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Reinvesting the multilateral question, a strategic project for the left wing
Multilateralism is a fact, established in the management of international affairs since the 17th century. But no matter how obvious it is, it is very difficult to conceive, especially for left-wing progressive social and political forces, for numerous reasons. First of all, almost everyone claims multilateralism, from the defenders of an internationalism rooted in international solidarity to the most conservative and even the most belligerent leaders, with a few exceptions (mainly North Korea).
Then, the history of multilateralism, from the ‘proto-colonisation’ of European trading companies in the 16th and especially the 17th centuries, is deeply ‘modernist’, inspired by a vision of the intertwining between the expansion of the global market and the social and political ‘progress’.
Moreover, the institutional form of contemporary multilateralism was structured after the Second World War: it is that of the victors of 1945, bearers of a colonial, even imperial, model of exploitation of the planet and its inhabitants, exporters of a techno-bureaucratic vision of the State and its relationship with capital. The State is the central element of this international structuring, because of the monopoly it still has today as an enunciator and decision-maker of international law.
Finally, ‘top-down’ multilateralism poses obvious problems of fairness and justice, in particular because of the shortcomings of its instruments of application. The Security Council is not legitimate, and its right of veto even less; the instruments for guaranteeing and protecting human rights are not upheld (for the most part) by any truly effective legal mechanism. At the same time, the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court is being questioned by a large number of countries in the South.
The myth of the multilateral golden age
Of course, the right wing has many critics of the idea of multilateralism, based on an observation of inefficiency in terms of ‘cost-result’, or the lack of responsibility (in the sense of ‘accountability’) of supra- and transnational players. Very often, these reproaches hide the nostalgia for a fantasised form of sovereignty confined to national borders, which in reality has not existed for five hundred years, or even has never existed at all: a dream of unilateral, absolute sovereignty, in the name of the immutability of borders, the long history of which nevertheless shows the lability.
The advent of a new generation of far-right leaders at the head of important States (e.g. Brazil, Russia, United States of America, India) in the global system has fuelled the rise of this criticism from more traditional conservatives, eager to castigate Donald Trump’s refusal to ratify the Paris Agreement, Beijing’s strategy of entry into international institutions, Jair Bolsonaro’s breaches of international law, etc. ‘Illiberal’ politicians have effectively introduced a much more uninhibited style of managing international affairs, breaking with the classic repertoires of diplomacy. In European capitals, it is considered that everything was perfect until 2016, even though the United States had already been reluctant for decades to finance certain United Nations programmes they did not like (e.g. support for family planning and the right to abortion in the countries of the South), and had never hesitated to defer their contributions when this allowed them to influence the intervention choices of certain UN agencies.
This re-creation of a multilateral golden age refers to the 1960s and 1970s, when the ‘developing’ world operated with a certain cohesion within the UN apparatus, and is inspired by truly historic achievements that maintain this illusion of universal agreement: the 1966 International Covenants on civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other hand, or the organisation of the United Nations Conference on the environment in Stockholm (1972) are good examples.
The 1990s also witnessed the succession of international conferences which showed great promise in the field of human and social rights, while international environmental law developed considerably during this same period, both in principles and in standards. Civil societies around the world have connected and managed to influence the future of the world through their resistance, for example in the mobilisation against the 1998 OECD Multilateral Agreement on Investment.
This idealised vision of multilateralism may conceal the fact that the industrialised world’s stranglehold on multilateral decisions and apparatuses has never been denied, and that the great advances in the field of international governance have almost always taken place provided that they do not threaten the interests of the industrialised world and that they are part of the movement to universalise its values and standards (including when these have been forged during moral and political battles, for example for women’s rights, or labour rights). But we cannot help but think that the Trump-Bolsonaro-Putin and co. axis was perceived as a risk precisely because it threatened to upset this dysfunctional stability.
A cardinal value of the left wing to be reinvented
There is also a left-wing critique of multilateralism, by Marxist thinkers but also by feminist or anti-racist theories, based on indisputably destabilising observations: for example, that of the objective alliance between a certain number of international institutions (bureaucracy or regimes) and the players of financial capitalism, or the gender-based violence that has almost always accompanied the United Nations (UN) security operations, or the systematic judicial immunity enjoyed by political and economic leaders in the North internationally.
But multilateralism remains a cardinal value of the internationalist left wing, without necessarily the latter truthfully questioning its unspoken thoughts, its injustices, and its failures. And without us being aware of the novelty of the experience of institutionalising multilateral regulations since 1919. In addition, after the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in 2009, we have seen the emergence of a new generation of activists, who are creative, influential and disappointed by the shortcomings of international negotiations, in search of concrete, directly practicable solutions, able to be disseminated in the population and the territories, for whom the development of an international narrative rather tends to the atrophy of imaginations and capacities for citizen action.
