In her presentation for the WISE seminar “The future and challenges of the multilateral cooperation – focus on the OSCE” (23 November 2018), Dr Hanna Ojanen ponders on the growing challenges to multilateral cooperation. Why are organisations increasingly seen in a negative light? Or, are they? Why and when do states choose multilateralism? There is no shortage of problems and crises that require international cooperation; the lure of increased national sovereignty may obscure the views on how to solve them. Looking at recent examples of new treaties – the Global Compacts and the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons – reinforces the view that challenges to multilateral cooperation go hand in hand with the challenges to democracy.