To be perfectly honest, it is inevitable that tools thought up sixty years ago, in a moral, ideological, political, economic, social, and technological framework having no relation to what we live, are no longer able to respond to the problems of today. But it is less so, on the part of our intellectual and political family, not to take the subject head on when we have established, over twenty-five years, a solid international analysis, the reality of which (ecological, social, health crisis, etc.) shows all its relevance. The outbreak of a global pandemic and the war on the European continent confirm, if needed, that the notion of security resulting from the 1945 compromise is obsolete.
Powerful transnational social dynamics
It is then possible to approach the analysis by distinguishing between a normative approach, which focuses on international institutions, rules and standards, and a more descriptive approach, which recognises the existence of transnational social dynamics (in the broad sense), which are the sources of transformations, recompositions, opportunities as well as new problems. However, the contemporary international framework fails to analyse these dynamics, or to regulate them in such a way as to preserve the rights of current and future generations, in the diversity of their needs.
Let us take just a few examples that show the vitality and power of these transnational social dynamics: the first multilateral agreements on the environment date from the end of the 19th century and stem less from interstate efforts than from those of learned societies and local economic players who had understood the risks of overexploitation of ecosystems for their activity. The workers’ international, created at the very beginning of the 20th century, has changed form, it is crossed by debates and contradictions but its depth and its usefulness have never wavered.
More recently, in 2011 (in the Arab and Mediterranean world, or in the United States of America), then in 2018-2019 (Sudan, Chile, Algeria, Hong Kong, France, etc.), we have seen several waves of a transnational social and citizen movement revealing shared suffering and anger.
In the same way as the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, all of them somehow form a ‘bottom-up’ multilateralism, which always finds cultural and social paths, but which does not enjoy any political translation, even though hardly anyone denies the lasting global nature of the oppressions and crises that are at stake and of the responses that are urgently required.
The world social forums created in the 1990s sought to constitute hybrid space-times from this point of view, at the junction between the major international conferences (Davos, assemblies of the Bretton Woods institutions, United Nations conferences) and the citizen movements, as theatres for the amplification of the opinions of the excluded and the voiceless.
The participation of movements and organisations in ‘climate COPs’ (both in negotiations and in the street) offers another ‘mixed’ model whose contributions and limits would be interesting to discuss. These COPs show just as much the inadequacy of the civil society participation system as envisaged by the international conventions negotiated in the 1990s (even if they are less well known, the Rotterdam (chemicals), Basel (waste), Stockholm (organic pollutants) conventions and the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD)… provide for the participation of expert NGOs) as well as the opportunity for amplification that they bring to transnational movements.
But from a globalisation of experiences, creation and protest, in the years 1990-2000, in response to the financial form of globalisation, the transnational organisation of the resistance players was exhausted – sometimes also drowned in the digital innovations, which may have fuelled a certain illusion of citizen power, which in reality is not widely shared. The left wing took refuge within known territorial limits, accessible to criticism, in the absence of influence.
The distrust of the peoples, and of the social movements and citizens, with regard to multilateral institutions, the United Nations, in particular, is largely explained: bureaucratisation, opacity, technicalisation, the complete absence of accountability vis-à-vis the citizens and the lack of any effort to debate international negotiations in countries, local communities, with social players and discriminated minorities… was enough to justify it. And they have little to show for it other than the promise that inequality would be much worse, and wars much more frequent, were it not for their presence since 1948.
Reinvesting the multilateral question
In reality, ‘top-down multilateralism’ is crossed by paradoxes: ineffective in terms of the seriousness of the risks, and the depth of the inequalities, condemnable when it legalises the illegitimate (and vice versa), but prolific, despite everything, on a number of regulatory grounds, such international environmental law, humanitarian law, the (indispensable) documentation of national and local human rights situations, and even consultative and contentious action, for example the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the International Court of Justice, despite their relative invisibility…
Multilateralism is neither from the left wing nor the right wing by nature. And it can serve the general interest, for example when it promotes the emergence of a universal consensus around new rights – however difficult it may be to enforce them -, as it can act against it; this is the case when the General Council of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (ATRIPS), at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), is unable to agree to accept the granting of ex officio licences to companies or governments in the South that could manufacture medical treatments essential to public health.
But one thing for sure: there is no fatality in it being less democratic, or more brutal, or less fair, than local or national life. Let’s borrow from Bruno Latour: there is no common world except the one we constantly create, no common rules except those we choose, without giving in to the paralysis imposed by institutional or political figures valid in their time, perhaps but it is our duty to continually rearrange.
However, when the European Union assumes a monopoly on it, it suggests the universality, as much as the timelessness, of a multilateral model in which economic and financial globalisation spreads peace and parliamentary democracy at the same time as goods and capital. There is not a G7 or a G20 that does not urge the world to renew multilateralism, just as the leaders of the BRICS, including Bolsonaro, Putin or Xi, meeting at a summit, regularly say they want it strengthened and made more ‘inclusive’.
The OECD initiative on the taxation of multinationals, which appears to be laudable since it leads to setting a minimum tax rate for the giants of the online economy, is in fact the result of a desire to simplify the circuits of international negotiation without being encumbered by the low processes of collective dialogue and deliberation, and embodies well this global democracy in trompe-l’œil: developing countries have been invited to subscribe to the “BEPS” initiative (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting)/G20 in 2015 only, when the framework of 15 measures was already negotiated and approved between OECD countries, with the G20, and to be ‘trained’ in its implementation through tax cooperation actions.
These observations form an invitation to the left wing, and to all our movements, to reopen the multilateral question. Because ‘another multilateralism is possible’. Just as we know that cultural, social and political changes are imposed neither from above nor from outside, global transformation requires the deepening of all forms of transnational socialisation (even confrontational ones, as long as they remain peaceful), including – and even above all – those that operate quietly, in the margins. It will also proceed from the popular appropriation of all the discussions, and negotiations, at work in the multilateral forums: however imperfect they may be, because of the cultural, ideological and democratic biases which weaken them, many of them do a colossal work of expertise and regulation, which should be everyone’s business, especially when the efforts of the business world to confiscate our choices are not weakening, far from it, in institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), World Health Organisation (WHO), Climate or Biodiversity Conferences, etc.
Shared principles for the transformation of the international system
A number of proposals have been consolidated over the past few years among social and citizen movements, based on a shared analysis: the government of the world today is driven by money, multinationals and the political elites that support them by trying to make us believe that they serve the general interest.
This is particularly the case with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. Both the mandate and the governance of these organisations are totally obsolete with regard to human and ecological challenges: they must overhauled and, at a minimum, be linked to the UN in the form of specialised institutions whose articles of association should specifically provide for their subordination to the General Assembly, and to the main instruments of international law, whether conventional or not (UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1966 Covenants, fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), multilateral environmental agreements, universal health coverage, conventions on the rights of children, migrant workers, people with disabilities, among others).
If the UN remains the legitimate framework for organising dialogue and cooperation in the world, its reform is well overdue, in particular that of the Security Council and of Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, in order to abolish the right of veto, to widen the Council around a system of permanent seats by region but rotating by country, to imagine a system of ‘super’ majority (for example to ¾) concerning peacekeeping interventions (which should focus on the protection of populations and the application of international humanitarian law). The General Assembly must democratise its operation, by changing its decision-making rules and by recognising the voice of peoples and social and citizen movements, including indigenous and first peoples. It is also necessary to establish watertight protections against the influence of the private economic and financial sphere: the independence and impartiality of the decision-making and action bodies must be beyond doubt.
Understanding the intertwining of social, ecological and economic crises has also enabled progressive intellectuals, as well as social and citizen movements, to agree on certain shared principles for the transformation of the international system. Here are some examples:
- the demand for economic redistribution at the international level, both through reparation and damage prevention transfers, but also through tax justice;
- a perspective that is critical, to say the least, with regard to market mechanisms, and mechanisms based on compensation for social and environmental ‘externalities’;
- the global disarmament effort and nuclear non-proliferation;
- democratic control and accountability of all multi- and multilateral defence and peacekeeping operations;
- the abandonment of fossil fuels;
- the absolute sanctuarisation of certain common goods vis-à-vis the market, and financialisation (the two poles, the Amazon, the aquifers and the rivers, to name but a few);
- the accountability of private economic players throughout their production chain and the conditioning of all public support to their exemplary respect for the economic, social, environmental and cultural rights of populations;
- the updating of the post-Second World War international normative framework which governs the status of migrant, refugee and displaced individuals and which deprives many exiles of rights and effective assistance. This includes, among other things, providing protection and/or status under international law for victims of violations of economic, social and environmental rights.
Beyond the State
All these proposals have one thing in common; they touch on the dysfunctional heart of the international system: the maintenance, beyond all reforms and crises, of the State as its central fact, and the unthinkable fact of its overcoming.
The ideology of self-centred state sovereignty is at odds with the objective of multilateral regulation, which requires thinking about the relationship to others and interests that could be contrary to those of the Nation. At the same time, the international law built since 1945, which is a dominant reference, including on the left-wing, has consolidated the State and its hegemony, which has never been denied in law.
However, several phenomena require an evolution of this conception:
- the large number of players that have a role at the international level, from large multinational companies to NGOs, and the tools which, like the internet, are immediately global. The state of public opinion and popular mobilisations have a direct influence on public decision-making, as demonstrated by the massive mobilisations against the war in Vietnam in the 1970s. This is even more relevant today, where issues such as the fight against climate change or the regulation of the activities of multinational companies have imposed themselves on the agenda under the pressure of cultural and social changes and transnational citizen movements. Local communities are also organising themselves into transnational networks to influence the formulation of rules for the management of certain common goods, such as rivers and forests, and propose hybrid property and governance regimes that directly influence international negotiations and their results.
- The functional articulation between principles that are also at the heart of international law is obsolete: the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity of States and the right of peoples to self-determination have not been reconciled beyond the movement of decolonisation of the 1960s and 1970s. However, many peoples, on absolutely all continents, question the inviolability of borders and force us to think beyond the State, forms of ‘governance’ and sub- or supra-national regulation. This is as much the case in response to the demands for sovereignty of certain native peoples as in the face of the challenge of protecting global common goods, which inter-state coordination alone is unable to deal with, when governments are not themselves at the origin of the threats.
- The colonial question is not resolved. The United Nations General Assembly Fourth Committee, which has been devoted since 1961, to occupied territories or territories qualified as ‘non-autonomous’ because under the supervision of an external sovereign government, continues its work annually. But the relationship between international law and the colonial question is more complex than the mere inventory of traceable rules in the texts that could support the claims of colonised peoples. From the modern age onwards, international law has been constructed as an instrument of subjugation, through the theorising efforts undertaken to legitimise the conquests in America, or the devolution of powers to enunciate and apply justice to the imperial trading companies in trading posts, for example, which foreshadowed contemporary international investment law.
Western standards of justice, and its cultural representations, have also spread through international judicial institutions, particularly criminal ones, instrumentalised and appropriated by post-colonial elites. However, while a certain number of obligations and needs, for the perpetrators of crimes as well as for their victims, are universal, the legal responses must be thought out in the particularity of contexts and histories, and in no case disconnected from the societies they concern. The experience of international criminal tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda shows the limits of international justice, which operates thousands of kilometres from the victims and which can only judge crimes in which States and their agents are directly involved.
Yet the centrality of the State, as well as an overhanging perspective, its exceptionality, its primarily criminal nature, forged with the Nuremberg trials, still characterise left-wing thinking when it comes to international justice.
Strengthening the application of international law
One of the ways of revitalising multilateralism consists first of all in putting it back in its rightful place: local needs should find local responses (subsidies, protections, etc.) when these have only minor effects beyond borders. And it is up to us to invent forms of human rights justiciability that are remedial, effective, rooted and locally acceptable.
This is all the more true since transnational economic players are out of control and the State-based jurisdiction model does not ensure any materiality of human, social or environmental rights, both because of the limits it imposes (nationality/presence on the territory/direct effects on security or public order) and the possibility, for private groups, of organising their de facto immunity, both in civil and criminal terms. It is clearly a very dynamic field of change and legal innovation, because litigation is increasing and forcing judges to clarify the law, in the United States of America, Canada, Great Britain, in the Netherlands, for example. But the left-wing players are lagging behind in this strategic area.
Finally, the effectiveness of international law depends almost entirely on States, whether they accept, exceptionally, the jurisdiction of international courts, or whether they are responsible for its application via domestic courts (this is how most international law agreements work).
Referral and self-referral to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) could be facilitated in order to assert international law in the face of non-cooperation, predation of ecosystems and living organisms, or violation of the rights of their populations by some states. This would make it possible to propose useful interpretations to clarify the law and the responsibility of States in the event of a breach. But the referral to the ICJ is exclusively made by States, and in some exceptional cases by the United Nations.
However, the ‘internationalists’ (in the broad sense) focus most of their attention to the development and substantive normative transformations, which they demand to be ‘binding’, and neglect reflection on the processes and procedures capable of strengthening the application of this right. Constraint does not materialise – and even less than you might think – exclusively through the establishment of ad hoc legal mechanisms which would be accompanied by sanctions – the implementation of which remains in any case, as it currently stands, the monopoly of the States.
The left is therefore faced with a major intellectual and strategic task: to think about, and improve, a multilateralism ‘of the masses’ and the multitudes.
Amélie Canonne is a graduate in political science and international law. She has worked for twenty years as a campaign manager, in France and internationally, on subjects related to trade, investment and multinationals as well as on climate and environmental issues. She has been Managing Director of Attac France, then President of CRID, a collective of international solidarity associations.
 Bruno Latour, ‘Il n’y a pas de monde commun : il faut le composer’ in Multitudes 2011/2 (n°45) https://www.cairn.info/revue-multitudes-2011-2-page-38.htm